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Drug, Alcohol & Substance Abuse in Child Custody

Dealing with Drugs, Alcohol or other Substance Abuse Problems in Child Custody Cases in Kansas or Missouri

A parent having a drug or alcohol or substance abuse addiction can cause all kinds of problems with the parent being capable of appropriately caring for a child, particularly if the other parent is no longer present to be able to buffer or protect the child from the fall-out and harsh realities that inevitably occur with a parent struggling with substance abuse addiction.  If your child’s other parent has an ongoing or long-term addiction or is behaving irresponsibly with alcohol use and/or you are questioning whether a substance addiction is negatively effecting or creating erratic behavior in the other parent, it is urgent that you seek consultation with a knowledgeable and experienced family law child custody attorney. Call Pingel Family Law today at (816) 208-8130 to speak with one of our attorneys to help you navigate this complex issue.

What Should You Do When Your Child's Other Parent Has a Drug or Alcohol Problem?

Often, how this is addressed requires a complex, detailed analysis of what substances or drugs are being utilized, what kind of behaviors or concerns you are seeing from the other parent and the time frame of how the substances are being used, i.e. in the presence of the children or only when the children are away at the other parent’s home. Some of the many detailed questions we may need to discuss and analyze with you may include the following:

  • How does this issue affect our child custody case or process?
  • Can I protect my child if the other parent is drinking in front of them?
  • How will the court handle a parent who has a drinking problem?
  • What if the parent is using marijuana in front of our child?
  • What if my child found some marijuana or other drug items at the other parent’s home?
  • How can I prove that the other parent is using drugs?
  • How will a detailed parenting plan help the situation?

 Sadly, there are many more families than some people realize where drug use or addiction or alcohol abuse is an issue that needs to be addressed. Generally, the first step, in getting the court to address concerns about substance use or abuse is convincing the court that a problem or concern exists. Not surprisingly, when most parents using illegal substances or overusing alcohol are asked if they are doing so, they deny it. 

If there are reports from your children of drug or alcohol use or the children come home smelling of substances such as marijuana, you should write down and document as much detail as possible. Where possible to have another person witness or smell the children or otherwise document or observe concerns, this is a smart idea as it avoids the “he said, she said” issues of only you and the other parent contending that things did and did not occur. If you are aware that third-parties have seen or observed drug or alcohol use or are aware of it for some other reason, of course, documenting those third-party accounts can be invaluable in your quest to protect your children. Finally, if there are criminal issues such as drug charges, driving while intoxicated charges or something similar, generally courts will believe the concerns of substance abuse have more credibility. In any case, often the judge has to balance evidence or contentions from one parent with denials from another parent and do his or her best to decide whether the evidence seems to support the likelihood of a substance abuse concern or a false allegation. 

What if a Parent is Currently Abusing Alcohol or Drugs? 

Often, the final request when substance abuse or alcohol concerns are raised, a judge will order a drug or alcohol test to try to have a conclusive determination. There are many different types of tests and it is important that you work with a knowledgeable, experienced family law attorney to ask for the right kinds of tests that will not allow the parent using or abusing substances to “fool the test.” 

Generally, if substance abuse or use is proved, the court will determine that the parent under the influence is not capable of making joint decisions for a child and is not able to safely care for and exercise parenting time without restrictions, until he or she seeks treatment for the substance issues he or she is facing. If a parent is facing an ongoing substance abuse issue, often the court has a more difficult decision in deciding how much contact the parent using the substances can safely have with the child or children involved. For example, some parents struggling with alcohol can have shorter visits, use a breathalyzer to prove sobriety prior to a visit and possibly be ordered to not drive or transport the children to ensure that there is not an issue with the parent driving while intoxicated. On the other hand, if a parent is using substances such as heroin or methamphetamine, the court is likely to determine that the parent can only have safe contact through supervised visitation until the parent seeks drug or alcohol treatment and proves sobriety for a reasonable period of time. 

Every family and situation is unique, but the amount of time the parent has struggled with the addiction, the nature of the addiction, the behavior or actions of the parent, and what efforts the parent does to work on sobriety, if any, are all impactful considerations in the court’s ultimate decision.

What if the Previously Addicted Parent is in Recovery and Has Some Period of Sobriety? 

This type of scenario is obviously much more complicated for a court to address. On the one hand, the court wants to acknowledge a parent’s efforts to work on their sobriety and yet, the court does not want to make a crucial mistake about the safety or well-being of a child that ends up allowing the child to be neglected or even killed. The Court generally needs to evaluate the status of the recovery, the parent’s history of addiction struggles and the length of time the parent has been clean and sober. For example, if a parent is arguing he is sober from alcohol addiction, but the parent has had a long history of recovery and relapse, the court may consider the situation a current substance addiction scenario that needs more in-depth oversight and monitoring. On the other hand, if the parent has been sober for an extended period, is having therapy, went through an in-patient or extended out-patient program and maintains daily and regular efforts to maintain sobriety, the court may minimize the concern of substance abuse history.

Judges have considerable discretion in making decisions about whether a parent has rehabilitated himself or herself or is still in the midst of an active or concerning addiction issue. Some judges will try to balance the issues and interests they are considering by allowing some parenting time or contact and having therapists or other professionals to oversee the issues or issuing a variety of conditions such as routine drug testing, participation in group rehabilitation programs and a requirement that the parent provide proof of treatment or participation. The judge can also delay entering a final decision for an extended period of time and keep the case open in front of the judge for monitoring and oversight.

It is worth restating that the court’s overriding duty in every circumstance, including situations of potential drug or alcohol abuse or misuse is the best interests of the child. In this light, the court would not want to fail to protect a child when there are concerns of harm. Similarly, the court would not want to unnecessarily restrict a child’s contact with a parent who has meaningfully rehabilitated and addressed their drug or alcohol issues.

If the Court Makes a Decision and a Parent Relapses, Can Custody Arrangements Be Modified?

Yes, court orders involving children are always subject to modification. Thus, if you believe you were wrongfully accused or the court failed to give sufficient deference to your sobriety, you can continue in your treatment and then seek to modify the order or relieve the restrictions a few months from now if appropriate. On the other hand if you feel that the court did not sufficiently restrict the other parent and you learn of a relapse, you can return to court to bring the failure to maintain sobriety to the attention of the court. In order to make changes to any child custody order, the court will need to see a substantial and continuing change of circumstances. Of course, a parent relapsing with an addiction would be a clear change in circumstances if the court previously determined that the parent had shown consistent sobriety. If you are unsure if there are changes sufficient to warrant returning to court, it is best to consult with a knowledgeable family law attorney to get guidance and develop a plan and strategy. Call Pingel Family Law at (816) 208-8130 to schedule your consultation to discuss situations involving substance abuse. Put our firm’s knowledge and experience to work for you and for your family in your complicated situation.


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