The heart of every adoption is a child's best interests

By Erin Komada of Scaringi Law posted in Family Law on Thursday, January 15, 2015.

In Pennsylvania, new families are created every day through the legal miracle of adoption. But there are many sides and facets to adoption, and to the state's adoption laws.

Many adoptions begin with an overmatched parent - often a young, single mother - who loves her child enough to know that another family will be able to give the child a brighter future. In such cases, the parent may voluntarily relinquish his/her parental rights to the child to an adult who wishes to adopt the child or to an agency that provides adoption services.

There are also adoptions that occur after an involuntary termination of parental rights. In most cases, these involve abused, abandoned or otherwise neglected children who come to the attention of county Children and Youth Services agencies. Because parental rights are being nullified against a parent's will, these legal proceedings are inherently more complicated. We will revisit this topic in future articles.

Whether it's a voluntary relinquishment or involuntary termination of parental rights, both circumstances call for experienced attorneys to represent all parties.

As an attorney at Scaringi Law, where I focus my practice on family law, I work with clients on all sides of the adoption process, which at its heart is always about the best interests of the child.

Letting go

For a legal adoption to occur, the biological parent must go before a Common Pleas Court judge for the transfer of custody to become official.

For today, we'll focus on a voluntary action by a biological parent. I respect these parents who are strong enough to admit that their child would be better off with a new family. It's also why I find the opportunity to assist these parents and their children so rewarding.

Make no mistake: Legally giving up a child is no small undertaking. The court urges all parents petitioning to relinquish their rights to retain experienced legal representation.

To relinquish parental rights, there must be a person or agency ready to accept the child. This prevents biological parents from shirking their child support responsibilities simply by voluntarily relinquishing their parental rights.

In cases of transferring parental rights to a person, the recipient could be a relative or a friend, or a foster parent. The chief requirement here is a demonstrated willingness and ability on behalf of the person to accept the joys and the responsibilities of raising the child. In cases involving an agency, it is almost always a county Children and Youth Services agency that accepts this responsibility.

Either way, a biological parent cannot voluntarily relinquish his or her parental rights unless there is some person or agency willing to accept those rights and take care of the child.

A new family is forged

Because the biological parent is giving up his/her rights to the child voluntarily, the adoption can proceed very quickly. In Pennsylvania, the court requires that the party accepting custody exclusively care for the child for at least three days prior to the filing of the petition for voluntary relinquishment of parental rights. Additionally, if the party accepting custody is an individual intending to adopt, the individual must have filed a report of intention to adopt prior to the filing of the petition for voluntary relinquishment. The filing of the biological parent's petition for voluntary relinquishment of parental rights results in a court hearing that culminates in a judge's decree terminating the biological parent's rights.

The report of the accepting party's intention to adopt spells out how the child came into the care of the accepting party. The report must be filed within thirty days after the accepting party received physical care of the child.

Once the filings are made by both parties, the Court of Common Pleas judge schedules a hearing and ensures that the biological parent has at least 10 days' notice of the proceeding. The parent relinquishing custody is required to attend the hearing, and most judges wish to question the parent to satisfy the court that he/she fully understands that the child no longer will be his/hers.

But what of the other parent, you ask?

The court will provide notice of the hearing to the other parent. If an individual has been identified as the father of the child, but has not acknowledged paternity, and paternity has not been established, he is known as the "putative father." The putative father must also be notified and invited to testify in court. Importantly, if the putative father does not appear at the hearing to object to the termination of his parental rights, or he does not file a written objection, and he has not filed either an acknowledgment of paternity, or a claim of paternity, the court may terminate his parental rights at the hearing as well.

In both cases, biological fathers, whether they acknowledge paternity or not, are given every opportunity to have their say in court before their parental rights are terminated.

In cases where the biological parent of the child is under 18, his/her parents are notified of the court hearing as well. However, the parents' permission is not required for the mother or father of the child to file an initial petition to relinquish parental rights, regardless of age.

At the hearing, grandparents of the child may testify before the court, as they may have legal standing to seek certain types of custodial rights to the child.

Typically, though, when a biological parent reaches his/her decision to voluntarily relinquish his/her parental rights to a child, the legal proceedings move along quickly, and the adoption officially forming a new family occurs in short order.

Before and after

At the conclusion of the hearing, which is carried out in private with no media or members of the public present, the judge enters a decree. With it, the biological parent's parental rights are terminated, and along with them, any further responsibilities for the child.

Going forward, it is up to the biological parent whether he/she files any further information with the Department of Public Welfare, should the child ever seek to know more about him/her. At the very least, biological parents are encouraged to file family health information that could prove useful in protecting the child from disease or illness.

Voluntarily relinquishing parental rights is never something to be entered into lightly. But it can be beneficial, especially for the child who gains from a new beginning.

It's why, as a family law attorney, I always welcome the opportunity to assist biological parents and new families with the legal miracle of adoption.

Please let me know if ever I can assist you and the child you love.


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