Child custody disputes are some of the most vehemently contested cases to unfold in the family court system. When married parents divorce or unmarried parents decide to establish legal custody terms for their children, these legal proceedings can be incredibly challenging for any parent to endure. For some parents, losing time with their kids is hard to imagine, and they have trouble recognizing that their co-parents have the same rights they do.

Many child custody determinations in the United States end with joint custody resolutions. In some measure, both of the child’s parents have access to the child, and the child has access to both of their parents. Family courts in the United States uphold that children benefit most when they have access to both parents. However, a judge will only permit this if both parents are proven fit to handle their child’s needs.

A parent can lose custody of their child in several ways. It’s possible for a judge to outright deny them custody during an initial determination. It is also possible for a parent with a standing custody order to commit an offense that results in losing their parental rights. It is also possible for a parent to lose parental rights due to medical issues, including mental illness or substance abuse. Finally, some parents may relinquish their parental rights voluntarily as well.

Voluntary Termination of Parental Rights

Some parents do not wish to participate in raising their children, and this will effectively grant sole legal and physical custody to their co-parents. If a parent voluntarily surrenders their parental rights, they will be doubtful to ever be able to reclaim them in the future outside of extreme circumstances. Therefore, voluntary termination of parental rights is almost always a prerequisite for adoption.

It’s important to note that if a parent surrenders their parental rights willingly, this does not release them from their child support obligations. A parent can only have their child support obligation terminated if a stepparent is willing to adopt the child and accept financial responsibility for the child. For example, if a custodial parent remarries and their new spouse is willing to adopt their child, the noncustodial parent will need to surrender their parental rights to be released from their child support obligation.

Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights

While judges typically strive to grant custody rights to both of a child’s parents, this may not be a viable option in some custody cases. A parent could initially receive custody rights only to later engage in behavior that proves they are unfit to handle those rights. Involuntary termination of parental rights can come into play in response to:

  • Child abuse or neglect. Whether a parent is facing an initial custody determination or any custody dispute has arisen after a family court order has been approved, any child abuse or neglect could result in the parent losing their custody rights. This applies even if they did not harm their own child. The family courts of the US take child abuse and neglect very seriously and will not grant custody rights to any parent with a history of such offenses.
  • Domestic violence. If a parent has a history of committing acts of domestic violence, especially against their own children or a co-parent, a judge will likely be unwilling to consider parental rights for the parent. Anyone who loses their parental rights due to child abuse or other domestic violence will likely face a restraining order, and any violation of this order can carry severe penalties.
  • Contempt of court. A parent could be found in contempt of court if it is revealed that they have intentionally and knowingly violated the terms of their standing family court order. For example, a custodial parent could file contempt proceedings against their co-parent in response to the failure to pay child support, failure to pay attention to the terms of their custody or visitation order, and other actions. Contempt of court can lead to serious penalties, which can include asset seizures, fines, jail time, and/or wage garnishment. It may also result in involuntary termination of parental rights in extreme cases.
  • Medical issues. A parent could be deemed unfit because of medical issues beyond their control, such as a catastrophic injury, a severely disabling permanent condition, a substance abuse disorder, or a mental health complication. If a judge determines a parent is medically unfit for parental rights or becomes unfit for parental rights due to such issues, the parent may lose those rights out of concern for their child’s safety. Parents who lose their custody rights in this manner may later petition to regain them if they can prove they have overcome their complications and restoring contact would suit the child’s best interests.
  • Criminal conviction of a serious offense. It is possible for a parent to lose their parental rights due to committing a crime, even if the offense does not pertain to their children or co-parent. For example, if the parent is likely to face extended incarceration, a judge may strip them of their parental rights out of concern for their child’s safety. This is especially likely when a parent has committed a violent felony.

Whenever a parent has their parental rights involuntarily terminated, it would be incredibly difficult for them to ever regain any measure of custody or visitation for their child. Additionally, they would continue to be liable for child support, and failure to make their support payments can lead to further legal penalties.

If you are a custodial parent of a child and you believe their other parent poses a significant existential threat to you or your child, or if you have been wrongfully accused of an act that could lead to involuntary loss of your parental rights, it’s vital to have legal counsel you can trust. Whenever termination of parental rights is concerned, the right attorney can help their client navigate their case with greater confidence and understanding. If you are concerned about losing your parental rights, or if you must ensure your child’s other parent does not endanger them, it’s vital to contact an experienced family lawyer as soon as possible to discuss your case.