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February 2008 - Terrible Terminations

I am asked a lot of questions about parenting after divorce. People have presented me with some pretty unbelievable situations (and maybe someday I will do a “worst of” column where I describe some!), but there is something that I am asked about far more often than I would have expected – parental termination. Parental termination is a legal process in which a parent’s legal rights are taken away. In the eyes of the law, that person ceases to be that child’s parents, and has no more rights or responsibilities towards the child.

Abuse or Neglect
The most common situation in which a termination happens is in an abuse or neglect proceeding (not a divorce!). A parent is determined to be such a danger to the child’s physical, mental, or emotional health that the parent is completely removed from the situation and the child’s life with no further contact permitted. Even in these kinds of cases, it is considered an extreme measure and is one that takes the court system months or years to arrive at after every other alternative is tried first.

Adoption
When a parent’s rights are terminated in an abuse or neglect situation, the child is placed in foster care with adoption as a goal (at least for younger children). When a parent who is divorced and remarried wants his or her new spouse to adopt the child, a stepparent adoption must take place. However, this can only happen if the other natural parent consents to the adoption by giving up his or her rights to the child, or has his or her rights terminated by the court.

A termination in this situation, when it is warranted, is often a good thing for the child. The child is adopted by a loving and involved stepparent who fills those parental shoes in the child’s life.

Other Terminations
Unfortunately, I am often asked about termination of parental rights in other situations. These fall into two general categories: fathers who don’t want to pay any more child support and want to give up their rights to get out of it; and mothers who want to find a way to terminate the father’s rights to get him out of her life.

Both of these situations are deeply disturbing. It is appalling that a man would be willing to break all ties with his child and in effect say ‘I no longer want to be part of your life’ just to save some bucks. The damage that is caused by this act is irreparable. The child is clearly told he is not important and does not matter – and that money is of more importance than him. It is disgraceful and appalling. Even if a man has previously had little contact with the child, this legal maneuver still sets the child up very clearly as someone who is not wanted.

The other situation is just as disturbing. There are lots of people who have very difficult relationships with their exes. And of course there are women who have been placed in great danger by a man and want no contact. However, if a court has decided that it is appropriate for that child to have a relationship with that father, the mother must put her personal feelings aside and find a way to make it happen. Yes, it can be a pain sometimes to deal with his BS. Yes, visitation can be an inconvenience. However, to seek to terminate a father’s relationship with his child just because you don’t like him or don’t want to have to navigate the situation any more is inexcusable. Even if that man fails to exercise his visitation, he still is connected to that child and there is a chance that someday he will come to his senses and reestablish a connection. A woman who proactively seeks to remove the father from the child’s life without a good reason is creating a trauma for her own child. The child may one day as an adult feel that this choice was harmful.

Courts Weigh In
There are certainly situations in which termination is appropriate and warranted and courts will respond in those situations. However, in other scenarios, it is very likely the court will not grant the termination that is being sought. In the eyes of the court, a parent and child have a connection that should not be severed without a very good reason. Unfortunately, there are times when courts will grant terminations if both parties agree – the father to get out of child support and the mother to get him out of her life.

Parental termination is not something that should be considered lightly or without extreme circumstances.



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