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What you can do if a co-parent has substance abuse problems

First they miss appointments. Then you smell alcohol on their breath as they drop the kids off. You start hearing strange stories from the kids. If it wasn't already obvious then these will be the warning signs that your ex is having substance abuse problems. Addiction may have already been clear before, but separation tends to exacerbate the problem.

Many single parents face the issue of a co-parent who has a substance abuse problem. It can be difficult to know how and when to step in. It is always important to recognize the problem right away and address it with them. Let them know that you are aware of the problem and you do not condone them abusing drugs or alcohol while they are with the children.

Modifying a parenting plan

In California parenting plans are decided in court around a child's best interests. It is never in a child's best interest to have a custodial or part-time parent who abuses drugs or alcohol. If the other parent's behavior puts the child at risk to danger then you could get the parenting plan changed.

If you want to change an existing parenting plan then you will need to provide evidence to the court that the other parent has a substance abuse problem. It can sometimes be tricky to legally prove that the other parent has a drug or alcohol problem, so having an experienced lawyer is important in these situations. Proof that the other parent has a substance abuse problem can include:

  • They have a legal record of drug or alcohol abuse such as possession or a DUI
  • If you or anyone else has called child protective services
  • Additional witness testimony

If proof is substantial then the court could order chemical testing for controlled substances. Urinalysis is effective in identifying drugs in someone's system but unfortunately is not very effective for alcohol abuse. If the parent fails the test then the court could modify custody. The court can also assign forensic experts to evaluate the parent to determine the seriousness of the addiction.

These processes clearly take time, so you might want to immediately take some steps to address the problem.

What can a parent do in the meantime?

Substance abuse can compromise a parent's ability to provide adequate care. Teach your child how to be safe and recognize unsafe situations. Show them how to call for help if they feel like they are in an unsafe situation.

Keep in mind that many parents would rather ditch the drugs than have to leave their children. If the other parent is truly attempting sobriety then you might be able to push them in the right direction. Consider creating a contract in writing for the other parent to sign. Write down exactly what your expectations are. You can include more strict details such as drop off times, check in requirements (from both the child and the other parent), and anything else that you wish. You can also put down in writing that they must agree not to drink or do drugs while with the children.

If they choose to sign or not this paperwork could be presented in court as an effort on your part to establish strict guidelines. If they break the rules then there would be no excuse that they, "didn't know they should not have a few drinks after work." Let them know if they continue to abuse drugs or alcohol that you will not hesitate to get child welfare and the police involved.

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