Can My Parental Rights be Terminated?
The parent-child relationship is more than just the basic rights and responsibilities a court allows. The relationship you share with your child is a cherished and a significant part of your lives and is strongly protected by the State. However, while this relationship is often very important, in certain circumstances, the Court can terminate or strip a parent of their parental rights.
Who Can Ask For Parental Rights to be Terminated?
The most common way this happens is when the Department of Children and Families (referred to often as DCF which used to be the Department of Social Services of DSS) removes children from their home because of emergent unsafe circumstances for the children. The other way a termination or removal of parental rights happens is when it is voluntary, such as for an adoption.
We receive inquiries whether one parent can ask a Family Court Judge to terminate the other parent’s parental rights – usually when one parent is getting remarried and wants their new spouse to be able to adopt the child, when the other parent has abandoned the child, when the other parent has stopped financially supporting the child, as well as many other reasons. There is a very high burden to prove why the other parent’s rights should be terminated that can be very hard to overcome and, generally, the Family Court will not allow it. We have seen cases where one parent agreed to give up their parental rights but the Judge refused to approve the agreement in Family Court.
There are some situations though where the termination of a parent’s rights are warranted even when DCF is not involved. These are cases where there are situations that may involve abuse, neglect, abandonment, conviction of a felony involving the child or a family member, sexual abuse, alcohol or drug-induced incapacity, or mental illness.
Before terminating a parent’s rights, the Court will usually try to see if there is anyway for the parent-child relationship to continue while keeping the child safe. We defended a case where the custodial parent wanted a termination of our client’s parental rights, alleging he was a drug addict. We were able to get him set up with a parenting plan that proved he was working toward sobriety and that the child was safe with him. We had another case where we represented grandparents who wanted to adopt their grandchild over the mother’s objection. The parent’s rights in that case were eventually terminated because the parents had basically abandoned the child for years and were not able to show they were fit to take custody of the child.
If you are in a situation where you are seeking to have the other parent’s rights terminated or you are the parent who is at risk of losing your parental rights, you should immediately contact an experienced family law attorney.
Why Would DCF Get Involved In My Life?
DCF can get involved if anyone reports suspected child abuse or neglect. Unfortunately, reports can be made even if there is not actual abuse or neglect, but merely someone being suspicious about it. We have also defended cases where one parent makes a report to DCF about the other parent solely to try to get an upper hand in a custody case.
A call made to DCF about potential neglect can include a range of concerns ranging from the suspicion of a parent’s alcohol or drug use to the child not being clothed or fed properly. When DCF is called, the initial report is called a “51A Report.” Certain professions are mandated reporters and must file a 51A with DCF if there is any suspicion of abuse or neglect, such as therapists, doctors, teachers, social workers, and daycare workers. The person making the call is almost always kept anonymous, although you can usually figure out who made the call from reading the report. Once a 51A is filed, it could be screened out immediately and you may never even know one was called in or it can be investigated before either being screened out and unsupported or found to be true and supported. This type of situation often creates a feeling of conflict between the parents and DCF.
A parent can also ask DCF to get involved in their lives because they are facing family problems that they need help with. Oftentimes, it’s easier for a parent to obtain the resources necessary for them to get help through DCF. The DCF Social Workers always appreciate when a person is taking steps to make themselves and their family’s lives better. A parent can also petition the Juvenile Court to help with their child if their child is extremely disobedient and the parent needs help controlling the child. This is done through a petition to the Court called “Children Requiring Assistance” or a “CRA” for short. This court action used to be called a “Child in Need of Services” or a “CHINS.” The goal with this type of action is to help the child and the family get back on the right track as quickly as possible and generally involves the parents and DCF being on the same team.
What If DCF Took My Kids Away From Me?
DCF can take your children away from you only after obtaining permission from a Judge to do so, but DCF is not required to notify you that they are taking your kids beforehand. If a 51A is screened in that is serious enough that the Judge feels the children are in an emergent unsafe situation, DCF and a police officer will show up at your house and take your children. Sometimes you may know about it if you’ve been involved with DCF and they’ve told you there is a chance of them taking your kids if you do not follow the safety plan they have set for you.
If your children are being taken away from you, you can ask to see the order from the Court allowing the removal. In this type of situation, it’s best not to fight it at that moment – that just compounds what is likely an already traumatic experience for your kids. If you have money available to hire a private attorney, you should find one who is experienced with the process of “Care and Protection” (otherwise called “C and P’s”). Your best chance to get your children back is at your first court appearance called a “72-Hour Hearing.” (It’s called that because it is supposed to take place within 72 hours of your children being taken from you.)
The 72-hour hearing is your only chance to get your kids back right away. You will have the opportunity to present any evidence showing that the child is not in danger and to cross-examine any witnesses that DCF may have trying to show why your children are in danger if you elect a hearing on the matter. Often, you are asked to waive your right to a hearing. Outside of just proving that your children are not safe in your care, DCF must also prove during that 72-hour hearing that they made reasonable efforts to prevent or eliminate the need to remove the child both at the emergency hearing and at the 72-hour hearing (there are a few exceptions to this requirement though). Because of this, we generally do not recommend that you ever waive your right to that hearing. If you waive your right, you almost never get to reverse your decision.
If you do not get your children back at the 72-hour hearing, you may have a very long road ahead of you to get your kids back and you will have to jump through many hoops in order to prove that you should have your kids back.
If you are eligible, you will be appointed a state-funded attorney at the 72-hour hearing to represent you. However, preparation is key for the 72-hour and the downside with a state-appointed attorney is that you will not know who your attorney will be until you go to court for the actual hearing. The best thing to do when your children are taken away from you by DCF and you believe your children are not in danger or DCF did not give you the opportunity to avoid the removal is to hire a private attorney familiar with the “C and P” process. Because this type of litigation can be very time consuming, the downside of hiring a private attorney is that it is usually going to require you to come up with anywhere between a $10,000 and $20,000 retainer, and the total cost of the case if you do not get your kids back at the 72-hour hearing can extend well beyond that initial retainer amount.
Contact an Attorney Today
Whenever a parent’s rights are being requested to be terminated, it can be stressful and frustrating for everyone involved. The attorneys at O’Connor Family Law have experience and extensive knowledge on parental rights and custody agreements and can be there for you every step of the way. Whether you want legal advice at the beginning of a petition or a compassionate attorney to represent you in court, our attorneys can be there for you. By having an attorney from O’Connor Family Law by your side through litigation involving a request for the termination of parent rights, you can have the confidence you need in your case to be able to make informed decisions to get you the best outcome possible.