The definition of an unfit parent will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but the general considerations are usually consistent: an unfit parent is one who has somehow neglected his or her child in such a way that puts the child at risk. Failing to provide food, clothing, or protection to the child may be part of the definition of an unfit parent, as can addiction and substance abuse that results in abuse of the child or dangerous child neglect. A parent with an emotional or mental instability or disability may also be found to be unfit.
In most places, it is quite difficult to prove whether a person is an unfit parent, and the definition of an unfit parent is often left purposely vague. Most parents who are found to be unfit will exhibit certain characteristics or fall into certain regular patterns, such as failing to bring children to school regularly, failing to provide basic necessities to the child, putting the child in danger physically or mentally on a regular basis, and so on. Abandonment of the child is also usually cause to label the parent unfit, whether the abandonment happens consistently or only once. Abandonment as a definition may also be left vague.
If a parent is found to be unfit, the child may be put in the custody of the other parent. If both parents are found to be unfit, the child may be put in foster care or in the care of another relative. This foster care is not always necessarily permanent, and the unfit parent can work to get custody of the child back if the conditions that caused the unfit determination are remedied. In many jurisdictions, the child will be placed in temporary custody for six months or more while the unfit parent works to remedy the situations that caused the child to be taken from his or her custody.
A judge in court may require the parent to take steps toward improving the quality of the child's life. This may include taking parenting or anger management classes, or even finishing a high school education. A court may order the parent to take part in a mental evaluation or therapy program, or even drug treatment and counseling. The reasons for a parent to be deemed unfit can vary so vastly that the steps a parent must take as a result can vary just as vastly.