When the mother and father of a child are no longer together, there are instances in which one of them no longer acts as a parent. Sometimes, that person may no longer be interested in maintaining a relationship and will voluntarily consent to the adoption of the child by the other parent’s new spouse. In the most severe situations, where there is no voluntary consent, the conduct of one parent may provide a basis for termination, or severance, of that person’s parental rights.
Severance is not appropriate for all situations and is applicable only where the circumstances are extreme. There is a range of grounds for an interested party to bring a severance action, but some of the more common ones are that the parent has abandoned the child, that the parent has neglected or willfully abused a child leading to serious physical or emotional injury or situations, that the parent is unable to discharge parental responsibilities because of mental illness, mental deficiency or a history of chronic abuse of dangerous drugs, controlled substances or alcohol and there are reasonable grounds to believe that the condition will continue for a prolonged indeterminate period and that the parent is deprived of civil liberties due to the conviction of a felony if the felony of which that parent was convicted is of such nature as to prove the unfitness of that parent to have future custody and control of the child, including murder of another child of the parent, manslaughter of another child of the parent or aiding or abetting or attempting, conspiring or soliciting to commit murder or manslaughter of another child of the parent, or if the sentence of that parent is of such length that the child will be deprived of a normal home for a period of years.
In such situations, after the appropriate notice is given an independent study is performed, the court may order that the parental rights of the offending parent be terminated.
The court will also want to ensure that there is an appropriate plan for the child going forward so that the child’s life will be improved by the process. In many cases, this may involve a step-parent adoption.
In order for a step-parent to adopt, there must be a vacant position of a parent for the step-parent to step into.
The process may be simplified if the biological parent who is being removed from the picture consents to the process. The consent must be in writing with significant formality to ensure that the relinquishing parent is fully aware of his or her rights and obligations and that the relinquishing parent is knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily consenting to do so without threat, undue influence or duress.
If there is no consent, or if that biological parent has not maintained communication, a petition for termination of the parental rights of that biological parent may be filed. That petition must specifically allege what the deficits are in the conduct of the biological parent whose rights are requested to be severed and how they have impacted the child.
Of course, in any event, such a case cannot go forward unless the natural parent whose rights are not being severed consents to the process.
While the step-parent seeking to adopt will not be required to be formally certified as eligible to adopt, the parties will have to successfully undergo a home study conducted by a social services agency and have the report of that study provided to the court for review.
Severance and adoption proceedings are conducted in Juvenile Court, not Family Court. Unlike Family Court, the records of Juvenile Court are confidential and those records are sealed. There is no public access.
In some cases, it may be possible for a step-parent to adopt an adult step-child.
In some cases, it may be possible for a step-parent to adopt an adult step-child. This requires the consent of both the proposed adopting step-parent, that person’s spouse who is the other natural parent, and the consent of the adult step-child whose adoption is sought. There are other provisions for situations where the adult step-child is married or has children.
Victor Garnice has assisted numerous individuals in the severance and step-parent adoption process.