How Can a Mother Lose Custody of Her Child in California?

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Not so long ago, there was a time when a mother would automatically be awarded custody of her children as the “mother.” That arrangement reflected the prevailing gender roles of the time, wherein mothers were caregivers and fathers were breadwinners. But now that things are changing, you might be asking: how can a mother lose custody of her child? Is it possible to lose custody of your children even when you’ve been raising them yourself all this time?

Fathers are now better preparing their child custody cases to win custody of their children. Although the increase in the number of fathers gaining custody of their children during a separation from their partner isn’t exceptionally high, the possibility of this happening in your case still might cause you stress. After all, even if you’ve been awarded custody of your children, that decision can still be reversed if your ex challenges your rights to custody.

So, if you’re worried about the possibility of losing your right to child custody and no longer being able to care for your children, you need to know what factors can lead to that.

This article is about a mother’s serious misconduct that should cause her to lose custody. It is not about how a father should engage in unnecessary or unreasonable litigation conduct.

10 Ways a Mother Can Lose Custody of Her Child

There are a number of ways a mother can lose custody of her children. But in order for a judge to reconsider the family court’s decision, the allegations must be supported by solid evidence because the burden of proof lies on the party seeking the modification of child custody.

Here are the 10 most common ways a mother can lose custody of her child:

1. Child Abuse

One reason that mothers lose custody of their children is abuse: physical, emotional, or sexual. Some people assume that women are less likely to be physical abusers, but women are capable of all types of child abuse. Because society tends to see women as nurturing, it is often more shocking to learn that a mother has abused her children.

Examples of child abuse include:

  • Physical abuse could mean excessive hitting, kicking, scratching, biting, burning, physical torture, etc.
  • Sexual abuse involves any form of sexual contact between the child and the mother.
  • Psychological and emotional abuse usually involves harsh and outrageous verbal treatments.

In some cases, the mother is not abusive herself, but may fail to protect her children from abuse by a new romantic partner. If the court becomes aware of abuse by a mother or her new partner, the mother is likely to lose custody.

If a father knows, or reasonably should know, that the mother is abusing their child and still does nothing, it can be considered failure to protect the child and impact the father’s custodial rights as well as the mother’s because parents have a duty to protect their children.

Keep in mind there are mandatory reporters in California, who have a legal duty to report suspected abuse.

When the court receives sufficient evidence of a mother’s abusive conduct, it is authorized to change current custody arrangements if doing so will be in the children’s best interests.

A mother can lose custody of her child because of physical abuse of her child in any of the following ways:

  1. A report of the physical abuse is made to the proper law enforcement agency, who then takes action;
  2. A report of the physical abuse is made to the proper social services agency, sometimes called Child Protective Services (CPS), who then investigates the allegations. CPS can remove a child from a physically abusive home and provide temporary custody to the child’s other parent or a close family member.
  3. The father of the child files a Request for Order (RFO) in a family court case with a request for emergency custody orders notifying the court about the mother’s abuse of the child, and requesting sole legal and physical custody of the child.

With the help of a custody lawyer, the father of a child experiencing abuse at the hands of their mother can request that the court investigate his claims and award sole custody of the children to him. Then, the mother will likely only retain visitation rights, often with professional monitoring.

How Can A Mother Lose Custody Of Her Child in California

2. Child Neglect

A mother who fails to take care of her child’s basic needs, including access to health and education, is also at risk of losing custody. A mother’s serious neglect that endangers the child’s healthy, safety, or wellbeing is unacceptable. Also, if the mother neglected her child in a manner that left the child without food, shelter, clothes, and/or education, she may lose custody. Neglect is often intertwined with other issues such as child abuse or substance abuse.

There is no “perfect parent” standard in the California Family Code. Family law judges understand that parenting is an imperfect process. Minor mishaps or inconsistent infractions, such as being late to pick the children up from school or not being able to keep a routine doctor’s appointment, may be overlooked, but long-term, consistent neglect is something else, and if it threatens the child’s well-being, the court can intervene.

The neglect of children is hard to prove alone. But it can be done, and it can be grounds for removing a mother’s custody rights. If a mother fails to care for her children, other parties will likely notice (e.g., the children’s teachers or daycare workers). Therefore, the father could use their testimonies against the mother in court.

A father can petition that a mother has not upheld her parental obligations and should have her custody rights taken away. Caretakers, teachers, friends, or even the children themselves can legally testify of the mother’s serious neglect. A family court judge will revoke a mother’s child custody rights if they believe the child has been seriously neglected.

3. Substance Abuse or Addiction

Many people struggle with addictions to alcohol and other substances. These addictions are taken very seriously in California courts. If a mother has these addictions, it puts into question her fitness and ability to care for her children.

A mother who is proven to have demonstrated a dependency on prohibited substances or drugs and or alcohol runs the risk of getting her custody and visitation rights revoked. Moreover, children of drug addicts and or alcoholics have a higher risk of suffering from neglect, being abused, and imitating their parent’s behavior by picking up similar bad habits. A father can present evidence of the mother’s substance abuse and request that the mother’s custody rights be terminated.

If a mother is suspected of substance abuse, the courts might require her to undergo drug testing. Although failing a drug test may not automatically rescind her custodial rights, it would likely influence the court’s final decision.

Addiction is a medical condition that needs treatment, but it can also make it difficult to parent effectively. Consequently, mothers struggling with substance abuse issues may lose custody.

This result is especially true if it involves physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or the endangerment of the children’s lives (e.g. drunk driving). However, a mother may be able to retain custody if she agrees to get counseling or other treatment for her addiction (and actually follows through).

4. Violating a Court Order

Violation of a child custody order may be grounds for a mother’s custody rights to be lost or reduced. A mother that disobeys custody schedules, neglects court-ordered responsibilities, or interferes with the father’s visitation rights can lose custody of her child.

If the court orders a shared custody agreement where she and her co-parent have equal custody and visitation rights, and she fails to comply or interferes with the parenting time, she is considered to be in violation of the court order.

Violations of court orders are like any other form of misconduct: the more serious the violation is, the more serious the consequences should be. Assume a mother is consistently late to drop off or pick up of a child by a few minutes. That may technically be a violation of a court order. However, these kinds of minor violations will rarely, if ever, result in any change in custody.

Now assume a mother decides the court’s order that provides the father with specific parenting time is a suggestion, not a directive. Therefore, she cancels the father’s parenting time when she wishes to do so. That is a serious violation, and if it continues, may lead to a mother losing custody of a child.

A father should keep a detailed log of every time a mother interferes with or violates a court order. Every time the mother kept the child from their father or sabotaged visitation plans can be used against her in court to take away or lessen her child custody rights.

An all too common mistake fathers make in these situation is to allow the violations of the court order to go without any consequence. The usual reason behind the inaction is a desire to avoid conflict. But a mother will simply not understand that she is at risk of losing custody if the father allows the mother to continually violate court orders. All that does is solidify for the mother the delusion that court orders are mere suggestions and not directives she must follow.

The longer a father allows this to happen and fails to assert his rights as a father, the harder it may be to convince the court the father is taking the situation seriously.

How Does A Mother Lose Custody Of Her Child in California

5. Domestic Violence

A mother who is found to have committed domestic violence against any member of the household (including the father), is also at risk of losing custody.

Domestic violence is not something children should be exposed to, as this can harm their psychological development. Moreover, domestic abuse can escalate anytime, thereby exposing the children to potential harm. So if the mother is proven to engage in such abuse, she can have her custody revoked.

Under Family Code 3044, if a father can prove that the mother has committed domestic violence against the father, the child, or the child’s siblings within the previous five years, there is a rebuttable presumption that an award of sole or joint physical or legal custody of a child to the mother is detrimental to the best interest of the child.

California courts are required to grant reasonable visitation rights to parents unless visitation would not be in the child’s best interests. It is not in a child’s best interests to be exposed to domestic violence, so the court can protect the child by, for example, ordering the mother’s visitation is to be supervised (meaning a third party must supervise all visits between the child and the mother) or banning overnight visits.

6. Severe Mental Health Issues

Mothers who have mental health issues are still entitled to custody of their children. However, if a mother’s mental state endangers her child’s well-being or health, the court can take away or lessen her child custody rights.

According to Mental Health America: “Custody loss rates for parents with mental illness range as high as 70-80 percent, and a higher proportion of parents with serious mental illnesses lose custody of their children than parents without mental illness.”

Then again, the father has the burden to provide the court with sufficient evidence showing that the mother’s mental state or psychological issues compromise the safety of their children and argue that the children’s best interests are best protected outside of the mother’s custody. Since matters like these are sensitive, the court may require the mother to undergo psychological testing, as well as counseling and interviews by experts, before making any decision.

7. Child Abduction

If a mother decides to take her child without permission from the father, the court can consider it child abduction. It may not feel like kidnapping when it’s your own child, but the hard truth is that it is considered abduction when a mother takes a child in defiance of a custody order.

Even if the mother does not harm the child or the child consents, it is against any custodial agreement for a parent to run off with the child without the knowledge of the other parent. This action can make the mother look unfavorable and risk losing custody of the child.

8. Parental Alienation

Mothers who attempt to damage the image of their co-parent, or who physically withhold the kids from the other parent may be engaging in parental alienation. In California, children are encouraged by law to have frequent and continuing contact with both parents in a process called co-parenting. In such cases where parents share visitation and custody rights, they are legally bound to follow the custody arrangement.

Making derogatory or degrading comments about their co-parent to turn the children against the other parent is simply unacceptable behavior. A mother who makes a habit of setting important appointments or trips that lead to the father not being with his children during their scheduled time together can also be accused of engaging in parental alienation.

If the father keeps detailed records of instances where the mother finds ways to sabotage his parenting time with their children, they can be used as evidence against her. So, mothers who engage in these alienating behaviors can have their visitation and custodial rights limited until the damage from the mother’s alienating behaviors can be repaired.

The court can also make orders including requirements for a mother engaging in parental alienation to undergo individual therapy, for the parents to attend co-parenting counseling, for the child and the father to attend reunification therapy to begin to repair the relationship, etc.

9. Lack of Involvement in the Child’s Care

A mother could have her child’s welfare at heart and may genuinely want to raise her child. However, if she is always away, working multiple jobs, in military service, or engaged in anything that takes away precious time from her children, it can put her custodial rights at risk. Leaving almost all the caregiving to the father could count against a mother in a custody dispute.

A father in a custody battle can use this as a weapon against the mother to gain custody of their children. Since family courts are primarily concerned with ensuring the children’s interests are protected, they would prefer to award or transfer custody to the parent who will be there for the kids.

Therefore, if you are in a similar situation, you need to speak to an attorney and make changes to your lifestyle or work arrangements.

10. Reporting Abuse by the Other Parent

A recent study discovered that when mothers claim that the other parent physically or sexually abused their child, the mothers were more likely to lose custody of the child, especially if the other parent counter-claimed that the mother’s allegations were an attempt to alienate the child from them. (Interestingly, no such effect was found when it was a father alleging that the mother abused the child).

So, in short, a mother who claims (even truthfully) that the other parent is abusing their child is at risk of losing custody. It may not be fair, but it highlights the need to have an experienced custody lawyer working for you and your child from the start.

Not surprisingly, a mother making false allegations of abuse against the other parent can also lose custody if it is proven that the accusations were all fabricated.

FAQs About Mothers Losing Child Custody

  • Can a father take a child from a mother if she loses her job in California?

While a mother’s employment status cannot be directly taken into consideration when determining child custody and a mother cannot be discriminated against for her financial position, however, the child’s level of safety in the mother’s custody can be an issue if the mother cannot provide a safe place for the child to live. A father would need to argue that the mother was not able to provide for the child’s basic needs. *Keep in mind, this argument may backfire on fathers because the mother could simply respond by requesting a modification of child support in order to get more support to better care for the child.

  • Can a mother lose custody of her child for using drugs in California?

A mother who is proven to have demonstrated a dependency on prohibited substances or drugs an/or alcohol runs the risk of getting her custody and visitation rights revoked. A father can present evidence of the mother’s substance abuse and request that the mother’s custody rights be terminated if he can effectively prove that the substance abuse can potentially endanger the child.

  • Can a mother lose custody for being with a child abuser in California?

The family court can modify or revoke a mother’s custody rights if they believe the child may be endangered in her care. Who the child is surrounded by when in the mother’s custody will be taken into consideration by a judge.

  • Can a mother lose custody of her child for failing to enroll her child in school in California?

In California, a mother can lose custody of her child if she prevents the child from getting access to education. That being said, this issue most often arises when a child reaches the age of 5, when children are commonly enrolled in kindergarten. Kindergarten is not legally mandatory in California, so fathers will not necessarily be able to have the mother’s custody rights modified based on a failure to enroll the child in kindergarten in California.

  • Can a mother lose custody of her child for dating a different man?

A mother cannot simply lose custody of her child for dating someone new. However, if the mother’s new partner’s presence endangers the child in any way, the mother can lose custody of her child. It is also important to note that if the mother allows her new partner to physically discipline the child, the mother is placing her custodial rights in jeopardy.


If you are facing a custody dispute, do not assume that you will get the custody arrangement you want just because you are the mother. Work with an experienced California child custody attorney to help ensure that the court receives all the information it needs to order a custody arrangement that is favorable.

If you are already involved in a custody dispute and have lost custody of your child, it is even more important to have skilled representation because you are fighting an uphill battle.

California’s family law procedures are complex and trying to navigate them without help of a California family lawyer can be frustrating. If you have questions about family law procedures, contact our accomplished and dedicated family law, divorce, and child custody lawyers by calling (844) 4-TALKOV (825568) or contact us online for a free consultation with our experienced family law attorney, Colleen Sparks, who can guide you through the court process in a prompt and clear manner.

Our knowledgeable attorneys can also help if you have questions about any of the following:

About Colleen Sparks

Colleen Sparks is a Family Law Attorney at Talkov Law in California. She can be reached at (844) 4-TALKOV (825568) or colleen@talkovlaw.com.

Contact us to schedule your complimentary consultation.

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