Giving up your parental rights to a child is an important decision with long-term consequences. While the decision may be difficult, there are many reasons why it may be better to let someone else take on the role of the child's parent. If you are considering relinquishing your parental rights in Pennsylvania, attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Family Law Team at the Lento Law Firm can advise you of your options and how that choice will affect both of your lives.
Understanding Parental Rights
Parents, by the nature of their relationship with their children, have certain rights. Both federal and Pennsylvania law have recognized for centuries that a parent's right to make decisions about the care and custody of their children is fundamental and one of the most important rights we have. These rights can only be terminated against a parent's wishes in extreme cases—usually after a long history of abuse or neglect.
In Pennsylvania, parents have the right to make decisions about where their child lives and with whom, where they are educated, what type of medical treatment they receive, and what religion they follow, in addition to all of the other decisions they make in their daily lives. These rights continue until the child reaches the age of majority.
Parental rights are given to mothers from the moment of their child's birth. If the parents are married, fathers also receive parental rights from birth. If the father of the child is not married to the mother, he will have to establish his paternity to gain parental rights. This might be done by signing an Acknowledgment of Paternity form at the hospital or through a paternity action later on.
Termination of Parental Rights
The termination of parental rights severs the legal bond between parent and child. After parental rights are terminated, it will legally be as if the child had never been born to the parent. The parent will not be able to have a say in any decisions in that child's life and will have no right to see the child or care for them in any way. The child will no longer inherit from their parent or their parent's family, and the parent will have no obligation to provide any type of financial support to the child.
Parental rights may be terminated in one of three ways: consent to adoption, voluntary termination, or involuntary termination. In voluntary termination, parents willingly relinquish their rights to the child. Consent to adoption, known as Alternative Procedure for Relinquishment in Pennsylvania, is a type of voluntary termination. In an involuntary termination, the state removes a parent's rights to the child against their wishes or without their participation.
Proceedings to terminate a parent's rights are extraordinarily serious. The state of Pennsylvania has an important interest in protecting its children and will not allow a child to be left without care and support. Additionally, because a parent's rights to their child are so important, a court will not move to remove these rights without substantial evidence that it is in the best interests of the child. Parents contemplating relinquishing their rights should consult with the experienced Family Law Team at the Lento Law Firm to understand more about the requirements for voluntary termination of parental rights.
Voluntary termination or relinquishment of parental rights is frequently done to facilitate adoption. In most cases, a judge will only approve a voluntary termination of parental rights if another person or persons intends to adopt the child. Parents may not relinquish their rights simply to avoid paying financial support or providing care—unless someone else is going to care for and support the child, the court may find that termination is not in the child's best interests.
Consent to Adoption
A consent to adoption, or Alternative Procedure for Relinquishment (APR), is the only termination process where the parents are not required to go to court. Instead, if parents agree, they can sign a form that acknowledges that they are relinquishing their rights and placing their child for adoption.
The mother is required to wait 72 hours from the birth of her child before she can sign an APR relinquishing her rights. She must also have two witnesses when she signs the form. The father can sign the APR at any time after he is notified of the child's birth. No witnesses are required for fathers. Once the APRs are signed, they are filed as part of a petition in the Orphan's Court. A judge will schedule a hearing to review the petition and confirm that both parents have consented to the adoption.
Either parent has the right to revoke their consent to adoption for up to 30 days. They must do it in writing and deliver it to both the adoption agency they used and the attorney or court in charge of the termination proceeding. If the parents do not revoke their consent within 30 days, their rights will be terminated, and they will not be able to reestablish them in the future.
Executing a consent to adoption is a serious undertaking that comes with many long-term legal consequences. At the Lento Law Firm, our knowledgeable team of family law professionals can help you ensure that the process runs smoothly and your intentions are honored now and in the future.
Other Voluntary Terminations
Voluntary terminations are also used by parents of older children who will be placed for adoption. As noted previously, a judge is unlikely to approve a parent's voluntary termination of their rights unless someone else will be caring for the child. If the child is age 12 or older, the child must also consent to any adoption.
Voluntary terminations are often used when the parent knows the person who will be adopting the child. For example, very young parents who cannot raise a baby may consent to a sibling or their parents adopting and raising their child. Or, a parent that is now married to someone else may want the stepparent to legally adopt their child.
Parents that petition the court for voluntary termination of parental rights must attend a hearing. At that hearing, the judge will confirm that the parent understands their rights and is relinquishing them freely without undue pressure or coercion. After questioning the parent, the judge can agree to approve the termination of parental rights.
Parents can also sign a voluntary termination of their rights if they are working with an adoption agency or the foster care system. These parents may be unable to care for the child and willing to relinquish their rights in favor of someone else in a better situation. In these instances, a voluntary termination may be approved even if it is unknown who will eventually adopt the child.
Voluntary Post-Adoption Contact Agreements
Parents who voluntarily terminate their parental rights have the option to sign a Voluntary Post-Adoption Contact Agreement, often called PACAs. This document is an agreement entered into between the adoptive parents and the child's birth family. It acknowledges that the child might benefit from contact with certain individuals in the child's birth family and decides what type of contact will be allowed. The court must approve this agreement and decide that contact with the birth family will be in the child's best interests.
Several parties may be able to enter into a PACA with the adoptive parents. This could include the birth parents as well as any siblings or grandparents. If the adopted child has siblings who were adopted or in the foster care system, a guardian ad litem for the siblings may join the PACA to ensure that communication is possible.
A PACA is an enforceable contract, which means that the parties to the contract can go to court and force compliance with the terms of the agreement. For example, if the adoptive parents refuse to allow contact between their adopted child and the birth parent, the birth parent can ask the judge to enforce the agreement and hold the adoptive parent in contempt for non-compliance. However, no amount of non-compliance with the PACA can overturn an adoption.
Only the adoptive parents or an adopted child who is at least 12 years old may modify a PACA. Birth parents and family members cannot ask a judge for more time or contact with the child. While any party to the agreement can ask the judge to terminate it, the adoptive parents and child are the only ones who can ask a judge to modify the agreement to add parties, time, or contact.
If you are interested in Post-Adoption Contact Agreement, it is important to get the details correct. PACAs stay in effect until an adopted child turns 18, and cannot be changed by the birth parents once signed. Pennsylvania family lawyer Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Team can work with you to create an agreement that works in the best interests of all parties.
Can A Voluntary Relinquishment Be Denied?
A judge is not required to accept a parent's voluntary relinquishment of their rights, and not every petition to voluntarily terminate them is approved. Parents must justify their reasoning for relinquishing their rights, which is usually because of adoption or placement into foster care.
Voluntary relinquishments are common in cases where the state's Department of Human Services has started proceedings toward involuntarily terminating a parent's rights. Once involuntary termination proceedings have begun, parents often decide to voluntarily relinquish their rights to avoid the negative consequences of involuntary termination.
It is up to the judge whether a parent taking part in involuntary termination proceedings can voluntarily relinquish their rights instead. In cases where it is suspected that a parent has abused, neglected, or abandoned their children, a judge may deny a parent's voluntary petition in order to create a record of abuse that can be used to protect other children in the household.
What If Only One Parent Consents To Adoption?
In some instances, only one parent is willing or able to give consent to adoption or voluntarily relinquish their parental rights. This may either be because one parent does not want to terminate their parental rights, or because the other parent cannot be found and notified that these processes are taking place.
In situations where one parent is absent and cannot be found to consent to an adoption, parties may petition the court to involuntarily terminate that parent's rights. This can also happen in situations where the parent is abusive or neglectful, has been convicted of certain crimes, or has shown no interest in providing care and support for the child. Involuntary termination can be used in several circumstances to facilitate an adoption when a parent cannot be located.
When a child's other parent is not absent and has no interest in terminating their parental rights, adoption may not be possible. A parent who is willing and able to care for their child and does not have a history of child abandonment or abuse would not be forced to give up these rights to facilitate an adoption. Instead, that parent may end up with full custody of their child.
Learn More About Your Legal Options
The decision to give up a child is never easy, even in the best of circumstances. The process of voluntarily relinquishing your parental rights can be complicated and time-consuming, and it must be done correctly. Voluntarily terminating your parental rights is permanent and can only be undone in the most exceptional circumstances.
It's important to understand what your rights are, what you are giving up, and how this decision will affect both your future and your child's future. At the Lento Law Firm, we understand that complicated decisions are often necessary and can help you decide what is best for you and your family. If you are contemplating a voluntary termination of your parental rights, contact our office today by calling 888.535.3686 or online and learn more about your options.