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Every State and the District of Columbia have statutes providing for the termination of parental rights. Termination of parental rights ends the legal parent-child relationship. Once the relationship has been terminated, the child is legally free to be placed for adoption with the objective of securing a more stable, permanent family environment that can meet the child's long-term parenting needs.

Some States spell out factors that constitute grounds for termination of parental rights. Other States use general language. The most common statutory grounds for involuntary termination of parental rights include:

  • Severe or chronic abuse or neglect;
  • Abuse or neglect of other children in the household;
  • Abandonment;
  • Long-term mental illness or deficiency of the parent(s);
  • Long-term alcohol or drug-induced incapacity of the parent(s);
  • Failure to support or maintain contact with the child.

Another common ground for termination is a felony conviction of the parent(s) for a crime of violence against the child or other family member, or a conviction for any felony when the term of conviction is such a length as to have a negative impact on the child and the only available provision of care for the child is foster care.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) [1] also requires State agencies to seek termination of the parent-child relationship when:

  • A child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months;
  • A court has determined:

    • A child to be an abandoned infant;
    • That the parent has committed murder of another child of the parent, committed voluntary manslaughter of another child of the parent, aided or abetted, attempted, conspired, or solicited to commit such a murder or such a voluntary manslaughter, [2] or committed a felony assault that has resulted in serious bodily injury to the child or to another child of the parent. [3]

In response to ASFA, many States have adopted limits to the maximum amount of time a child can spend in foster care before termination proceedings must be initiated.

Typically, States have adopted the ASFA standard of 15 out of the most recent 22 months in care. Some States, however, specify shorter time limits, particularly for very young children. Most States have also complied with the other termination grounds required under ASFA.

Reasonable Efforts
The above factors become grounds for terminating parental rights when reasonable efforts by the State to prevent out-of-home placement or to achieve reunification of the family after placement have failed to ameliorate the conditions and/or parental behaviors that led to State intervention.

Under ASFA, while reasonable efforts to preserve and reunify families are still required, the child's health and safety is the paramount concern in determining reasonable efforts to be made. [4] ASFA mandates that reasonable efforts to preserve the family are not required when:

  • The parent has subjected the child to aggravated circumstances (as defined by State law, which may include but need not be limited to abandonment, torture, chronic abuse, and sexual abuse); [5]
  • The parent has committed murder of another child of the parent;
  • The parent has committed voluntary manslaughter of another child of the parent;
  • The parent has aided or abetted, attempted, conspired, or solicited to commit murder or voluntary manslaughter;
  • The parent has committed a felony assault that results in serious bodily injury to the child or another child of the parent; or
  • The parental rights of the parent to a sibling have been terminated involuntarily. [6]

Child's Best Interests
Most States consider a child's best interest in termination proceedings. In some States, these statutes use general language mandating that the child's health and safety be paramount in all proceedings, while other States' legislation lists specific factors that must be considered, such as the child's age; the physical, mental, emotional and moral well-being; cultural and attachment issues; as well as the child's reasonable preferences.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Santosky v. Kramer [7] set the standard of proof at clear and convincing evidence in termination of parental rights proceedings.

1) ASFA establishes guidelines that States must comply with as a condition for receiving Federal funds.

2) State statutory information concerning a court determination that the parent has aided or abetted, attempted, conspired, or solicited to commit murder or voluntary manslaughter is not included in this chart.

3) 42 U.S.C.A. § 675(5)(E)(West 1997). Under ASFA, there are three exceptions to the requirement to terminate parental rights: At the option of the State, the child is being cared for by a relative; a State agency has documented in the case plan a compelling reason for determining that filing such a petition would not be in the child's best interest; and the State has not provided to the family, consistent with the time period in the State case plan, such services as the State deems necessary for the safe return of the child to the child's home.

4) 42 U.S.C.A. § 671(a)(15)(A) (West 1997).

5) These "aggravated circumstances" include cases in which a parent has been convicted of murdering another child in the household, severe and aggravated sexual abuse, or single instances of abuse when the abuse is severe enough to be charged as aggravated assault or when there is serious injury to the child.

6) 42 U.S.C.A. § 671(a)(15)(D) (West 1997).

7) 455 U.S. 745 (1982)

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