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How to Terminate Parental Rights

How parental rights can be terminated voluntarily or involuntarily.

Can a parent terminate their parental rights?

Most parents have had the experience of tossing their hands in the air in frustration and feeling like they no longer want to be a parent. The feeling is usually short-lived because it typically results from a long day of stress, exhaustion, and frustration. Once the feeling passes, parents are right back into the mix of fun and complicated moments.

For some parents, however, ceasing to be a child's legal parent is voluntary and completely unrelated to the everyday frustrations of parenthood. While it seems flippant and negative at face value, the choice to terminate parental rights is often made to allow a child to be adopted by someone else to ensure they have access to better opportunities. It is challenging to think about voluntarily giving up your parental rights, as doing so means you forfeit your custody and visitation rights.

Termination of parental rights means the parent is no longer responsible for caring for or providing for the child. These responsibilities include caring for the child's physical, financial, and emotional well-being. The parent usually can only have contact with the child once they are 18 years old, but there are exceptions if the child is in the care of someone who permits them to communicate.

Parental rights can be taken away voluntarily or involuntarily, and each state has guidelines that outline the circumstances in which a court can terminate a parent's rights to their child. In either case, most state laws require that the courts determine whether a parent is unfit and whether ending the parent-child relationship is in the child's best interests.

While the laws differ by state, the courts take any case involving voluntary or involuntary parental rights termination seriously. If a parent no longer feels like providing care and financial support for their child and requests to terminate their rights, they are not guaranteed to have that request granted by the court. The same goes for parents who wish to keep their child's other parent out of their lives entirely. The courts do what they can to prioritize a child's right to a relationship with both parents, especially since that right includes receiving financial, physical, and emotional care.


Can parental rights be involuntarily terminated?

In cases where parental rights are involuntarily terminated, a court must decide whether a parent exhibits presently or potentially dangerous behaviors that endanger the child. Even if a parent wishes to care for their child, their rights may be terminated based on various factors that contribute to their being unfit to provide care.

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, some of the most common issues that contribute to a parent being determined as unfit include:

  • Severe or chronic abuse or neglect
  • Sexual abuse
  • Abuse or neglect of other children in the household
  • Abandonment or extreme parental disinterest
  • Long-term mental illness
  • Long-term alcohol or drug abuse
  • Involuntary termination of parental rights to another child
  • A felony conviction for a violent crime

Conversely, the state a child lives in may file to terminate rights for one or both parents if it identifies grounds for a parent to lose their parental rights. In most cases, a state will file for termination if the parent involved has failed to mend a situation that involved social services or child protective services. For example, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) provides a way for states to terminate a parent's rights if their child spends 15 of the previous 22 months in foster care. Assuming the case related to a failed reunification of the child with their parent is not contested by the parent involved, it will typically progress and result in termination.

In some cases, it is possible to regain parental rights after an involuntary termination if a parent meets specific criteria that indicates a remediation of the situation. One of these criteria is that the parent proves that they have made substantial progress in correcting the conditions that led to the termination of parental rights. For example, a parent whose rights were involuntarily terminated due to substance abuse could complete a treatment program and work with a counselor or therapist. These concerted efforts are often amplified by being accompanied by a parent following applicable court orders, complying with child custody evaluations, and working with a legal professional to understand the process and prepare evidence.


Why would a parent voluntarily terminate their parental rights?

The most common reason a parent voluntarily relinquishes their parental rights and responsibilities is because someone else is adopting their child, whether it's another family member or an adoptive family. In shared parenting situations, a co-parent may terminate their rights if their ex remarries and their new spouse wants to adopt their stepchild instead of seeking guardianship. The child's other parent must willingly consent to the adoption and, therefore, terminate their own parental rights.

Termination of parental rights is a complex legal process with enormous consequences for the parent and child involved in a case, and it's rarely a decision that's made lightly. If you plan to relinquish your parental rights or request that your co-parent's rights be terminated, it's critical to have a comprehensive understanding of the process and each step's requirements. Working with a local family law attorney is an excellent tool to develop a plan that works best for your case. For those concerned about how much an attorney costs, some low-cost and free options may apply to your case.

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