By Mike Stetzer
Often times, child custody arrangements are a sticking point in many divorce proceedings and separations, as each parent disputes what is really in "the best interests of the child." The situation becomes even more complex when the custody issue arises in a single-parent household without a formal separation or divorce and involves social services.
Typically, the foundation for a family court to grant custody to a parent, regardless of marital status, is the presence of a stable home - both emotionally and financially. Since each living situation is different, it's often difficult to assess how a judge will rule on the stability of a living situation. Different incomes and housing environments can be considered differently from state to state or even district to district.
The Fourth District Appeals Court in California, Division Three, recently ruled that poverty alone cannot provide the basis for parental rights. Even when poverty has caused less than ideal housing conditions or even homelessness, a mother should possess parental rights to her children. Though not a divorce case, the question of housing conditions could equally apply across many family court cases.
The case on which the court ruled was a complex situation. Orange County Social Services had served a petition for juvenile dependency to remove custody of two children from a mother who previously admitted to the agency that she was homeless. Judging that she could not provide a suitable home for the two-year-old and five-year-old children, the court placed the children in legal custody of the state juvenile court, removed from the mother and placed in a foster home.
The mother continued to try to fight to regain custody of her children, meeting all the requirements set by the social services agency to restore her living situation to one deemed suitable by the court. Despite her efforts, the trial court terminated her parental rights and attempted to place the children with an adoptive family.
However, the woman appealed, and the appeals court overturned the trial court’s decision. The appeals court ruled that the trial court had failed to determine the father’s fitness to possess custody of his children solely because he was impoverished. Coupled with the mother’s work to correct her living situation, the court deemed that there was no actual basis for refusing custody.
When the trial court did not grant custody because of the poverty of the parents, it displayed "the influence of class and life style biases," as Justice Madeleine Flier wrote in the decision. The court’s decision makes it clear that living conditions and income that form the basis for a custody ruling are unique and that judges take in a broad range of information to form their decision.
One major factor in the overruling was the mother’s willingness to cooperate with social services: Her good faith efforts led the judges to decide that, despite the difficulties of her living situation, she was indeed fit to raise her children.