Termination of Parental Rights: Voluntary & Involuntary

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

When parents make poor choices, their parental rights might be called into question. This lesson will discuss parental rights and the termination of those rights on both a voluntary and involuntary basis.

A Child Is Born

Imagine that you're expecting, and elated! Nine months later a beautiful, healthy baby boy is handed to you in the delivery room. You and your husband are beyond joyful and everything is perfect. The baby boy grows up happy, and eventually becomes a productive and successful adult. This is the picture everyone has in mind when we imagine having children, but things don't always turn out this way.

Now imagine this. You are 14 years old and find yourself pregnant. Your mother is an overworked single parent and your dad left when you were three years old. You're afraid to tell anyone. By the time you finally tell your mother, the only option is to put the child up for adoption. You are unable to emotionally or financially care for the child on your own. You decide to voluntarily terminate your parental rights by putting the child up for adoption.

Parental Rights and Responsibilities

As seen in the scenarios provided above, pregnancy and childbirth can be very different and personalized experiences based upon the circumstances that surround it. Once a child is brought into this world parents are given certain legal parental rights and responsibilities. These parental rights include:

  • Custodial rights, or the right to have your child live with you
  • The right to see and visit with your child
  • The right to make educational choices for your child
  • The right to make religious choices for your child
  • The right to make medical decisions for your child
  • The right to enter into contractual agreements for your child
  • The right to name your child as a beneficiary to your assets

Along with these parental rights also come parental legal responsibilities. These include:

  • Making sure children have housing, food, clothes, and other basic necessities
  • Providing your child with education
  • Ensuring your child has access to proper medical care and treatment

Both parental rights and responsibilities usually end when the child is legally considered an adult. In the United States this is recognized at the age of 18, or upon graduation from high school. In cases where a child is unable to function on his or her own, however, parental rights and responsibilities may be extended.

Termination of Parental Rights

When parents don't comply with their legal responsibilities towards their child or children, or when they want to voluntary relinquish their parental rights, parental rights can be terminated. Termination of parental rights in most cases, is a permanent decision made by the courts. Once parental rights are terminated, they are extremely difficult to reinstate.

Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights

At times the courts decide to involuntarily terminate parental rights when the circumstances deem necessary and a child's best interests require them to do so. The following are some common reasons why the courts could involuntarily terminate parental rights:

  • Ongoing child abuse - sexual, physical or mental
  • Child abandonment - leaving the child and neglecting to stay in contact with them
  • Ongoing parental substance abuse - alcohol or drugs
  • Neglecting a child's basic needs
  • Violent felony conviction related to a domestic matter
  • Involving a child in committing a crime

Two basic evidence standards are usually required to be met prior to courts terminating parental rights and these include:

  • Showing that the parent is unfit or unable to care for the child
  • Showing that termination of rights is best for the child's development

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