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Termination of Parental Rights

Key Takeaways:

  • Courts are most likely to let biological parents voluntarily terminate their parental rights where an adoption or stepparent adoption is pending. 
  • A parent's rights can be involuntarily terminated when they a court finds that the parent has engaged in abuse, neglect, or other behaviors that endanger the child.
  • The law and court system wants to give biological parents every chance to maintain custody of their children.

Sometimes, a biological parent cannot raise their child. Some parents realize that they don’t have the maturity or resources to bring up a child, so they choose to terminate their parental rights. Other times, an agency learns that a child is in an unsafe environment and asks the state to terminate the parents’ legal rights. Whatever the reason, the decision to terminate parental rights can be challenging for everyone involved.

If you’re thinking of relinquishing your parental rights or the state wants to terminate them, this article will tell you more about each process. But keep in mind that each state has its own laws that govern child custody, visitation, and parental rights. Be sure to speak to a local family law attorney to get legal advice about your case.

What Is a Termination of Parental Rights?

A termination of parental rights (sometimes shortened to “TPR”) ends the legal parent-child relationship. The parent gives up any legal recognition of, connection to, or responsibility for the child. This means that the parent will no longer have the right to see the child or make decisions about the child. Obligations toward the child, such as child support, also end. Legally, it’s as if the parent never had a child.

How Does a Voluntary Termination of Parental Rights Work?

A voluntary termination of parental rights – also called a voluntary relinquishment – is not allowed for just any reason. For example, a parent cannot ask a court to terminate their parental rights simply because they no longer want to pay child support. However, because a child can only have one legal set of parents at a time, voluntary termination is quite common in adoption proceedings. Either or both parents can choose to terminate their rights.

The procedures for voluntary relinquishment vary widely from state to state. Some states allow the birth parent to file a petition for termination of parental rights; others do not. Because these procedural rules can be complicated, you should discuss any concerns with a family law attorney.

Despite the differences, in nearly every state, two things are generally true. First, you will have to attend a court hearing. Second, it is difficult to terminate a biological parent’s parental rights. So your rights will only be terminated if the court finds that you are consenting freely, that you have a good reason for terminating, and that terminating your parental rights will be in the best interests of the child.

Voluntary Termination of One Parent’s Rights

If one birth parent wants to keep parenting their child but the other doesn’t, they may agree that the less involved parent will terminate their parental rights. For example, say Olivia and Bill have a baby but then have a bad break up. Olivia wants to raise the child, but Bill doesn’t. He refuses to be involved in the child’s life or pay child support.

Five years later, Olivia marries a new partner who wants to adopt the child. Because Bill has not been actively involved in the child’s life and Olivia’s new partner wants to be, the court would likely find that allowing Bill to terminate his parental rights to allow the stepparent adoption would be in the child’s best interests.

Voluntary Termination of Both Parents’ Rights

If neither parent is able to care for a child, they may choose adoption. Though adoption laws vary by state and options vary by agency, usually, the exact terms of an adoption can be customized to meet the needs of the birth parents, the child, and the child’s adoptive parents.

There are three main types of adoptions in these cases:

  • Closed adoptions, where the birth parents are generally unknown and unconnected to the child once the child has been placed with their family.
  • Semi-open adoptions, where the birth parents may have some specific type of limited contact that’s often facilitated by a third party, like the adoption agency.
  • Open adoptions, where the birth parents stay in touch with the child and the child’s family even after the adoption.

How Does an Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights Work?

An involuntary termination of parental rights can be difficult for parents and children alike. Involuntary terminations happen when the state deems a parent unfit to care for their children.

Involuntary terminations usually begin with a report to the local child welfare or child protective services agency. Sometimes, these accounts come from mandated reporters. A mandated reporter is someone, such as a schoolteacher or doctor, who is legally required to report suspected child abuse or neglect.

Usually, a report triggers an investigation by the child welfare agency. The investigation may include home visits, a review of the child’s medical records, and interviews with you, your children, and other people you know.

At the end of the investigation, the agency will present its findings to the court. (Usually, involuntary terminations are handled by juvenile court or family court judges.) Some of the findings that could lead to involuntary termination include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Severe or chronic neglect
  • Abandonment
  • Persistent substance use issues
  • Long-term mental health issues

A mere allegation by the agency won’t be enough to terminate your rights. They’ll have to present the court with strong, solid evidence. If the court finds against you, your children will likely be placed with a family member or in the foster care system. But in most cases, you won’t automatically lose your parental rights.

Once the children are in foster care, you will be given help. For instance, people with substance use issues may be allowed to go to rehab. You may be offered parenting classes and other resources. You’ll have supervised visits with your children. The court does all of this as part of a reunification plan. The agency must make reasonable efforts to reunite you with your child. If you work very hard to address the issues pointed out by the agency in the reunification plan, your children will probably be returned to you. But if you don’t successfully complete their requirements in a timely way, your parental rights may be terminated.

What To Do if Your Parental Rights Are Being Terminated

Whether your parental rights are voluntarily relinquished or involuntarily terminated, you should understand the legal options and protections available to you. Whichever situation applies to you, it’s likely in your best interest to work with a lawyer who has experience in parental rights cases. Use the LawInfo directory to find a family law attorney near you.

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