Termination of parental rights
A termination of parental rights petition is brought to permanently end the legal rights of the natural parents of a child, thereby "freeing" the child for adoption.
A foster parent or an authorized foster care or social services agency that is responsible for the child can bring a termination petition.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires the filing of a termination petition if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months, unless there is a compelling reason why adoption would not be in the best interests of the child, such as the following:
If the child is being cared for by relatives and it is determined that termination is not in the child's best interest
If the parent is assessed and is making progress and there is a strong likelihood that the child could return home in another 6 months
If the social services agency has failed to provide the parent with the necessary services to allow for the child's safe return to the home
Once the petition is filed, both the summons and petition must be served upon the respondent parent. In most cases, both parents must be served.
If the parents have been served properly, parental rights can be terminated even if the respondent parent does not attend the hearings.
If the respondent parent cannot afford an attorney, the court must appoint one.
The following people are usually present at the fact-finding hearing:
The petitioner's attorney
A social services caseworker
The Attorney for the Child(law guardian)
The respondent parent
The respondent parent's attorney
The judge must determine at the fact-finding hearing if the respondent parent:
Permanently neglected the child for at least 12 months by failing to maintain contact with the child and plan for the future of the child
Legally abandoned the child for at least 6 months
Severely or repeatedly abused the child
Has a mental illness that prevents the parent from caring for the child
If the judge determines that none of these grounds for termination of parental rights exists the petition is dismissed, and the child may remain in foster care. If, however, the judge determines that one of them has been sufficiently proven, a dispositional hearing is scheduled.
In addition, at the end of the fact-finding hearing, the judge may order an investigation into the surroundings, conditions, and capacities of the individuals involved in the case and request that a report be prepared on the findings. Such an investigation and report help clarify what is in the best interests of the child and prepare the judge for the dispositional hearing.
At the dispositional hearing, the judge issues a dispositional order based on the best interests of the child. In evaluating what is in the best interests of the child, the judge may consider the child's own wishes if the child is over 14 years of age.
The judge may order:
Dismissal of the petition
Suspension of the judgment for up to 1 year
Permanent termination of parents rights, thereby freeing the child for adoption and committing guardianship and custody over the child to an authorized social services agency
If parental rights are terminated, a permanency hearing must be held within 60 days to plan for the child's future.