It is now well established that a parent has a constitutional right to exclusive care, custody and control of his or her child. This constitutional right protects a parent against claims for custody by non-parents. A court cannot apply the best interest of the child test to determine whether a non-parent should have custody of a child unless the court first concludes that the parent has waived her constitutional right to exclusive custody. A parent waives her constitutional right by being unfit, neglecting the welfare of the child, or by conduct otherwise inconsistent with the parent’s protected status. There is no precise definition of conduct inconsistent with protected status and our appellate courts have provided no comprehensive list of actions that will result in a parent’s loss of constitutional rights. Instead, whether a parent’s conduct has been inconsistent with protected status is an issue that must be determined on a case-by-case basis. The non-parent seeking custody has the burden of proving the parent’s inconsistent conduct by clear, cogent and convincing evidence. For more detail on this law, see Family Law Bulletin, Third Party Custody and Visitation Actions.
What if a parent signs a consent custody order that grants custody rights to a non-parent third party? Does the parent lose the ability to assert her constitutional right to custody in subsequent custody proceedings? For example, if a parent agrees to a court order granting custody to grandmother, does the parent have the constitutional right to regain custody from grandmother in the future? Or, if another non-parent wants custody or visitation after parent has entered into a consent custody order with grandmother, does the other non-parent still need to prove parent has waived her constitutional right to custody and, if so, can the non-parent rely on the fact that parent voluntarily gave custody to the grandmother to establish that the parent acted inconsistent with her protected status?