U.S. courts can, in extreme cases, sever a parent’s relationship to a child. No judge wants to, but sometimes it’s necessary. Legally speaking, this means the parent is no longer under any obligation to raise, protect, or provide for the child. Thus, no more child support, and no more visits.
It also means the parent has no right to see or visit the child, ever again. This is not the first choice of any judge – far better to order an arrangement that will allow for structured visits. No court wants to do this if it doesn’t have to.
If the situation is bad enough, however, courts can and do terminate the parental rights of fathers and mothers. It’s not done as punishment to the parents, but to protect the best interests of the child. That, and only that, is the court’s real priority.
Should I Be Concerned?
If you’re worried about the termination of your parental rights, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is simple – this sort of court order is saved for cases of severe neglect, drug abuse, or a severe mental illness. If this isn’t true in your case, breathe easy. You might have to fight for a better custody arrangement, but not for the right to remain a parent.
The bad news? If you are in danger of having your parental rights terminated, you’re going to need to do a whole lot to convince a judge you’ve changed. You’ll have to do this to a judge that has, in all likelihood, heard this story before, day after day, from people who never change.
It means you have a lot of work to do.
Are My Parental Rights in Danger?
As we said, terminating someone’s parental rights is a last resort for the courts. Taking away these rights without very good reason is a violation of the Constitution itself. Judges take these cases very, very seriously.
There are 7 general situations in which a court will terminate parental rights.
1. Extreme and Repeated Abuse and Neglect
This category covers everything from severe beatings to criminal inattention. If a parent has refused to feed or bathe a child, physically beats family members when drunk, or leaves children unsupervised and unfed for hours or days at a time, he or she is in danger of losing parental rights.
2. Where Other Children are Abused and Neglected
If one child in the home has been cared for, but other children in the home have been subjected to the kinds of abuse mentioned above, the court has grounds to terminate the parental rights for the first child. The reasoning is clear – if a caregiver can neglect other children in this way, surely he or she will eventually neglect the first child.
3. Sexual Abuse
This one needs little explanation. Sexual exploitation of a child is instant grounds for termination of parental rights, as well as immediate criminal charges and arrest.
4. Drug or Alcohol Abuse
If a parent has a long-standing pattern of substance abuse, and that abuse hasn’t been addressed in any meaningful way, the court has grounds for termination of parental rights.
If you’re in rehab, though, don’t panic. This category is meant to protect children from parents who show no interest in changing. If the court sees that you’ve worked hard to manage your addiction, it’s much more likely you’ll keep your parental rights intact.
5. Severe Mental Illness
This category covers everything from schizophrenia to severe PTSD. It’s one of the hardest categories to handle, for two good reasons: one, it’s rare that the mental illness is the parent’s fault, and two, admitting that you have a mental illness, and need help, is extremely difficult.
Mental illness still carries a stigma with it, as if its victims are somehow themselves at fault. Parents who feel shame because of their illness are far more likely to hide it if they feel they’ll lose their children. It’s absolutely crucial to find help early, and often, if you think you’re in this category.
Many of these parents were once abused themselves, and have trouble managing what we would call ‘flashbacks,’ or moments when they feel they’re in danger, when in fact they’re safe at home. Help is everywhere, and these symptoms can be managed. You just need the courage to ask.
This overlaps heavily with severe neglect. In the most extreme cases, ‘abandonment’ means just that – the parent simply gets up and leaves, and the child has no caregiver.
In the most common cases, abandonment constitutes a long pattern of refusing to feed, clothe, bathe, and educate a child properly. The parent might be physically present, but it’s as if the child doesn’t exist.
Some courts contain another category here. If a parent is no longer living with the child due to divorce, but otherwise paying child support and keeping in touch. If that parent cuts off all contact with the child, the courts have grounds for termination of parental rights.
Realize, too, that no judge in the entire country is going to accept the following argument: ‘well, Your Honor, my kid wasn’t writing me either.’ That’s not how it works. As a divorced parent, you are always and totally responsible for maintaining communication. This is true even if your letters remain unanswered, or even unopened. You have to keep your end of communication open, no matter what happens on the other end.
This category, naturally, is the easiest one to accept. Giving up a child for adoption can be a wonderful gift for a family that can’t have kids of its own. Adoption terminates the parental rights of the biological parent, but it’s not uncommon for the biological parent to keep communication open with the adoptive parents.
How do I Fight a Termination of Parental Rights?
If your parental rights are about to be severed because of severe neglect or physical or sexual abuse, there’s nothing you can do, nor should you.
If your rights are about to be severed because of addiction, mental illness, or select cases of abandonment, there are steps you can take to preserve those rights. All of them will involve one of two main actions.
Fighting Termination: Two Things to Remember
The first? Stay engaged with the courts.
Alert a lawyer, go to court, and plead with a judge, even if you don’t know exactly what to do. Simply standing before an authority figure will work in your favor. Judges need to see that you’re trying.
The second? Do something – anything – to demonstrate your commitment to change. Enroll in rehab, see a doctor, or visit a psychiatrist. Any evidence that you’re willing to work will help you.
How Do I Save My Parental Rights?
Every step in this list falls under one of our two general categories – stay engaged and do anything to demonstrate your readiness to change.
1. Read and Understand the Claim
If someone has asked for your parental rights to be terminated, you’ll receive notice in the mail. Don’t panic – this doesn’t mean the decision is made, but only that it will be discussed in court. Read through the papers, and understand every single claim made within them. You don’t want to be surprised by a claim in court when you could have prepared for it by reading carefully.
2. Respond within 20 Days
You’ll need to fill out a form that explains to the judge exactly which parts of the claim you think are true, and which parts are false. You’ll have the space to explain, in writing, your side of the story.
If you can’t send it in within 20 days, let the judge or your lawyer know as soon as possible.
3. Make Sure Everyone Gets Your Response
After you’ve written out your answers to the claims against you, you’ll need to make sure the court gets a copy. You’ll also need to make sure the person making the claims against you gets a copy, whether it’s a concerned relative, ex-spouse, or what have you. Whoever is asking for your parental rights to be terminated needs to receive a copy of your response.
You can mail or scan your documents to the court, but the oldest way is still the most fool-proof – take the documents to the court in person. Only then can you be sure the court has received them. Filing these papers usually costs over $200, but you can ask for the fee to be waived.
The court is not responsible for ensuring that your response gets to the ex or relative making the claims against you. That is entirely your responsibility.
Many states require you to verify to the court that you sent a copy of your response to everyone involved. You’ll have to fill out some paperwork that explains how you sent your response.
4. Go to Court
This one is simple – go to court on time, answer questions when asked, and do not ever lose your temper or composure. The judge doesn’t care about your relationship to your ex or your relatives, but only your child. If you can demonstrate that you’re on track to get healthy and stay in treatment, your odds are much better.
In short…read the claim, answer the claim, mail the answer to the court, mail the answer to the spouse or relative, and then go to court.
Remember: the Earlier You Fight, the Easier Your Fight
The more time you have to show a judge that you’ve changed, and that you can handle parenthood responsibly, the greater the chance that a judge will protect your parental rights. This is not an issue that survives procrastination.
Fight early, fight often, and keep your commitments, and you likely won’t have to suffer through the termination of your parental rights.