Is the parent fit to parent a child?

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services


One cannot help be aware of the importance of the necessity of good parenting especially when there are suspicions of the opposite, that is, that the child is being abused in some way. This could be one or both parents carrying out the abuse. The abuse can be in the form of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, as well as neglect.

It is also important to follow the best course of action once it has been established what kind of abuse has been proven to have occurred. There are at least three approaches that can be taken and these can be combined: 1) the immediate removal of the child from the proven abusing environment; 2) promoting better parenting skills while the child remains with parents combined with monitoring the home in the hope for changes in parenting skills; 3) removing the child from the proven abusive environment and attempting to educate, train or treat the parents to improve their parenting skills. The children can then be returned once it is felt that the parents are indeed able to parent effectively and without practicing any form of abuse. Two objective questions will therefore follow: 1) How can we assess whether a parent is fit to parent? 2) If a parent if not fit to parent what can or should be done?

These are the two questions that will hopefully be answered by what follows. The information is based on the more recent research literature and the personal experiences of the author, who has acted as an expert witness in many cases of alleged child abuse over the past 35 years. Sometimes custody is in dispute especially when parents are not able to agree on contact between the child/children and the now absent parent following an acrimonious divorce or separation.

How can we assess whether a parent is fit to parent?

In what follows two illustrations of child abuse will be cited where a child should be removed from an abusing parent(s) and where this is not necessary. It must however be noted that a great deal of care must be taken not to overreact when a child has been injured through no fault of the caring parents. The second reason for removing a child from the custodial parent occurs when there is a contact dispute over the child after an acrimonious separation or divorce between the parents.

Where there is evidence of possible abuse by parents towards children, a full investigation must be carried out as soon as possible involving the child, the parents and the home. It is especially important to assess parental attitudes as well as personality and behaviour in respect to their manner of child rearing (Billick & Jackson, 2007; Jackson et al., 1999). Parents with a lack of empathy suffer frequently suffer from psychopathy and are a particular threat to children and need to be identified.

The use of interviews of parents should never be used as the sole procedure. This has certain deficits for judging parental responsibility and capability if it is used on its own. Combined with interviews of psychological tests both cognitive and personality testing need to be used by well qualified and experienced clinical, forensic psychologists. Whenever possible both parents should be involved in rearing children in the form of joint parenting. In order for this to work, parents need to co-operate and do what is in the best interest of their children rather than their own needs.

What is in the best interest of the child in the short term should also be in the best interest of the child in the long term and should be of the greatest importance when decisions are made. There is however, some uncertainty in complex custody disputes which parent is likely to be the one who should have custody of a child. This is especially the case when the divorce or separation has been acrimonious. It is under such circumstances that signs of emotional abuse frequently occur, although it can also occur in intact families.

The signs of such abuse are easy to identify when they are physical abuse or neglect and visible injuries are caused to children. Sexual abuse is more difficult to diagnose and even more difficult is emotional abuse. Sexual abuse can frequently be incorrect with allegations made for ulterior motives by an implacably hostile parent against the absent or non-resident parent. Sexual abuse is insidious and sometimes, but not always, associated with other abusive behaviour. Emotional abuse is difficult to detect and is usually in form of manipulation of the child’s mind, or threats of severe punitive action by parents leading to fear of insecurity in the child. In this way the child can be made to think and say virtually anything or accuse anyone of anything merely to keep on the good side of the custodial parent.

In the case of divorce or separation of the parents, children can cope better when both parents are in agreement about contact between the absent parent and the child. They need continued contact of both parents, with both parents maintaining a relatively friendly and cooperative relationship towards one another. This provides the necessary security for children. Children gradually learn to accept the fact that their parents no longer love one another, a fact of which they have been made only to aware, for some time, but that both parents each still love their children despite the split up.

Those who are meant to evaluate parents and their capacity for providing appropriate care of children need to be experts in carrying out psychological assessments. They need to be able to identify parents who lack the capacity, such as empathy, to rear their children appropriately and with care. Parents need also to be good role models with whom children can easily identify and benefit from such identification. What unfortunately is the case is that children tend on the whole to identify with parents be they good or poor role models. Psychologists need to evaluate whether a parent suffers from antisocial behavior such as psychopathy or severe mental illness such as schizophrenia which would handicap that parent in playing an effective role in caring for children.

Low intelligence of a parent is sometimes used in combination with an injury to a child for removing that child into care. This could be an over-reaction. Many children born of parents of low intelligence, or limited intelligence, are good parents. It should also be noted that many children have accidents due to over-activity of the child rather than due to parental neglect. A careful assessment of such incidents is imperative.

Vulnerable children prone to injuries need to be provided with an especially high level of care, but even with this, it must be recognized that all children are prone to have accidents from time to time. In the case of hyperactive children, the chances of the child being hurt increases. Let me illustrate this point from an actual case.

An illustration of an injured child and an over reaction

Mr X (grandfather) and Mrs Y (grandmother) and Miss Z (mother) came from the North of England and requested me to help them deal with the fact that the child of the mother had been placed in care by the Local Authority. The child was removed from the home when the child was three years of age and suffered from a concussion from falling backwards while in the care of the grandmother Mrs Y. There were no other injuries reported in the past. Both mother and grandmother were mentally subnormal but Mr X, the grandfather was of above average intelligence. They all lived together in the same house. Miss Z was an unmarried mother who had been made pregnant initially and the pregnancy was terminated. She then became pregnant again with the current child who had been placed in care. Following the injury, the Social Services placed the child in care and a report from an educational psychologist considered the child was “in an unsafe environment” being in the care of X, Y, & Z, and should be removed from the home. The child was sent to foster parents. Grandparents and mother requested the child to be returned to them as they felt they had neither abused nor neglected the child. They felt the children had been removed unfairly merely because the child had had an accident. They felt that they had been unjustly treated in removing the child on the basis of  possibly one accident and injury and also on the basis of the low intelligence of the mother and grandmother.

As the psychologist, I recommended they go to court with their Solicitor and request a second opinion. This the Judge granted and I was able to carry out an assessment of all the parties concerned. Both mother and grandmother were indeed of relatively low intelligence but capable of providing good care for the child, especially as they had the support of the grandfather who was of above average intelligence and living at home with his family. I further recommended that a Social Worker be appointed to monitor the situation at home, after both mother and grandmother received parenting skill sessions. A two year follow-up revealed that no further accidents had occurred and there was no abuse of any kind of the child as noted by regular visits by Social Services.

The initial removal of the child from the family was hasty and premature, since it was an acceptable home on the basis of care being provided and one accident or injury should not have been viewed as child abuse or neglect by the Social Service Department. The mother and grandmother were being penalized for having a relatively low IQ. There are many good mothers and fathers with relatively low intelligence who make good parents.

In defence of Social Services it must be said that their action of removing the child was based on some high profile cases where serious abuse had indeed occurred leading to serious injuries and even the death of a child. It was the view of the Social Services supported by an Educational Psychologist rather than a Clinical or Forensic Psychologist that it was better to act with caution by removing the child from the care of this family. They felt as it turned out wrongly that the child would continue to suffer from accidents and neglect if he were to remain with the family. It was for this reason that the current psychologist provided a second opinion and put in place certain safeguards such as: 1) parenting skill training for the whole family; 2) a period of monitoring of the family and the child, by Social Services carrying out unannounced visits.

It must be acknowledged that removing a child from a good home is also a form of abuse of the child as well as the family. Judgments as to whether to remove a child suspected of having been neglected or abused sexually, physically or emotionally, need to be done with the greatest of care. This is especially the case for a very young and vulnerable child. It may be the case that sexual abuse has occurred from time to time and there is consistent evidence of physical, emotional neglect. Here there are certainly grounds for removing a child to a place of safety.

Contact disputes with parents suffering from implacable hostility towards one another

Contact disputes, where either parent alienates a child against the absent parent, require very special attention. Some parents, usually the custodial parent, will make certain allegations against the absent parent. This may include that that person is a sexual abuser, in order to prevent contact from being made by that parent. This is a form of emotional abuse where action must be taken, not against the alleged wrongly accused perpetrator of sexual abuse, but against that parent who makes false these allegations.

This may include such punishment as fines, child placed in care with the non resident parent, or imprisoning the parent making such abusive false allegations. This would certainly be in the best interest of the child in the long term. The child’s long and short term needs are of paramount importance and not the gender of the parent receiving residence (Billick & Ciric, 2003). “Protracted and acrimonious child custody litigation is rarely in the child’s best interest” (Billick & Jackson, 2007).The role of the clinical/forensic psychologist is important not so much to gain relevant, if not vital information via in-depth interviews, but through the use of cognitive and personality testing. History of past events may provide information of the alleged development of individuals but this tends to be selective in what the person seeks or is willing to reveal about their past as well as their present behaviour. Standardised tests, providing they have validity scales, sometimes called “Lie Scales”, can provide information by comparing the individuals with norms. Such normative inventories with standardised testing based on age, gender, and other aspects can then be compared with the historical information about such parents.  This  information can be obtained  from schools, work reports and medical reports. It is also important to obtain statements from relevant witnesses who have seen the behaviour of such parents towards their children. Here may be included other family members, neighbours etc.

Hence a total picture should emerge as to the individual’s positive and negative traits. Then a judgement can be made as to the suitability of a parent being adequate or inadequate in the care being provided for their child/children. What is in the best interest of the child should always be the criterion as to whom is best to care for that child. This in turn must be based on what the child needs in the long term rather than what the child wants. The child will often want what is not in his/her best interest. Children ideally need a secure environment being cared for by two loving parents. When the parental union ends, such security could be destroyed when there is serious acrimony between the parents and when this leads, as it often does, to parents using a child against the other parent. This will influence very much what the child wants or claims to want.

In such cases, the controlling residential parent often attempts to denigrate the now absent parent until the child is no longer in the position to wish to have any contact with the absent father/mother. The child actually “needs” the absent parent but then states resolutely that they do not want contact with that absent parent. Here it should come down to not what the child wants, but rather what the child needs. This would be in the best interest of the child, and not what the child wants. This wanting, whatever the child decides can often be signs of having been emotionally abused or manipulated against an absent parent by the resident parent. This fact too can be established by an expert psychologist with knowledge in assessing a parent who practices  alienation (Lowenstein, 2007).

The child’s own views need to be considered, though one must be certain about how these views were arrived at by the child. Hence a child, whatever their age who has had a good, warm and loving relationship with a parent is unlikely to change that opinion after the separation or divorce of his/her parents, unless there is good reason for this. The change must have occurred following the break-up of the parents relationship. There may have been frequent arguments and perhaps even violence between the parents which has led the child to feel that the absent parent can do the same to him/her, and may be worried about the safety of the custodial parent (usually the mother), and does not wish to have contact with the absent parent, for that reason. The reason for the change in opinion needs to be thoroughly investigated. It could be due to the influence of the custodial parent, practicing an abusive kind of influence and alienation procedure. It could also be due to, as previously mentioned, domestic violence, again endangering the perceived physical and emotional security of the child (Jaffe & Crooks, 2009).

The custodial parent should not have total control of the child. The custodial parent should have done everything possible to encourage good contact with the now absent parent. Otherwise that parent has taken advantage of the custody position to control and undermine the child’s previous good relationship with the absent parent. This, is a form of emotional abuse which cannot be tolerated. It should end, and should lead to the removal of the child if such influencing continues from such a custodial parent. If suitable, such a child could be placed with the victim of the abuse……i.e the absent parent, or into the care of a Local Authority while the abusing parent receives treatment. This child will also need treatment to remove the effects of the brainwashing he/she has received over a period of time.

Psychopathic parents with their likely lack of empathy, or parents with antisocial personality disorders (APD) are not likely to be suitable as good parents. They could well pose a danger to children and are likely to be a poor example or role model to children and hence children may identify and imitate the behaviour of such adults. Such parents are likely to abuse their children physically, sexually, or emotionally because they have such traits as being paranoid, narcissistic, histrionic, and often suffer from borderline personality disorders (BPD)(Reid, 2001).

Such individuals tend to make poor parents because of their lack of empathy and their selfish disregard for the rights of others. They are also likely to act impulsively, be unreliable, irresponsible, insincere, deceitful, and unable to benefit from experiences and being unable to feel any sense of guilt or remorse. They are also unable to feel real love. All these traits are not likely to result in good parenting!

If a parent is not fit to parent what can, and should be done?

There are degrees of not being a fit parent. Some parents can function adequately if provided with parenting skill training, while they continue to care for the child or when the child is removed until the training has been completed. This can be provided when the abuse or neglect has not been severe and where the parent welcomes and can be seen to benefit from such parenting skill training being provided. In the case of more severe physical or emotional abuse, the removal of the child would seem mandatory to prevent any further harming of the child or tragic consequences occurring. Following a psychological assessment of a parent or parents, further decisions can be reached to determine whether the parents are likely to benefit and wish to accept a parent training programme. Failure to accept such a programme would mean such a child would not be returned to these parents. The result of psychological testing will have been carried out using such tests as the MMPI and other tests to determine whether such parents suffer from a most worrying psychopathic personality deficit leading to lack of empathy. In that case such a parent/parents are unlikely to be suitable to rear their children.

In that case relatives such as grandparent (Strong et al., 2010) or other relatives may be sought to parent a child or the child may be taken into the care of the Local Authority and placed eventually with a foster parent. Later on, such children may be adopted by a suitable parent/ parents. This again must always be in the best interest of the child in question. In the past there has been a bias for only mothers to having custody rather than fathers. This should have, and has changed, with a gender bias having given place to which parent is likely to be best for the child (Billick & Jackson, 2007).


Billick, S. B.; & Ciric, S. J. (2003).  Role of the psychiatric evaluator in child custody disputes. In R. Rosner (ed.) Principles of Forensic Psychiatry, (pp. 331-47), 2nd edition, London: Arnold.

Billick, S. B.; & Jackson, M. B. (2007) Evaluating parents in child custody and abuse cases and the utility of psychological measures in screening for parental psychopathy for antisocial personality. In  A. R. Felthouse, H. Saab (Eds.)The International Handbook of Psychopathic Disorders and the Law. (pp. 95-112). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd

Jackson, S.; Thompson, R. A..; Christiansen, E. H.; et al. (1999) Predicting abuse-prone parental attitudes and discipline practices in a nationally representative sample. Child abuse and Neglect, 23, 15-21.

Jaffe, P. G.; Crooks, C. V.; Bala, N. (2009). A framework for addressing allegations of domestic violence in child custody disputes. Journal of Child Custody, Vol 6(3), 169.

Lowenstein, L. F. (2007) Parental Alienation. Russell House Publishing, Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK.

Reid, W. H. (2001). Antisocial personality, psychopathy, and forensic psychiatry. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, Vol 1, 55-8.

Strong, D. D.; Bean, R. A.; Feinauer, L. L. (2010). Trauma, attachment, and family therapy with grandfamilies: a model for treatment. Children and Youth Services Review, Vol 32(1), 44-50.