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Termination of Parental Rights

I was in the grocery store yesterday…buying groceries. A clerk came up behind me and called my name.

“Can I ask you something?” she said.

I knew from the expression on her face that she didn’t want to know what shade of hair color I used. I nodded.

“I have a problem with the courts and someone told me you know a lot about courts,” she said.

“No,” I told her. “I have had limited experience with criminal court (when my son was killed) and fairly frequent court contact with our foster children, but family court is different than criminal court.”

Turns out, family court is what she meant. Her husband, who is a resident alien, has a child with his ex-wife, who is in the country illegally. The court has ordered the mother to travel half way to the father regularly for visitation. She refuses. There are over ten police reports of her refusal. Still, the court does nothing. Why?

In this case, I don’t know. It seems clear cut enough to me…send the illegal home, leave the American child here in the custody of his father.


How do we know why Dad isn’t the custodial parent?

Why does the court allow the illegal to remain in this country when they have to have discovered her lack of citizenship during the proceedings?

Is Mom unable to bring the child to her ex-husband?

I don’t know the answers. I do know that terminating parental rights is a difficult thing to do, and takes a lot of time. The reasons for taking away a parent’s rights are explicit.

First, a child may be chronically abused or neglected. The key word here is chronic. How often, how long is that? CHRONIC is not spelled out in the law, so judges, who really want to support families, usually err on the side of the parent. Will Mom straighten out her life after THIS incarceration? Will she start attending parenting classes after she gets her daughters back THIS TIME? Sadly, the usual answer is no. But you have to give her every chance…every reasonable chance…to get it right.

Another reason for TPR (termination of parental rights) is the abuse of OTHER children in the home.

And abandonment is a cause for TPR. But again, what constitutes abandonment? Did Mom leave junior at day care for three days because she was too sick to pick him up? Did she leave him because she had no money for food and thought he could stay there until she scored a few bucks? Or did she take off for a weekend of drugging and sex and “forget” about her child?

Long-term mental illness or deficiency (retardation?) of the parent is another standard. Anyone who saw the movie “I Am Sam” will understand the complexity of this one. How impaired is the parent? Is there anyone else in the child’s life who could assist the parent in caring for the child? Judges walk a tightrope here. Can a child be taken from blind/deaf parents? Should he be taken? What about a Little Person with a giant of a rebellious son?

Long-term drug or alcohol use can be cause for TPR, IF it impedes the parent from caring for the child. How many chances are these parents given to get it right? Usually, they refuse to go to treatment until they are on the verge of losing the child, then have a sudden change of heart. AND, treatment may not (translate: SELDOM) “take’’ the first time. It may involve successive stints at rehab centers and halfway houses. The sad part of this standard is that children who learn to accept addiction as normal end up learning the behavior and, later, repeating it.

And people under the influence of drugs or alcohol addiction (even when they’re dry) often can’t make good choices. Our adopted daughter’s bio mother was given a choice: move your addicted boyfriend OUT and rid your home of all alcohol and/or drugs OR lose your daughter. Her answer, after a long pause, was, “You can’t tell us what to do.”

Parental rights can be terminated if the parent doesn’t maintain contact with the child, or if he or she doesn’t support the child. This one is a no-brainer. But deadbeat dads can claim that they didn’t know where their children were ( they may not have) or that they were not given access to their children so they didn’t pay ( which is not a legal excuse not to pay child support, but IS one which may cause a judge to give Dad a second…or third or sixth chance.)

And, if a parent loses rights to one child, the state may look at possible TPR on the others, too. But again, this isn’t spelled out in the law and is subjective.


If a parent is convicted of felony child abuse or violence against other children in the home, he may lose custody. OR if the jail or prison time for a felony conviction is so long that it will be harmful to the child, there may be a TPR.

And, most states stipulate a time frame that a child usually may remain in state custody before the parent risks losing rights. In many states, that standard is 15 out of 22 months. A shorter time is usually used for small children. So if Mom or Dad won’t “get it together” in that amount of time, they may lose their rights.

The key is that, although the standards for TPR are explicit, the exercise of these standards by judges, or sometimes by child services workers, is subjective. A parent who has learned to put on a good front may bamboozle a judge into giving more time for meeting goals. The time frames for court procedures (foster care reviews, etc.)  is spelled out, but what is done at those reviews is not

To be honest, most of the time when we have been involved in a permanency hearing, the parents’ lawyers ask for continuances because they are not ready, have not had sufficient time to secure all needed documents, or haven’t had “discovery” of some document (DSS hasn’t gotten a report to them in a timely manner so they can study it.) Unless this has happened multiple times, the judge is apt to grant it. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve taken older kids out of school to attend these (a full day’s absence) and the total time spent on the case in court is five minutes.

In short, TPR is a difficult thing to get. Parents have rights and they have lawyers…as they should have. Sometimes TPR’s are reversible. We’re dealing with people here, especially vulnerable people: kids. The bottom line is what’s best for them. So when the caseworker starts talking about TPR in your foster child’s case, don’t get excited too soon. Wait for the other shoe to drop.