Regardless of your circumstances and the type of adoption you are pursuing, every adoption involves the legal transfer of parental rights from one parent to another. In every case, this means the biological parents’ rights must be legally terminated before the child can be adopted into another family.
Termination of parental rights can happen in two ways: voluntary termination (or consent to adoption), or involuntary termination. Below, learn more about termination of parental rights and the role this legal process will play in your adoption.
Voluntary Termination of Parental Rights (Consent to Adoption)
When an expectant mother chooses adoption for her baby, she is voluntarily terminating her parental rights. Voluntary termination occurs when the birth parents legally consent to adoption, relinquishing all of their parental rights and responsibilities. This type of termination of parental rights is most commonly associated with domestic infant adoptions.
Mothers who choose adoption for their babies generally have the right of consent. Birth fathers often must legally establish paternity before they have the right to consent to or contest an adoption. Laws and processes for establishing paternity vary by state. Some states have established a putative father registry for this purpose.
State laws also determine when and how consent can be executed. In most states, birth mothers must wait for a specified amount of time following the child’s birth before executing consent (these waiting periods vary from immediately to 30 days following birth); some states allow birth fathers to execute consent during the pregnancy. Most states require the consent to be in writing and executed before competent witnesses, a judge, or another court-appointed person.
Once a parent consents to adoption, they may have a limited amount of time to withdraw their consent before it becomes irrevocable. In some states, consent is irrevocable upon signing, while others allow revocation before the entry of the final adoption decree in certain circumstances. Some states allow a longer revocation period for children of Native American heritage.
State laws may allow birth parents to withdraw consent for the following reasons:
- The consent was obtained by fraud or coercion
- Consent is withdrawn within a specified revocation period
- It can be shown that the revocation of consent is in the child’s best interest
- The birth and adoptive parents mutually agree to withdraw consent
Revocation laws are designed to ensure permanency for the adopted child. By limiting the time during which a birth parent can withdraw their consent to an adoption, these laws promote stability and security for adoptive families.
There are cases in which parental consent is not required in order for an adoption to proceed. Consent may not be necessary of a parent who has abandoned a child or failed to provide support or establish a relationship with their child. In some states, consent is not required of a parent who has committed certain crimes against the child or the other parent. Birth fathers who have not properly established paternity may not be able to consent. And, under certain circumstances, the birth parent’s rights may be terminated involuntarily.
Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights
In some cases, birth parent rights may be terminated involuntarily by the court. Each state has different grounds for involuntary termination. Some common reasons include:
- Severe or chronic abuse or neglect
- Sexual abuse
- Long-term mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse
- Failure to support the child or maintain a relationship with the child
When a child enters the child welfare system, his or her parents do not immediately lose their parental rights. The state must make reasonable efforts to provide services that will help preserve the family and reunite the child with his or her parents by remedying the conditions that brought the child into the welfare system. These reasonable efforts are determined by state laws and may include services such as parenting classes, substance abuse treatment, or family therapy.
A foster child’s biological parent generally has several chances to make a reunification plan and meet certain requirements before their rights are legally terminated by the court. Once termination of parental rights occurs, the foster child is legally freed for adoption.
However, there are some extreme instances in which reasonable efforts are not required and the court may determine that reunification is not in the child’s best interest. In these cases, parental rights may be terminated involuntarily by the court. Some circumstances in which reasonable efforts are not required include:
- The child is a victim of abandonment, torture, chronic abuse or sexual abuse
- The parent murdered another of his or her children
- The parent committed a felony assault that resulted in serious injury to one of his or her children
- The parent’s rights to the child’s sibling were terminated involuntarily
Termination of parental rights is an important part of the adoption process. Whether you are a prospective birth parent or hopeful adoptive parent, you may want to speak with an adoption specialist or adoption attorney to fully understand your state’s laws and termination of parental rights in your specific circumstances.