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Termination of Parental Rights

A parent's legal right to custody of a child can be terminated by a court. In an adoption, the natural mother voluntarily terminates her rights so that the child may be adopted. However, termination is often involuntary, and the grounds are typically the parent's neglect and abuse of the child. Grounds for involuntary termination of parental rights include:

  • abandonment;
  • knowingly placing the child in danger;
  • failing to support the child;
  • felony criminal conviction;
  • sexual offenses;
  • murder of one parent by the other parent; and
  • causing the child to be born addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Parents who have children who are placed in foster care do not automatically lose their parental rights. Even a lengthy placement does not allow the court to terminate parental rights. However, parents who fail or refuse to participate in assistance programs that can improve their situation may have their rights terminated while their children are in foster care.

Father's rights

A father who is not married to the mother of his child has parental rights, but he must exercise them. For instance, laws allow the father's rights to be terminated if he knew the woman was pregnant but remained completely uninvolved with woman and the pregnancy. He is considered to have abandoned the woman and his rights to the child as well. Generally, in these situations, the father is notified that his parental rights are being terminated and he does not contest the termination.

SIDEBAR: If the father's whereabouts are unknown, his parental rights can still be terminated. Laws do not require notification when the father cannot be located.

However, a father has the right to oppose or contest the termination. If the termination is contested, evidence must be offered that grounds for terminating the father's parental rights actually exist.

Is a trial held to determine if a parent's rights should be terminated?

No. There is a hearing before the judge where evidence is presented through testimony and documents that show the reasons for termination.

Who asks the court to terminate parental rights?

The state agency involved in the care of the child asks the court to terminate parental rights.

SIDEBAR: Once the child has been removed from the home, she is in the custody of the state agency. The agency must attempt to move the child back home and out of foster care by helping the family create an adequate environment for a child. Agencies provide training and programs (such as drug rehabilitation programs) for parents who seek their child's return.

When does an agency file to terminate a parent's rights?

Under most laws, state agencies are required to begin termination proceedings once the child has been in foster care for over a year.

Can I oppose an agency's efforts to terminate my parental rights?

Yes. You are permitted to explain your side of the story to the judge, present evidence and call witnesses to testify in your behalf.

SIDEBAR: Because a parent's rights are so important, the court must allow a parent, even one who is in jail, to present evidence opposing the termination.

What do I have to prove to keep my parental rights?

Assuming a legal justification exists for terminating your rights, you must show a compelling reason why the rights should not be terminated. There is not an exact set of circumstances that automatically provide a compelling reason, but some of the following reasons have allowed a parent to keep her child:

  • that in 6 months or less, the parent will be able to care for the child again;
  • that the child is old enough to state a preference that parental rights not be terminated;
  • that the parent has maintained contact and the child would benefit from continuing the relationship;
  • that the child is in a residential facility or home, adoption is unlikely and termination is not necessary to place the child; and
  • that the length of time in foster care is due to circumstances beyond the parent's control, such as court delays or incarceration.

My children have told the judge they do not want my parental rights terminated. Can my rights be terminated over their wishes?

Yes. The children's preference is only one of the factors a judge considers, especially where children are young and have a chance to be adopted by another family. If the judge finds that the children's emotional and physical well-being is threatened by returning them to you or that they have lived in foster care for many months and you have not shown improvements in your lifestyle, your parental rights will be terminated.

If I am unable to take care of my child and appoint my sister as his guardian, have I terminated my parental rights?

No. You are still the legal parent of the child; however, all decision-making and custody of the child rests with your sister since she is the guardian.

SIDEBAR: Appointing a guardian for a child is a court proceeding. The judge must approve of and order the guardianship.

Can I voluntarily give up my parental rights?

Yes. In this case, you are relinquishing your rights to your child. Parental rights are routinely relinquished by birth parents that have decided to give a baby up for adoption.

Can the biological father's parental rights be terminated even where his paternity has not been proved?

Yes. Any alleged biological fathers can have their rights terminated, along with the mother's and her husband (if she is married). If the mother names five different men that could possibly be the father of her child, then all five men will be part of one lawsuit to terminate parental rights. One of the men cannot go back and say that his rights were improperly terminated, because he did not believe he was the father at the time of the hearing.

Once my parental rights have been terminated, can they be restored in the future?

No. If the child had not yet been adopted, you would have to adopt your child in order to regain your status as her parent. However, since your rights were terminated, it is highly unlikely a judge would find such an adoption to be in the best interests of the child.

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