The law in the United States holds a special regard for the rights of parents. Parents are allowed to make important choices on behalf of their children, and the state is rarely allowed to interfere. In return, parents are required to materially and emotionally support their children until they reach adulthood. However, sometimes parents are unable or unwilling to provide a safe home for their children. In those circumstances, the state is able to come in and terminate the parental rights of the biological parents and remove the child for placement in a safer home. While state laws differ on the specifics, there are several common situations in which the state can terminate the rights of a biological parent.
Circumstances for Termination
Generally, the state needs to prove that the parent is unfit to care for the child in order to terminate parental rights. Frequently, this will be due to abuse or neglect. If a parent has been shown by clear and convincing evidence to be unfit, and the termination of parental rights is in the best interest of the child, a court may order the termination. Parental unfitness may be specifically defined by the state, but it usually includes grounds such as severe and chronic neglect, abuse or neglect of other children in the household, sexual abuse, abandonment of the child, long-term mental illness or incapacity due to addiction, and termination of rights to another child.
The Process of Termination
The termination of parental rights is usually a long and emotional process. If a parent is accused of abuse or neglect, in most states, the first step is for local child protective services to investigate the situation. In severe cases, the District Attorney may decide to bring charges.
If there is evidence of abuse or neglect, the local division of youth and family services (or the equivalent) will open a case. If at all possible, the ultimate goal will be reunification with the biological family. However, in some cases, the abuse is so cruel or severe that this is unlikely. Depending on the circumstances, the child may be removed from the home during this process. During this time period, the local family services agency will usually try to work with the parents to help them be able to provide a safe home in the future. Interventions may include drug and alcohol counseling, mental health treatment, and parenting classes. Parents may or may not have visitation during this period, and they may or may not be supervised during the visitation.
At some point, the judge will need to decide whether the child can be returned to their parents’ home or whether termination proceedings will begin. The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) usually requires the state agency to file a petition for termination if the child has been in foster care for 15 out of the last 22 months. Some states allow exceptions to this rule when the child is in the care of a relative, the state agency has not provided the necessary services to the parent, or there is another compelling reason.
The burden is on the court to show that the parent is unfit. Since the right to parent one’s own child is considered very important, some states offer attorneys to indigent parents free of charge for these proceedings. If your parental rights are being threatened, a skilled family law attorney may be able to help you preserve your rights.
Reinstating Terminated Rights
Some states allow terminated rights to be reinstated in certain circumstances. For example, in some states, parents whose rights have been terminated can petition for reinstatement of their rights if the child is not permanently placed by a specific time. However, the parent must prove to the judge that they are fit in order for reinstatement to take place.
Typically, when people talk about the termination of parental rights, they are talking about involuntary termination by the court. However, in many circumstances, parents can also voluntarily terminate their parental rights. For example, some states will give parents incentives for voluntarily relinquishing their parental rights by allowing ongoing visitation with the child even after their rights are terminated. Voluntary termination may be in the best interests of all parties when there is a suitable permanent placement available for the child, and parents are unlikely to make the progress necessary for reunification.