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Terminating Parental Rights

In the parent-child relationship, parents have some basic rights and responsibilities. Both parents automatically have the right to make decisions about the child's education, religion, health care, and other important concerns. However, a court can take these rights away from a parent if he or she violates the law, or in the father's case, never claims paternity. A parent can also voluntarily terminate his or her rights. Termination of parental rights ends the legal parent-child relationship.

Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights

Each state has its own statute(s) providing for the termination of parental rights. The most common reasons for involuntary termination include:

  • Severe or chronic abuse or neglect
  • Sexual abuse
  • Abuse or neglect of other children in the household
  • Abandonment
  • Long-term mental illness or deficiency of the parent(s)
  • Long-term alcohol or drug-induced incapacity of the parent(s)
  • Failure to support or maintain contact with the child
  • Involuntary termination of the rights of the parent to another child

A parent can also lose his or her parental rights after being convicted of certain felonies. If a parent commits a crime of violence against his or her child or another family member, the court has the option to remove his or her parental rights and terminate the child-parent relationship. Also, if a parent is required to be imprisoned for a length of time that requires the child to enter foster care because there are no alternatives, the parent can lose parental rights.

Foster Care

If the termination of parental rights leaves a child with no legally responsible parents or guardians, the court will typically place the child in foster care. Before a state can terminate parental rights and place a child in foster care, it must file a petition under the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). However, state agencies aren’t required to petition in the following circumstances:

  • The child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months.
  • The court has determined the child is an abandoned infant.
  • The parent committed murder or voluntary manslaughter of another of his or her children
  • The parent was otherwise involved in the murder or voluntary manslaughter of another of his or her children, i.e. aided, abetted, attempted, conspired, or solicited the act.
  • The parent committed a felony assault that resulted in serious bodily injury to the child or another of his or her children.

Many states have adopted statutes that provide for more protections of children in the above circumstances, shortening the wait times required before parental rights can be terminated and the child is placed in foster care. However, more than half of the states also have exceptions to these guidelines, such as when the child is provided for by a relative or the state believes complete termination of parental rights isn’t in the best interests of the child. For more grounds for the termination of parental rights, see Findlaw's Checklist.

Child's Best Interests

Most states consider a child's best interests in termination proceedings. In some states, statutes use general language mandating that the child's health and safety be paramount in all proceedings, while other states' legislation lists specific factors that must be considered, such as the child's age; the physical, mental, emotional and moral well-being; cultural and attachment issues; and the child's reasonable preferences.

Reinstatement of Parental Rights

Most states don’t allow reinstatement of parental rights once they have been terminated. However, under some circumstances, such as when the child has not yet been permanently placed in a foster home, the parent may have the option to file a petition and show he or she has become fit to provide a safe and nurturing home.

Voluntary Termination of Parental Rights

Typically, parents voluntarily terminates their rights when they wish to give the child up for adoption. You can find information about consenting to an adoption at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Child Welfare Information Gateway and Findlaw's Adoption section.

Next Steps
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