Determining the Best Interests of the Child

Courts make various decisions affecting children, including placement and custody determinations, safety and permanency planning, and proceedings for the termination of parental rights. Whenever a court makes such a determination, judges must weigh whether the decision will be in the “best interests” of the child.

A review of State laws indicates that all States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have statutes describing the factors that must be considered to ensure that decisions regarding a child’s custody or placement serve that child’s best interests.


Most States have no standard definition of “best interests of the child.” The only exceptions are Montana and Puerto Rico. In Montana, “best interests of the child” means the child’s physical, mental, and psychological conditions and needs and any other factor the court considers to be relevant to the child. In Puerto Rico, the term “best interests of the child” is defined as the balance of different factors that may affect the safety; health; physical, mental, emotional, educational, and social well-being; or any other factor aimed at achieving the optimum development of the minor.

In other States, the term “best interests of the child” does not have a specific definition but is generally understood as a legal concept. It is used in laws and policies as a standard for making decisions regarding the placement and care of a child. A child’s best interests guide the deliberation that courts undertake when deciding what type of services, actions, and orders will best serve the needs of a child as well as who is best suited to care for the child. “Best interests” determinations are generally made by considering many factors related to the child’s circumstances and the parent or caregiver’s circumstances and capacity to 1 parent, with the child’s ultimate safety and well-being as the paramount concern.


State statutes frequently reference overarching goals, purposes, and objectives that shape the analysis in making best interests determinations. The following are among the most frequently stated guiding principles:

  • The importance of family integrity and preference for avoiding removal of the child from their home (in approximately 32 States, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands)
  • The health, safety, and/or protection of the child (in 31 States and the Northern Mariana Islands)
  • Preserving and strengthening the child’s ties to their family (in 20 States and American Samoa)
  • The importance of timely permanency decisions (in 22 States and the Virgin Islands)
  • The assurance that a child removed from their home will be placed in the least restrictive setting possible that will meet the child’s needs (in 14 States and the Virgin Islands)
  • The provision of services, treatment, and guidance that will assist the child in developing into a self-sufficient adult (in 18 States, American Samoa, and Guam)


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