Grounds for Terminating Parental Rights

Termination of parental rights may be voluntary or involuntary, given the circumstances of each case. Both situations will require court approval. This article will discuss the grounds for terminating the rights of a parent.

The phrase "termination of parental rights" may be the most frightening words a parent can hear in court. Fear of losing a child to "the system" can motivate a parent to improve their situation for the child's well-being. For some parents, the termination of parental rights brings relief, as the parent knows that they cannot provide financial support for the child.

Process for Terminating Parental Rights

The parental rights termination procedure is perhaps one of the strongest and most drastic legal mechanisms available to protect children in need. Court jurisdiction for a termination action may vary from state to state. Depending on the circumstances, these actions may be filed in the family court, the probate court, or the juvenile court. In many cases, a termination proceeding is a necessary precursor to the adoption of the child. A termination finding ends the parent-child relationship. In some states, a parent can file for reinstatement of parental rights after termination or consenting to adoption.

The exact grounds for terminating parental rights vary from state to state. Certain federal statutes and cases may inform the procedures related to the court process. The following list summarizes the major grounds for terminating a parent's rights to their child.

Common Grounds for an Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights

Factors for determining whether a child is abused or neglected, which may support an involuntary termination of parental rights, include:

Child Abuse Factors

  • Severe or chronic physical abuse of the child
  • Any sexual abuse of the child
  • Severe psychological abuse or torture of the child
  • Extreme emotional damage to the child inflicted by a parent
  • Child neglect by failing to provide shelter, food, or other needed care as is required by parental obligations
  • Abuse or neglect of other children in the same household
  • Abandonment of the child or extreme parental disinterest
  • Felony conviction of the parent for a violent crime against the child or another family member
  • A finding that the child would be at risk of harm if returned to the parent's home

Parental Factors

  • Long-term mental illness of the parent
  • Long-term alcohol or drug-induced incapacity of the parent
  • Failure to support the child
  • Failure to maintain contact with the child
  • Failure to provide education
  • A felony conviction of the parent when the term of imprisonment is long enough to negatively impact the child, and the only other source of care for the child is foster care
  • Failure of the parent to comply with a court-ordered plan
  • Inducing the child to commit a crime or crimes
  • The identity or location of the parent is unknown after a reasonable attempt to determine or find them
  • The putative or presumptive father is not the child's biological father
  • Giving birth to one or more drug-affected infants
  • Other egregious conduct or heinous or abhorrent behavior by the parent either to the child or others in a way that affects the child
  • Voluntary relinquishment of rights by the parent
  • Failure of reasonable efforts to rehabilitate the parent and reunite the family

Additional Factors

  • The child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months (the 15/22 rule), and the parent is still not ready for reunification
  • Risk of substantial harm to the child
  • The child's need for continuity and care
  • The child was conceived as a result of rape or incest
  • A newborn child is addicted to alcohol or drugs
  • The child has developed a strong and healthy relationship with their foster or other substitute family
  • The preference of the child when the child is able to reasonably articulate a preference

What Is the 15/22 Rule and How Does It Apply?

The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), passed in 1997, sought to move more children out of foster care and into permanent homes. It requires the State to pursue termination of parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the last 22 months. There are exceptions to the rule. If the child is residing in foster care with a biological relative, then foster care placement may continue for a longer period. If the state agency can demonstrate a compelling reason why termination of the parent's rights is not in the best interest of the child, then it may delay action. Finally, if the State has not provided the necessary reunification services to the case, the termination action can also be delayed.

The ASFA also requires the State to file for termination of parental rights when a court has found that an infant child has been abandoned, or a parent committed or complicit in acts that caused serious physical harm or death to another child.

How Does a Termination of Parental Rights Action Go Forward in Court?

In most cases, the State has the authority to bring an action to end a parent's parental rights. Most often these cases proceed after child protective services have undertaken efforts to address issues of abuse or neglect by one or both of the child's parents. When parents do not progress in reunification plans, the child protective services agency may seek to have the child in foster care placement. Foster care parents may often be adult relatives of the child who may gain temporary custody of the child.

When a parent continues to fail to meet goals of reunification and the child's time in foster care nears the ASFA standard, the agency may begin the process of a termination case. The agency's goal in bringing the action may be to obtain legal custody in the name of the agency or an adoptive parent.

If a contested case goes forward in court, the agency must demonstrate that the evidence for termination is clear and convincing and in the best interest of the child. In some states, the law might also require or permit the court to take an older child's wishes into account.

When Does a Voluntary Termination of Parental Rights Occur?

Voluntary termination of parental rights is common in an adoption proceeding. For example, a child's father has struggled with addiction and unemployment for years. He and the child's mother were never married and separated shortly after the child's birth. The father's name is on the child's birth certificate. He is the child's biological father. Although on record the child has two birth parents, the father has had no regular contact with the child. He has always been the non-custodial parent.

In such a situation, the child's mother may have never sought child support from the father. After a period of time, she marries and her husband seeks to complete a stepparent adoption. The mother and her husband reach out to the child's father and request that he voluntarily agree to the termination of his rights. If the child's father consents, the stepparent adoption will proceed based on the voluntary relinquishment of rights by the father.

To complete the stepparent adoption, the court must have either grounds to terminate the father's rights or a voluntary relinquishment of those rights by the father. Whether the proceeding is contested or not, the court must base its decision on clear and convincing evidence. The court must also find the adoption is in the best interest of the child.

Learn More About the Grounds for Terminating Parental Rights: Talk to a Lawyer

For general information about the termination of parental rights, you may want to visit the website for the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Whether a parent has engaged in abuse or neglect or is considering a voluntary relinquishment of rights, the issues involved are serious and have long-lasting consequences. A parent facing such issues can seek legal help. Find a qualified, local family law attorney to help guide you through the laws and protect your rights.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Parental liability laws are different in every state
  • Liability cases are complex and a skilled attorney is essential
  • Establishing or terminating parental rights will involve a court process

An attorney can help protect your rights after your child’s negligent or criminal acts. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

If you are in the midst of a parental rights or liability case, it may be an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and make sure your children are provided for. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

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