The Department won’t always support reunification between a parent and their child. Sometimes, addiction is too big of a challenge for a parent to conquer. Sometimes, socioeconomic status means that some parents will have serious disadvantages that make completing a case plan virtually impossible. Other times, the Department has failed the family due to lack of timely, affordable, or effective services and high case manager turnover. Often times, a parent will come to the realization that for whatever the reason may be, they are not currently capable of raising their own child.
Whatever the situation may be; a parent’s right to choose whether to surrender their parental rights, or to fight at a trial, is, and should always be, that parent’s choice.
Termination of parental rights has been described as the “family law equivalent of the death penalty in a criminal case.” Once the legal ties between a child and their parents are severed, that child will be “freed for adoption.” Unless, the parent successfully files an intervention case, it will be the Department, not the former parent who gets to decide who will ultimately adopt their child. After a parent’s parental rights have been severed, there is no obligation to inform the former parent of where or with who the child ended up.
Parents have a constitutional right to raise their children. At a termination of parental rights trial, the Court holds the Department of Children and Families to a higher burden of proof. That being said, the burden of proof in a termination of parental rights trial, is not as high as in a criminal trial, where the State has to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a termination of parental rights trial, the Department’s burden of proof is “clear and convincing.”
It is essential that the parent’s attorney explain the difference between a contested and an uncontested termination of parental rights. Both result in the parent’s rights being terminated. A contested termination means that the parent refused to surrender their parental rights, and that the matter was proven in a court of law instead. In Florida, if a parent fails to appear at the trial after proper service, their parental rights will be terminated and it will be deemed contested. An uncontested termination means that the parent made a voluntary decision to surrender their parental rights and a formal trial was not necessary. The distinction may seem insignificant but it can have serious ramifications for the parent in the future.
In an average dependency case, the Department will only request a goal change to adoption after first having given a parent the opportunity to complete a reunification case plan, a list of classes/services that they will need to complete before they are reunified with their children. Usually, the parent will have a year to complete this case plan, and if the Court agrees that the parent is not making the required progress, it will begin proceedings to eventually terminate that parent’s rights to their child. The Department does not always offer a case plan, sometimes, after the initial removal of their child, they will request a permanency goal of adoption and move on to a termination of parental rights trial. This second option is meant to be reserved for the most extreme cases of child abuse or for parents that have been offered case plans in the past but continue to have their children removed from them.
In Florida, if you have had your parental rights previously terminated after a contested proceeding, and then had a second child removed from your care, the Department does not have to provide you with an opportunity to be reunited with the second child. Parents are provided with an incentive to surrender their parental rights, and they are punished for choosing to fight the Department in a trial. The idea behind the legislation is that it protects children by not providing parents with several opportunities for a case plan, when they have failed to demonstrate a lack of change.
Every case is unique and the facts of your case should be reviewed by an attorney before they advise you. It is essential for parents to make a well-informed decision, with their attorney, when deciding what is best for them and their family. If you are ready to consult with a dependency attorney, please give us a call today.