It's often noted that there's no litmus test and no list of qualifications
for one to become a parent. But Pennsylvania law recognizes that not everyone
who can become a parent deserves to be one. In order to protect the best
interests of the child - the guiding principle in family law - sometimes
it becomes necessary to terminate parental custody rights, even against
the will of the parent.
This is perhaps one of the more gut-wrenching proceedings in family law,
but only because the stakes are so high. The decree to terminate parental
rights is irrevocable and permanent.
As part of my practice at
Scaringi Law, with offices in Harrisburg, Carlisle and Newport, I work to ensure that
no parent is ever stripped of his or her child without just cause and
The following is a look at the agonizing legal steps of an involuntary
termination of parental rights - a path no parent wants to tread.
The overwhelming number of cases of involuntary termination of parental
rights involve county Children and Youth agencies. Typically, the agency
has had some cause to intervene in the family situation. Sometimes there
is an addiction issue with the parent, or the child has been deemed the
subject of abuse, neglect, juvenile delinquency or dependency. In many
cases, the child has been removed from the home, albeit on a temporary basis.
These types of child custody cases move to an involuntary termination of
parental rights only after county officials have tried and failed to work
with the parent or parents on a reunification plan. This might involve
steps such as parental or family counseling, drug treatment and parental
classes, to name a few.
The agency's first inclination is typically not to permanently break
up a family. But parents are given only so much time to meet the obligations
of the reunification plan. If months go by and the parent is not making
sufficient progress, the agency can and will seek to terminate parental rights.
At this point, the primary goal becomes the best interests of the child.
This means placing the child in a stable and permanent family situation.
The court does not take the breakup of a biological family lightly. The
mother is given at least 10 days' written notice of the court hearing
on the petition to terminate parental rights; the father receives notice
as well if he can be identified. If the mother is under 18, her parents
also are served notice.
All parties in the case are entitled to an attorney, including the child.
Often the court assigns a guardian ad litem ("for the purposes of
the legal action only") to represent the child and make sure his
or her interests are represented at the hearing and reported to the court.
These court notices should never be ignored. The court gives no protection
to parental procrastinators. If a properly notified parent fails to respond,
the court is free to hold the hearing without him or her.
A heavy burden
The burden of proof in involuntary termination of parental rights falls
squarely on the Children and Youth agency making the petition. In Pennsylvania,
there are nine legal grounds for involuntary termination of parental rights.
All point toward the legal argument that a termination of parental rights
must be squarely in the child's best interests.
These grounds are all legally defined and include such circumstances as
continued parental incapacity or child abuse. Also on these grounds, a
father of a child conceived through rape or incest can be stripped of
his parental rights on this fact alone.
The petitioner may argue more than one of the nine grounds for parental
rights termination but need only prove one to be successful. The hearing
before a county judge plays out like a regular trial, with testimony and
cross examination by counsel to all parties, including the child's
In the end, the judge decides the case on whether the involuntary termination
of parental rights is in the best interests of "the child's developmental
and physical and emotional needs."
What cannot be the sole basis in involuntary termination of parental rights
decisions is what are called "environmental" issues. These are
factors such as housing, furnishing and clothing provided by the parent.
This means a parent cannot be stripped of his or her child custody rights
simply for lacking the nicest home or the newest clothes. In short, a
parent can't be prosecuted for being poor. The judge must separate
these two issues: Is the parent unfit, or is he or she doing everything
for the child within the family's means on a limited or low income?
At the conclusion of the one-day hearing, the judge will typically issue
a ruling from the bench. If the judge finds that the best interests of
the child would be better served by a family situation other than that
of the child's biological family, the judge issues a decree to this
effect. The ruling can be appealed to Superior Court, but this represents
an uphill and expensive legal climb.
With that decree comes the death knell of a parent's rights to that
child. This is why at Scaringi Law, we believe every parent, despite any
past mistakes, deserves aggressive and experienced legal representation
when his or her parental rights are on the line.
We will challenge whether the agency has proven grounds for termination
of parental rights based on all the facts, testimony and evidence on the
record. At the same time, we will argue the positive efforts of the parent
to fulfill his or her role. In preparing the case, we will document these
attempts with evidence and witnesses.
Yes, parenthood is a right and a privilege. At Scaringi Law,
we do everything possible to defend that right in court.
Next time: We follow the legal journey of a loving couple willing to adopt a child.
To learn more about how Scaringi Law attorney
Erin K. Komada can help you, call her toll-free at 877-LAW-2555 or email her at