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Can a Parent Lose Custody for Drug Use?

Written by Heather Lomax

& Medically Reviewed by Jenni Jacobsen, LSW

Medically Reviewed

Up to Date

This article was reviewed by a medical professional to guarantee the delivery of accurate and up-to- date information. View our research policy.
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Parents can lose custody of a child or children when drug misuse hinders their ability to care for the child. When a court needs to determine a custody arrangement, they will consider what is in a child’s best interest. There is no standard definition for “best interests of the child.” However, factors include the child’s mental and physical needs and the ability of the parent or parents to provide food, clothing, medical care and a safe home environment. If a parent’s drug misuse inhibits their ability to provide such fundamental necessities for the child, then that parent’s custody may be at risk. 

Child Custody 

The term child custody is used to refer to a person responsible for the care and safety of a child. Custody is often a legal term, and it comes with certain rights and responsibilities, such as the right to make medical decisions for a child and the responsibility to meet a child’s basic needs. There are various types of child custody, but if you have specific questions about custody, it is important to consult an attorney, as state laws and individual situations will vary.

Legal Custody vs. Physical Custody

Legal custody refers to being legally responsible for a child in the eyes of a court. When two parents are married and no other arrangements have been made, both parents are said to have legal custody. This means they are responsible for the child’s care and have the right to determine where that child goes to school, what religion they practice and the type of medical care they receive.

On the other hand, physical custody refers to the person caring for and supervising a child. Consider, for instance, if a parent has an addiction and temporarily places their child with a relative without going to court to change legal custody. In this instance, the parent may retain legal custody while the relative has physical custody.

Joint Custody vs. Sole Custody

In some cases, two parents have joint custody. Both parents retain custody rights in marriages, so married partners share joint custody of their children. 

On the other hand, when parents divorce, there is a possibility of coming to a joint custody arrangement, in which both parents retain rights and the ability to make decisions for the children. 

Divorce or separation may also result in sole custody, in which one parent is responsible for caring for the children and has the right to make decisions on their behalf.

How Substance Abuse Affects Child Custody

When a court makes a decision regarding a child’s custody, its job is to determine what is in the child’s best interests. If a parent is abusing substances and is unable to provide proper care and supervision, a court would be likely to determine that it is not in the child’s best interests to remain with that parent. For example, if two parents are going through divorce proceedings and one has an addiction, the parent with the addiction may lose custody.

It is also possible for a parent to lose child custody if the child welfare system becomes involved with a family. Parental substance abuse can contribute to child abuse and neglect and is common among families involved with the child welfare system. If parental substance abuse leads to serious danger or harm to children, the child welfare system may intervene and take custody of the children.

Once the state intervenes, children may be placed in foster care or with an appropriate relative. In many cases, the goal is for parents to reunite with their children after rehab. Still, parents may permanently lose custody if they do not take steps to recover from addiction.

How Does Drug Addiction Affect Children?

When one or both parents live with an addiction, children are negatively affected. Parents may become less warm and responsive to their children when living with an addiction, which can interfere with bonding and even lead to abuse. Children of parents who live with addictions also perform worse in school, and they are at risk of a variety of other negative consequences, such as emotional and behavioral problems and drug and alcohol misuse.

When Do Courts Get Involved?

Courts can become involved in child custody cases for several reasons. First, if parents are separating or divorcing, the court will determine whether they can care for and provide safety for their children. If a parent is found to have an addiction, the court may order treatment and/or award custody to the other parent.

Courts can also become involved if a family is brought to the attention of the child welfare system. For instance, a parent who is arrested for a drug-related charge may be referred to Child Protective Services, or a concerned loved one may call the local child protective agency to report their concerns regarding a parent misusing drugs. If Child Protective Services determines that children are in danger, they may file a complaint in court to protect the children.

Can CPS Take Your Child Away for Drinking or Drug Use?

Laws vary from state to state, but if children are found to be in danger because of parents’ drug or alcohol misuse, Child Protective Services (CPS) may remove the children via a court order. In this case, children may be temporarily placed in foster care or with an appropriate relative until the parent or parents can demonstrate that they have completed treatment and can safely provide for their children.

Drug Abuse Signs a Court May Look For

When a court assesses drug use and its impact on a mother or father’s parental fitness, they typically consider a range of issues. A court may consider the physical, emotional and relational impacts that drug use has on a parent. 

Physical Symptoms

If a parent presents obvious physical symptoms of drug misuse, then a court will likely order testing to determine the severity of the substance misuse. Certain drugs may also have an impact on the body that renders a parent physically unfit to parent a child. If a court determines through testing that drugs are rendering a parent unfit to care for their child, then their custody could be reduced or taken away.

Behavioral Changes

Drug misuse will also take an emotional toll on an individual. If a parent exhibits mental distress on account of drug use, they will likely be further evaluated to determine the drug use’s impact on their ability to parent. If a court determines that a parent is in an unfit mental state, then the custodial rights of that parent will be jeopardized. 

Impact on Work and Finances

Unemployment by itself is not necessarily a factor for child custody, but financial stability usually is. If a parent’s drug use has negatively impacted their financial standing, including affecting their ability to hold down a job, then custody may be affected. A parent may not lose custody altogether, but a judge may determine that they are too financially unstable to be granted the extent of custody they were seeking. For example, a parent seeking full custody may be only awarded weekend visits if it appears they cannot financially support a child full-time. 

Actions a Court May Take with Parental Drug Use

Courts can take many different actions depending on the severity of the drug use. Typically, drug use and custody issues will require drug testing to help determine the nature of the drug use. From there, courts will then determine custody based on the child’s best interests. 

Mandatory Drug Tests

If a family court has reason to believe that a parent is using drugs, and especially if there is a demonstrated history of drug use or drug-related offenses, the court may mandate drug testing. The impact of the drug test will depend on the results. If a parent tests positive for a more serious drug like heroin, then the repercussions could be severe. If a parent tests positive for a drug that is considered to have less of an impact on someone’s ability to parent, then the consequences may be minimal. 

If a parent fails a drug test, a court may order drug rehabilitation or parenting classes, further drug testing at a later date or changes to the custody or pending custody agreement. A failed drug test does not mean that a parent will necessarily lose all custody. Courts will determine the impact of substance use on an individual’s ability to parent their child and determine custody in the best interests of the child or children involved. If a parent passes their mandated drug tests, then the tests may serve to demonstrate to the court that the parent is increasingly fit for some level of child custody.

Supervised Visitation Rights

A parent does not lose their right to have a relationship with their child just because of drug misuse. Drug misuse may render them temporarily unfit for the custody they seek, but that does not necessarily mean that the parent will be prohibited from seeing their child or children. 

If a court determines that a parent can still have a meaningful relationship with their child, they may grant supervised visitation orders so the parent can still see their child. Visits will take place under the supervision of a professional, family member or other approved individual. The parent struggling with drug misuse is then able to maintain a relationship with their child while they seek to recover.

Temporary or Permanent Loss of Parental Rights

If a court has reason to believe that a parent’s drug use poses a threat to the child, then the court may temporarily suspend parental rights. The child’s other parent, a relative or the child welfare system may then be granted temporary custody. If the child welfare system is given custody, the child will be placed in foster care. 

With temporary loss of custody, a court will outline expectations for the parent to regain custody of their child. The plan may include:

If a parent is struggling with severe drug misuse and has not been able to make improvements, a court may determine that it is in the child’s best interest to terminate parental rights. Once parental rights are terminated, the parent has no right to visit or speak to the child and no say in their upbringing. Termination of parental rights is a very serious, permanent matter. Seeking addiction treatment may help you make progress so that you do not permanently relinquish custody.

How to Regain Custody After Drug or Alcohol Abuse

If you’ve been affected by drug and alcohol addiction, the best thing you can do to regain custody is attend a treatment program and complete it successfully. The state of Washington recognizes that, in most cases, children in foster care should be reunified with their parents. In fact, when a court removes a child, reunification is the primary goal. 

If you’re working with the child welfare system, you can regain custody by completing treatment, establishing a good working relationship with your family’s social worker and complying with all recommendations of the court and the child welfare agency.

If you’ve lost custody in family court, such as during divorce or custody proceedings, it is also important to complete treatment, comply with court orders and demonstrate that you’re committed to recovery if you’d like children returned to your care and custody. You may have to work with an attorney to file for a change of custody. You should also be prepared to provide treatment records and other documentation. This can show that drug and alcohol use no longer interferes with your parenting abilities.

How Does Drug and Alcohol Recovery Affect Custody Decisions?

A parent in active addiction may place their children at risk of harm and thus be determined inappropriate for assuming custody of their children. On the other hand, showing a commitment to recovery may demonstrate to the court that a parent with a history of addiction is capable of caring for and maintaining custody of their children.

The State of Washington has legal stipulations that indicate that a court can order parents to complete drug and alcohol abuse evaluations and monitor parents’ participation in treatment services. This means that if you are in recovery, a court may request copies of your treatment records to ensure that you are maintaining a commitment to recovery and complying with all treatment recommendations.

Rehab and Child Custody

If you’re considering going to rehab to recover from addiction, you may be concerned about how this will affect child custody. If you’re not involved with the courts or the child welfare system, you may decide to place your children with a relative who will care for them during your absence. In this case, you may set up a power of attorney so the relative can make decisions for your child in your absence. However, these arrangements often do not require a formal custody change.

On the other hand, if you’re in the midst of custody proceedings or are involved with the child welfare system, you may lose custody, at least temporarily, while in rehab. For instance, if you will be absent for a time to attend rehab, a court may award custody to your former spouse if the two of you are in court to contest custody arrangements. 

Child Protective Services may also temporarily place your children in foster care or in the custody of a relative while you’re in rehab, with the goal of reunifying you with your children once you complete treatment.

FAQs About Addiction and Custody

If you’re looking for information on addiction and child custody, the answers to the following FAQs may also be helpful.

Do they drug test at child support hearings?

Each case is different, but if there are concerns of drug abuse, a court may order that one or both parents complete a drug test, especially if a custody dispute has arisen out of child support negotiations.

Are there rehabs that allow you to bring your child?

Each rehab facility has its own policies, but some allow parents to bring small children. This is especially common among rehabs that cater to new mothers with infants. Contact a rehab center directly to determine if they allow children.

Can smoking marijuana affect child custody in Washington?

Marijuana is legalized for both recreational and medical purposes in Washington. Still, as legal experts explain, marijuana can interfere with parenting duties, as it slows reaction time, impairs short-term memory and alters mood. Children can also absorb marijuana secondhand from parental use. 

Washington law indicates that if a parent is impaired by drug use, this can present a risk of harm to the child and impact child custody decisions. If marijuana use interferes with child safety or sound parenting practices, it can affect custody decisions.

How do you prove alcoholism or drug abuse in custody cases?

If you are in a custody battle and are concerned that your former spouse or partner may be abusing drugs or alcohol, the court may order them to complete drug screenings or a drug and alcohol assessment. The court may also look at a parent’s criminal records to determine if there is a history of offenses related to drugs or alcohol. This information can be used by the judge to make a decision regarding whether or not substance abuse places the children at risk of harm.

Finding a Rehab Center in Washington

Washington State addiction treatment resources are geared toward keeping families together while helping parents recover. If you or any of your loved ones experience a substance use disorder, you do not have to do it alone. Contact The Recovery Village Ridgefield today to speak confidentially with our professional, caring staff, who can assist you in understanding your treatment options.

Our center offers a full range of treatment programs, including residential rehab and outpatient care. Our residential facility offers mountain views, comfortable rooms with housekeeping services, designated smoking areas and a culinary staff. The Recovery Village Ridgefield is an in-network provider for various insurance companies, including America’s Choice, First Choice and Aetna. Learn more about the insurance we accept by visiting our insurance page or contacting us.

View Sources

Washington State Legislature. “Definitions.” 2001. Accessed January 16, 2024. 

Cornell Law School. “Child Custody.” Accessed January 16, 2024. 

Oliveros, Arazais & Kaufman, Joan. “Addressing Substance Abuse Treatment Needs of Parents Involved with the Child Welfare System.” Child Welfare, 2011. Accessed January 16, 2024. 

Solis, Jessica; Shadur, Julia; Burns, Alison; & Hussong, Andrea. “Understanding the Diverse Needs of Children whose Parents Abuse Substances.” Current Drug Abuse Reviews, June 2012. Accessed January 16, 2024. 

Washington State Legislature. “Authority of family court judges and court commissioners to order or recommend services—Report by court of child abuse or neglect.” 1994. Accessed January 16, 2024. 

Washington Courts. “Family Reunification Month.” Accessed January 16, 2024. 

Petersen, Dana. “High society: Washington state’s recreational cannabis law and its effects on child custody and visitation rights.” Seattle Journal of Social Justice, 2015. Accessed January 16, 2024. 

Child Welfare Information Gateway. “Determining the Best Interests of the Child.” 2020. Accessed January 16, 2024.