Substance Abuse & Addiction in Custody Cases

When custody and/or the parenting schedule are contested in family court cases, sometimes allegations are made (whether they be true or not) regarding one or both parents’ ability to safely care for a child due to alcohol or illegal drug use. In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the court has a variety of tools at its disposal to either confirm or discredit these allegations and to manage compliance with orders for parties to refrain from drug and alcohol use.

A party can be ordered to submit to a hair follicle drug/alcohol test that can detect usage for approximately the last 90 days. The court can also order a party to have random, periodic urine screens done that detect usage for approximately the past 24 hours. If a party struggles with alcohol abuse, there are breathalyzer devices with video capability (to verify the identity of the person using the device) such as Soberlink that can be ordered for a parent to use prior to and during their parenting time with results delivered in real time to the custodial parent.

If you are the parent making the allegation, be prepared for the other side to also make reciprocal representations about your own drug/alcohol use. Oftentimes, judges will order BOTH parties to submit to an initial hair follicle test in a “he-said/she-said” situation, even if one party has an extensive addiction history and there is none for the other side. If one party tests positive, then the court can suspend parenting time, order supervised parenting time, and/or order additional testing, such as random screens.

If you are ordered to submit to testing, be sure to provide copies of any prescriptions that you are prescribed to the lab, or else you may test positive for a substance. Some parties attempt to tamper with urine screens by drinking lots of liquids immediately prior to their test to dilute the sample. In some cases, this will cause the results to register high levels of creatinine, which can be used by the other side to suggest foul-play to the court, so don’t try it! Additionally, if you no-show for a test, the court will consider this a positive screen.

If you do struggle with addiction issues, please know that you are not alone. The best course of action is to be transparent about your usage and your recovery attempts. Credibility is essential in family court. It would be much better to admit to drug/alcohol use and test positive than to lie to the judge and test positive.

The court does not typically order parties to attend any type of rehab center or recovery program. However, if child protective services, such as DCF in Massachusetts or DCYF in Rhode Island, are involved with the family and they include these recommendations in their action plan, the judge will want the parties to be compliant with these recommendations. If you do have substance use disorder, it also may be wise for you to voluntarily enter rehab or work an addiction program to show the court that you are actively working on your recovery. Be sure to comply with testing orders and focus on getting clean/sober so that you can sustain a period of sobriety to demonstrate to your co-parent and the court that you can safely parent your child.

Most importantly, it’s important to remember that custody orders are modifiable based upon a showing of a change in circumstances. If you have unfavorable custody orders due to drug/alcohol issues, you can petition the court after a period of time and ask to change the orders once you are in a better place. Wanting to be the best parent you can be for your children is a wonderful motivating factor to get clean/sober, but sustained recovery comes from wanting to better your OWN life. Hang in there, friends.

Helpful resources:

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