Today’s Decision Addresses Standard of Parental Unfitness

Posted On: Thursday, January 16, 2014

Today, the Court vacated a judgment and order entered in a care and protection case where the findings of the Juvenile Court were insufficient to support a conclusion that the parents were unfit.  Care and Protection of Yetta, No. 12-P-1540, Middlesex, January 16, 2014.


The DCF filed a petition under G.L. c. 119, § 24, alleging that five children were in need of care and protection. The petition was based on the testimony of the oldest child that she had been sexually abused by her step-father (father).  After trial, the Juvenile Court  found that the DCF had failed to prove that the father had sexually abused any of the children but concluded, nonetheless, that the children were in need of care and protection.  Pursuant to G.L. c. 119, § 26, the Judge committed  one child to the custody of the DCF, but allowed the other four children to remain in the custody of the parents, subject to certain conditions, such as family counseling, anger-management for the father, and a requirement that the mother be home overnight.

The parents appealed, arguing that the evidence did not support a finding of parental unfitness which would allow the Judge to commit one child to the custody of the DCF and to impose conditions on the parents’ custody of the other children.

Standard of Parental Unfitness

It is well established that parents have a “fundamental liberty interest in… the care, custody, and management of their children,” which does not end when they become less than ideal caretakers.  To find a child in need of care and protection, there must be an “affirmative showing of parental unfitness.”  In this context, parental unfitness means “grievous shortcomings or handicaps” that put the child’s welfare “much at hazard.”  Character flaws and ineptitude are not enough.  The Court must consider all of the circumstances to determine whether, by clear and convincing evidence, the parents are currently unfit to provide for the welfare and best interests of their children such that the children are at serious risk of harm.

Determination of Parental Unfitness

On appeal, the Court found that the parental shortcomings necessary to establish parental unfitness were not present.  The Juvenile Court’s finding of parental unfitness was based on:

  1. the father’s problematic voice, tone, and demeanor, although there was no evidence that the children were afraid of him;
  2. the parents’ general laxity of supervision of the children during supervised visits;
  3. the parents’ pattern of negligent supervision; and
  4. the child’s allegations of sexual abuse by the father were the result of a “dysfunctional” family.

The Court summarized that while these shortcomings were far from indicators of parental excellence, they fall short of the “grievous shortcomings or handicaps [placing] the child[ren]’s welfare much at hazard,” which must be shown by clear and convincing evidence in order to support the “grave conclusion” of parental unfitness.  The Juvenile Court’s Judgment and Order were vacated.

Report Abuse

To report child abuse or neglect, call the Massachusetts Child-at-Risk Hotline anytime of the day or night at 800-792-5200.

Contact a Lawyer

If you have been contacted by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Family Services (DCF), it is very important that you immediately learn your rights and obligations so that you can best protect yourself and your children.  Schedule an appointment with a family law attorney for a free consultation.

Thank you for reading this blog post.  Please submit any ideas you may have for blog topics to [email protected].

-Rhonda S. Boulé