The opioid addiction epidemic has been characterized as one of America’s “foremost health crises.” A federal commission chaired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently revealed an estimated 64,000 lives are lost to opioids every year. Since 1999, the number of opioid overdose deaths has quadrupled.
Addiction has also increasingly been spotlighted in New Jersey child custody cases. After all, it’s part of the reason many relationships fray in the first place. It can also arise in the midst of a difficult separation. When it negatively affects the lives of children, it can be grounds for restrictions on New Jersey parenting time and child custody.
While substance abuse may come much into play in a divorce (except perhaps if the addicted spouse squandered certain assets or racked up debt), it factors heavily in child custody cases.
As our Somerset County and Monmouth County child custody lawyers know, the courts will always first and foremost place the health and well-being of the child at top of the priority list. That doesn’t mean someone who is struggling with addiction is going to automatically lose custody or the right to see their child. However, courts do take it seriously. So if you are a parent trying to protect your child from a drug-addicted ex or one who is fighting not to lose your child while you also battle addiction, it’s likely you will need legal representation in family court.
Addiction and a Parent’s Fitness
N.J. Stat. Ann. 9:2-4 is one of the state laws that mandate a factor family courts must consider in child custody rulings are the “fitness” of each parent. It’s not all that uncommon for one or both parties to assert the other is “unfit.” However, the law says that a parent is only deemed unfit when his or her conduct has had a substantial adverse effect on the child.
One parent’s opioid addiction can lead to a finding of unfitness.
Take for example the 2016 decision by the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court in Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. K.W.
In that case, mother reportedly gave birth to a child in 2009. At the time, she was incarcerated and known to be a heroin user who was on methadone during her incarceration. The child, who was going through withdrawal from the methadone, was placed in the custody of the child’s maternal grandfather
Then 2013, social workers were called because mother, who was 11 weeks pregnant, tested positive for opiates while at the hospital receiving treatment for infection. She agreed to undergo a substance abuse evaluation. When she gave birth to her child, he tested positive for methadone, cocaine and benzodiazepines. He was placed in the neonatal intensive care unit for withdrawal symptoms. After his discharge, he was placed in foster care and then with his paternal grandmother. Later, the child’s maternal grandfather was granted custody, while the mother was given supervised visitation. However, she frequently missed this visitation, relapsed and tested positive for drugs over the next two years.
The child’s custody was eventually returned to his paternal grandmother, after his maternal grandmother had health issues.
The court ultimately held that the custody arrangement should be permanent, noting her involvement with the New Jersey Division of Youth & Family Services had been marked with drug use, non-compliance with recommended substance abuse treatment and sporadic visits.
The mother appealed this order, arguing the evidence failed to establish she abused and neglected her son. She argued the pre-natal drug use and later exposure to illegal substances was not enough to establish abuse and neglect. The appellate court disagreed and affirmed the order.
Our child custody attorneys in Somerset County and Monmouth County recognize these cases are heart wrenching for all involved. There are many considerations the court must weigh in a custody matter, but it will always ultimately come down to what is best for the child. Our goal is to work with our clients to fight for the best possible resolution within the parameters of the law.
If you are involved in a New Jersey child custody dispute, contact the Somerset County or Monmouth County divorce attorneys at Rozin-Golinder Law LLC by calling (732) 810-0034.
Additional Resources: Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. K.W, July 15, 2017, New Jersey Appellate Division
More Blog Entries: Simple Answers to the Simple Question: How Much Does it Cost to File for Divorce in NJ? Oct. 3, 2017, New Jersey Child Custody Lawyer Blog