Petitioning for Termination of Parental Rights

The process of terminating parental rights is similar to most court proceedings. However, there are a few key differences that can be highlighted. These include the specifics that need to be included in the petition, the service process, and what a judgment for termination might include.

A petition must be filed to start the process and may be filed by a parent seeking to terminate the other parent’s rights. The petition can also be filed by an agency, such as an adoption agency, or an individual having custody or standing in loco parentis (in the place of a parent). The party that files the petition can request termination of either one or both biological parents’ rights. In Allegheny County, a petition to terminate parental rights is filed with the Orphan’s Court Division of the Court of Common Pleas located in downtown Pittsburgh.

This type of document is similar to a complaint in many ways. Both documents include general information about the parties to the dispute like their names and addresses as well as the reason for asking the court to act in a specific way, in this case the reason why a specific parent’s right to their child should be terminated. For example, the rights of a parent should be terminated because that parent is abusing the child. However, some elements unique to this type of petition are that the petitioning party needs to state that they intend to assume custody of the child either permanently or until the child is adopted as well as include the birth certificate of the child.

The process of service is simply delivering the petition to the opposing party, so they become aware you are taking legal action against them. Typically, a complaint may be delivered through first class mail, or if a party prefers, given to the opposing party by a sheriff. In a termination case, due to the severity of the consequences of the action, personal service or including a return receipt with the petition if sent through certified mail is required to demonstrate service and is filed with the court. In cases where the parent’s whereabouts are unknown, the party serving the petition should make serious efforts to locate the parent(s) and be able to demonstrate their efforts to the court. If service cannot be accomplished by personal delivery, service upon an adult member of the household, or by certified mail to the last known address where the petition is returned undelivered, the court parent in an involuntary termination may sometimes require that service is provided by publication; however, it is best to consult a lawyer to ensure proper service is provided.

A termination hearing is much like any other type of hearing where the judge hears from both parties about the matter. The judge may also listen to any witness testimony, possibly including testimony from the child if the child is old enough to testify. However, this is where attempts to notify the opposing party matters. If the opposing party does not appear at the hearing, the judge may require a trial in addition to the hearing if the petitioning party is found not to have given sufficient notice so that both parties have ample opportunity to be present. A judge may also require a trial even if both parties were present at the hearing in order to further consider the matter.

Either at the end of the hearing, if the judge has heard sufficient evidence of the matter, or at the end of the trial, the judge will issue a decree that grants or denies the termination request. If the request is granted, the parent(s) whose rights were challenged may file an appeal within 30 days of the judgment. If the matter is granted and not appealed, the order becomes final and the parent’s rights are terminated, and the child is free to be adopted. The decree of termination, besides terminating the biological parental rights, can also include:

Loss of right to object to adoption. The decree extinguishes all rights of the parent to object to or receive notice of adoption proceedings.
Award of custody. The decree gives custody of the child to the agency (or the petitioner, if the TPR was sought by a person seeking to adopt).
Authority of agency or person receiving custody. The recipient of custody stands in loco parentis (in place of the parent) to the child and may exercise whatever authority a biological parent has, including the authority to consent to marriage, to enlistment in the armed forces, and to major medical, psychiatric and surgical treatment.

If you would like additional information regarding petitioning for the termination of parental rights or if your parental rights are being challenged, please contact our office for further consultation.

This article was written by writer and legal intern, Jennifer Lapinski.