When are parental rights involuntarily terminated?

Recently on our legal forum a parent asked, “I have been in trouble with the law and my ex-spouse is threatening to have my parental rights terminated. I am wondering if she has this power or is this an idle threat? When does the courts decide to involuntarily terminate parental rights?”

Overview of parental rights

Every state has established statutes which provide the legal means for the state to voluntarily and involuntarily terminate the parental rights of a parent. If you and the mother of your child decide to voluntarily relinquish your parental rights the child would be placed for adoption. Involuntarily termination, however, is also possible if the court determines you and the mother of the child are unfit parents or if the court decides terminating the parental relationship is in the best interest of the child.

Reasons involuntary termination is allowed

You asked what reasons there might for the state to terminate your parental rights. The list below includes the reasons parental rights can be involuntarily terminated in Alabama. State laws differ, and you would need to review the laws in your state, but most states have similar reasons for termination.

  • Abandoning the child
  • Having an emotional illness, mental illness, or mental deficiency and lacking the ability to care for the child
  • Excessively using alcohol or controlled substances and lacking the ability to to care for the child
  • Torturing, abusing, cruelly beating, or otherwise mistreating the child, or attempting to torture, abuse, cruelly beat, or otherwise maltreat the child, or the child is in clear and present danger of being thus tortured, abused, cruelly beaten, or otherwise maltreated as evidenced by the treatment of a sibling
  • Conviction and long-term imprisonment for a felony
  • Committing murder or manslaughter of another child of that parent
  • Aiding, abetting, attempting, conspiring, or soliciting to commit murder or manslaughter of another child of that parent
  • Committing a felony assault or abuse that results in serious bodily injury to the surviving child or another child of that parent
  • Unexplained serious physical injury to the child which proved to be the result of the intentional conduct or willful neglect by the parent
  • Reasonable efforts to rehabilitate the parent have failed
  • Parental rights to a sibling of the child have been involuntarily terminated
  • Failing to provide for the material needs of the child or to pay a reasonable portion of support of the child when able
  • Failing to maintain regular visits with the child in accordance with a visitation plan
  • Failing to maintain consistent contact or communication with the child

(Alabama Circumstances That Are Grounds for Termination of Parental Rights Ala. Code § 12-15-319)

Additional reasons parental rights can be terminated include the parent committing certain criminal offenses. Although this is not the case in every state, currently 24 states, including Puerto Rico, allow for the termination of parental rights if the parent has been convicted of committing sexual abuse or another sexual offense. Other states allow for termination for rape or sexual assault which results in the conception of a child. Certain felony domestic violence crimes may also result in the termination of parental rights or felony convictions which result in long-term incarceration.

Exceptions to involuntary termination

You did not mention what crime you committed, but some states require that the proceedings to initiate the termination of parental rights be initiated when statutory grounds are met. This does not mean, however, that there are not exceptions to automatic parental termination.

For example, there are some states which allow for exceptions if the court deems that dissolving the rights are not in the best interest of the child, your child is in the care of a relative, or you have not received the proper plans and services to initiate family reunification.

It’s also important to note, however, that your rights could be terminated without affecting the rights of the mother of the child. If the courts find that her rights should also be terminated, however, the child is placed in the custody of the state. The state then assumes legal custody of the child and works to finalize permanent placement, generally through adoption or guardianship.

Bottom Line: 

Without more information about the state in which you live and the crime you have committed it’s impossible to say whether your parental rights can be involuntarily terminated. It’s important to note, however, that there are a variety of reasons in which the state can force a termination.

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