What are Parental Rights?
Before discussing termination of parental rights, it is important to understand exactly what parental rights entail. In the context of the law, parental rights allow parents to take certain actions on behalf of their child, as well as making necessary and important decisions for the child. Parental rights are considered “automatic” for biological parents, adoptive parents, foster parents, and, depending on the situation, legal guardians. Parental rights will usually include—at a minimum—the following:
- The right to have contact with the child;
- The right to assume legal and/or physical custody of the child;
- The right to leave your assets to a child through inheritance;
- The right to enter into a contract or agreement on behalf of the child, and
- The right to make medical decisions for the child.
However, while you have parental rights for your child, you also have parental responsibilities. Keep in mind, these are your legal responsibilities—as most parents are aware, parenting brings many responsibilities which are not necessarily mandatory according to the law. Your legal parental responsibilities include:
- You must meet your child’s basic food, clothing and shelter needs;
- You must financially support your child until he or she graduates from high school or reaches the age of 18;
- You must meet your child’s emotional and physical needs, protecting the child from abuse or mistreatment;
- You must meet your child’s medical needs, and
- You must meet your child’s educational needs.
Do Non-Biological Parents Have the Same Parental Rights?
Because blended families are so common in today’s world, when parents divorce, and one or both remarry, a child may then have two biological parents and two step-parents, or non-biological parents. In this situation, these non-biological parents generally have the same rights as the biological parents, so long as they are legally recognized as the child’s parent. There are situations in which the non-biological parent could even end up with more parental rights than the biological parent, if the biological parent were to be incapacitated or incarcerated.
There are also many grandparents in the state of Florida—and across the nation—currently raising their grandchildren, whether due to the death of a parent, incarceration of a parent, or other situation in which the parent is unable to fulfill his or her duties. When the grandparent is recognized as the legal guardian of the child, then he or she generally has the same parental rights as the biological parent.
The State of Florida’s Stance on Parental Rights
In the state of Florida, there is a strong legal preference for both a child’s parents to have a role in the child’s life. Because one of the most important relationships in existence is that of a parent and a child, and while courts generally recognize a parent’s right to raise their child as they see fit, Florida nevertheless places the best interests of the child above all else. This goal of ensuring the best interests of the child mean that there will be times when it is better for one parent to be awarded sole custody, and, in more extreme cases, a Florida court may find it necessary to strip a parent of his or her parental rights. This is considered a drastic action, and the courts are hesitant to take such an action, however it can and does occur.
Although the state of Florida is generally reluctant to terminate parental rights, this reluctance must be balanced against child abuse and neglect. In 2014, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a law which overhauled the state’s troubled child welfare agency, essentially discarding a policy which favored the rights of the parent over the rights of a child suffering neglect or abuse. This law supersedes the “family preservation” policy of the state which sometimes left children whose lived with domestic violence or untreated drug addictions at risk. This law essentially strengthened the “safety net” for Florida children, perhaps making it a bit easier to terminate parental rights when the best interests of the child are clearly not being met by the parent.
Can You Have Your Own Parental Rights Terminated?
Although the question of termination of parental rights is largely one of a parent having his or her rights involuntarily terminated by the court, there are some parents who initiate a termination of parental rights on their own. Usually, the situation is a father who agrees to terminate his parental rights in exchange for the mother waiving his child support obligations. The mother may think this is a good way to avoid having to deal with shared parenting issues, while the father may think he can avoid the hassle and expense of being a parent altogether.
These parents are likely in for a big shock when they attempt to follow through with such a plan, since Florida judges do not look kindly upon fathers who want to “opt out” of parenting responsibilities. So, can you voluntarily choose to have your parental rights terminated simply because you do not want the responsibility? In a word, no. The state of Florida holds you responsible for your child or children, and are extremely unlikely to allow a parent to have his or her rights terminated simply to avoid financially supporting the child.
The state of Florida will usually only agree to a father having his own parental rights terminated when there is a new stepfather who is willing to legally adopt the child and accept all the long-term responsibility for the child. In fact, the law is so intent on not “bastardizing” a child, that should the parents of the child marry after the birth of the child, the child is legally considered legitimate in the same way he or she would have been if the parents had been married prior to the birth.
The Fourteen Statutory Grounds for Termination of Parental Rights in Florida
There are currently fourteen statutory grounds which allow the termination of a parent’s rights in the state of Florida. Termination of parental rights is both a drastic and serious step which is not to be taken lightly. Florida Statute 39.806 explains the circumstances under which parental rights may be terminated as well as the process. The statutory grounds for termination of parental rights in the state of Florida include:
- Voluntary Surrender—Should a parent decide to voluntarily surrender his or her parental rights, properly filled out, written documentation must be submitted. Voluntary surrender allowed by the state usually occurs in the case of adoption, when the court determines that adoption is the best choice for the child and all those involved. It is important to remember, however, that voluntarily surrendering your parental rights is a legally binding act, done only after very carefully considering the act. Should the courts find the voluntary surrender was obtained through fraud or duress, the surrender may be withdrawn after an initial DCF acceptance.
- Abandonment—In the state of Florida, if it is determined that a parent has abandoned his or her child, parental rights could be terminated as an informal form of voluntary surrender. This means that if a parent is unable to be located for a period of 60 days or more, the court might, depending on the circumstances, strip the absent parent of his or her parental rights, awarding those rights to another party. The best interests of the child are paramount in this situation. If the court believes the best interests of the child are better served by continuing to locate the parent, the child might temporarily be placed in foster care. When a parent has made no real effort to establish a parent-child relationship, has failed to make a significant contribution to the child’s needs, or who drops his or her child off at a relative, friend or caregiver’s home, then vanishes, he or she may fit the legal definition of abandonment.
- Safety Threats—Threats to a child’s safety are another reason parental rights could be terminated. A safety threat does not necessarily have to directly affect the child’s physical health, rather can be any action (or inaction) which threatens the mental, emotional or physical health of the child. In general, such an action must be extremely serious to convince a Florida court the parent poses a safety threat to the child.
- Egregious Conduct—Egregious conduct by a parent is similar in nature to safety threats to a child. When a parent engages in any type of so-called “egregious” conduct, such as neglect, abandonment or abuse (or any other “deplorable, flagrant or outrageous conduct), or when the parent could have prevented some type of egregious conduct which threatened the child’s emotional, mental, physical health or safety, the courts may terminate parental rights. When a Florida court finds egregious conduct by a parent toward one specific child, the parental rights for all the parent’s children may also be terminated. In other words, if the court finds a parent has abused one child in the family, parental rights for all the parent’s children could be terminated.
- Incarceration—A parent who is sentenced to jail or prison could have his or her parental rights terminated, however this applies only under three, very specific, situations. If the incarceration of the parent is expected to last for most of the child’s minority, parental rights could be terminated. If the parent who is incarcerated is judged to be either a habitual violent offender, a violent career criminal, a sexual predator, or has been convicted of a particularly violent crime such as battery or murder, then his or her parental rights could be terminated. Finally, if the court should find the minor child could be harmed if exposed to a continuing relationship with the incarcerated parent, then parental rights could be terminated.
- Case Plan Violations—When a child has been adjudicated as a dependent by the court, and the parents have failed to comply with the required case plan for a significant period of time, the court may choose to terminate the rights of the parent or parents. This could occur when a child continues to be abandoned, neglected or abused by a parent, despite court orders to the contrary. Additionally, a material breach in the case plan can also result in termination of parental rights. In other words, if there has been no significant progress made on the case plan for 12 out of the past 22 months—or there is compelling evidence which shows the parent will be unable to substantially comply with the case plan—parental rights could be terminated.
- Abuse—When a child has been subjected to chronic abuse, sexual battery, aggravated child abuse or sexual abuse by a parent, that parent’s parental rights could be terminated.
- Family Harm—If a parent murders the child’s other parent, aids or abets in the murder of the child’s other parent, or commits conspiracy or solicitation to murder the child’s other parent, that parent’s parental rights could be terminated. If a parent commits felony battery on the child, or another child, then that parent’s parental rights could be terminated.
- Sibling Parental Right Termination—If a parent has had his or her rights to a sibling of the child in question involuntarily terminated, the parental rights to this child could also be terminated.
- History of Substance Abuse—If a parent has an extensive history of abuse of a controlled substance or of alcohol, that history potentially renders them incapable of caring for the child, and the parent has refused to avail themselves of a treatment program for a period of three years preceding the termination petition filing, his or her parental rights could be terminated.
- Tests at Birth—When the child is born, if a test shows alcohol or any controlled substance present in the child’s meconium, blood or urine and the mother of the newborn is the biological mother of at least one other child whose health or welfare was harmed by exposure to alcohol or a controlled substance, the parent’s rights could be terminated.
- Out of Home Care—If the child in question or another child of the parent has been placed in out of home care (such as foster care) at least three times, due directly to the parent’s actions or inactions, parental rights may be terminated.
- Sexual Battery—If the child was conceived through sexual battery, the parent who perpetrated that battery could have his parental rights terminated.
- Sexual Predator—If the parent is forced to register as a sexual predator, his or her parental rights may be terminated.
As you can see, termination of parental rights can be a complex subject, therefore if you have questions regarding termination of parental rights in the state of Florida, it is important that you speak to a knowledgeable, experienced Ayo and Iken attorney.