If one or both of a child’s parents are unable or unwilling to care for their child, or they choose to relinquish their rights in favor of someone else, a termination of parental rights legal action may be appropriate so the child can be eligible for adoption. A parent cannot generally relinquish his or her parental rights without an adopting parent waiting to take his or her place. On the other hand, a parent’s rights can be terminated for cause even if there is no adopting parent waiting.
As noted, parental rights may be terminated by consent to allow a child to be adopted or through an involuntarily process through a lawsuit.
A lawsuit begins with a petition filed in either the juvenile or district court in the county where the child resides or where there is already a case involving the child. The petitioner must allege a ground for termination; such as abandonment, abuse, neglect, or parental unfitness; and must allege it is in the child’s best interest to terminate parental rights.
Once the petition is filed, the respondent parent(s) and anyone else that has acted like a parent to the child at issue must be served and have an opportunity to respond. If the respondent does not respond, default can be taken and an order can be entered with a simple hearing. If the respondent wishes to contest the action, he and/or she must file an Answer and fully participate in the proceeding.
At trial the petitioner must prove the alleged ground(s) for termination and then show it is in the child’s best interest to terminate. If the petitioner is able to establish abandonment, the burden shifts to the respondent to prove it is not in the child’s best interest to terminate.
If parental rights are terminated, the parent permanently becomes a legal stranger to the child with no rights or responsibilities. For example, the former parent will have no visitation rights or authority over the child and will have no further child support obligation. It is possible to reach a post-adoption agreement that can somewhat change this outcome. See below for more information.
If the court determines there is not a ground for termination, but it is in the child’s best interest to remain in someone other than the parents’ home, it is possible for the court to order a permanent guardianship instead of termination. In this event, the parent retains his or her parental rights with rights of visitation and a child support obligation, but the child will continue to live in the guardian’s home.
Division of Child and Family Services:
A termination of parental rights action may also be filed by the Utah State Attorney General’s Office after the Utah Division of Child and Family Services has determined the child is dependent (meaning abused or neglected). An action will generally be filed in Juvenile Court with a concurrent or duel plan to attempt to rehabilitate and reunify the parents and child, or to terminate their parental rights if the reunification attempt fails. Once the State determines to terminate parental rights, the process is essentially the same as described above beginning with a petition.
Historically, parents could not legally enforce an agreement made with new adopting parents after the adoption was completed. However, Utah law now allows for such post-adoption agreements to be enforceable. In other words, it is possible for parents to consent to the termination of their parental rights and still have some visitation rights or some right to receive pictures or other updates about the child even after the child is adopted by new parents. This is essentially a contract, the terms of which can be negotiated between the parties.
Newborn Safe-Haven Law:
An important note for a parent that may feel overwhelmed or simply unable to care for a new baby, Utah has a newborn safe-haven law that allows a parent to leave an infant at any Utah hospital with essentially no questions asked and no liability on the part of the parent. The parent will remain anonymous and the Division of Child and Family Services will take custody of the child to place him or her for adoption.