Protecting Children From an Alcoholic Co-Parent

Monitoring Co-Parents for Abuse of Alcohol

Approximately 35% of all divorces in the U.S. cite substance abuse as a reason, and research shows that people married to alcoholics divorce at a much higher rate. More than 60% of divorces involve couples who have younger children, and for parents with alcoholic spouses, this is not a problem that simply goes away when the divorce is finalized. Divorce lawyers advise parents with this concern to broach it with their attorneys early in the process.

Can a Custody Order Stipulate Alcohol Abuse Monitoring?

Both court orders and negotiated agreements can stipulate alcohol abuse monitoring for one parent or both. More than 90% of custody cases are worked out by the parents, and those agreements are negotiated by the divorce attorneys representing their respective clients. The court prefers this and generally does not want to have to make a decision on its own unless it feels that it must in order to serve the best interests of a child. It is not uncommon for such agreements and parenting plans to include monitoring requirements, but in these cases, both parents must agree. If one parent does not, then the burden of proof is on the other parent.

Negotiating an Agreement or Getting a Court Order

If a parent has any concerns at all about the substance abuse of their former partner, family law attorneys encourage them to act on that concern early in the process even if it means going to trial and having to get a court order. The reason for this advice is that it is easier to get this stipulation included in the initial agreement or order than it is to have the court revise those documents unless the co-parent agrees.

Changing a Custody Order or Agreement

It is possible to modify an order or agreement after the fact. Situations and circumstances change, and the court is willing to make revisions when they do. There may be a parent, for instance, who has developed alcohol addiction later in life after the agreement was already in place. However, it is more difficult at this point as the burden of proof is higher and the evidence may be harder to acquire.

Discuss the Concern With Your Attorney as Soon as Possible

If you are getting a divorce and know or suspect that your spouse has alcohol abuse, divorce attorneys encourage their prospective clients to bring that up during the initial case review. It is important to proceed as if you will need to provide evidence, and the earlier you begin collecting it, the better.

Maintain a Journal

Your family lawyer will likely encourage you to maintain a journal. Record when the other parent drinks, how much is consumed, and how the inebriation is affecting the children. Any physical evidence should be collected as well, but as this type of evidence is often difficult to come by, the journal is the strongest available evidence in many cases.

How Do You Prove Alcohol Abuse?

One of the most common ways to demonstrate alcohol abuse is through witness testimony. If you have family, friends, or associates that have seen the negative impact of the substance abuse firsthand, it will give great weight to the journal that you’ve provided the court. Other evidence can include DWI arrests, medical reports, or job loss, and the court may also mandate testing and evaluation, which can also strengthen your case.

How Is Alcohol Abuse Monitored?

There are many ways that a co-parent can be monitored for alcohol abuse. These requirements can be stipulated by a custody agreement negotiated by your and your partner’s respective family law attorneys or as determined by a custody order from the court. Multiple monitoring techniques may be required, and these can include:

  • Addiction therapy
  • Random testing
  • 12-step program
  • Sponsorship
  • Soberlink
  • Scram device
  • Ignition interlock device

Addiction Therapy

According to many divorce lawyers, court-mandated therapy with an addiction psychiatrist or with another mental health professional who specializes in addiction is among the most common stipulations. Therapy is seen as a beneficial option that not only protects the child but helps the co-parent, and this approach often comes to a natural conclusion, which is when the mental health professional determines that the co-parent no longer needs ongoing monitoring and makes that recommendation to the court.

Random Testing

The court may also mandate random testing, and in some cases, a co-parent who recognizes their problem will agree to it. When random testing is mandated by the court, it is usually stipulated along with addiction therapy. The psychiatrist or other mental health professional will often be in charge of the testing and communicating with the court as needed.

12-Step Program

Twelve-step programs are quite common as well as both an agreed-to and court-mandated requirement. In some cases, the court will give the power to the addiction therapist to recommend or require it based on what they think is necessary. Alcoholics Anonymous is the most recognizable of these programs, but there are alternatives, such as SMART Recovery, Life Ring, Women for Sobriety, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, and Moderation Management.


Having a sponsor is recommended but not a requirement of Alcoholics Anonymous and other similar programs. However, parents who agree to try AA will often agree to having a sponsor, and in the case of custody orders, the court may mandate it. In these cases, the person in question will have to get a sponsor that the court approves, and the sponsor is often required to provide status updates to the court, such as meeting attendance.


Court-mandated Soberlink is generally reserved for those cases where there is clear and substantial alcohol abuse. Soberlink is a remote alcohol monitoring system. The main apparatus is a breathalyzer, but the system also has facial recognition tech so that the monitoring cannot be easily circumvented. When the system is used, that data is sent directly to all interested parties.

Scram Device

Scram—stylized SCRAM—is an alcohol monitor that is worn around the ankle. It monitors alcohol consumption based on perspiration. The system makes automatic updates via modem. The data is monitored by a private company and transferred to relevant parties as needed.

Ignition Interlock Device

An ignition interlock device (IID) is installed in a vehicle and requires a breathalyzer test before enabling operation. Courts will often require an IID for repeat DWI offenders, but the court can also mandate an IID in custody cases where a parent has a history of driving while intoxicated.

Local Legal Aid for Child Custody

If your child’s other parent suffers from alcohol addiction, Lawrence Law is here to help. Our law firm has extensive experience with custody agreements, custody orders, and custody order changes involving the requirement to monitor an alcoholic co-parent in an ongoing manner. We have offices in Red Bank and Watchung, and if you’d like to meet with a New Jersey family lawyer to have your case reviewed at no cost or without obligation, you can call us at 908-645-1000 or contact us online.

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