Termination of parental rights is a court order which terminates the custodial rights of a child's natural parent. In some cases, the termination is voluntary and the result of a parent agreeing to give up these rights. In an involuntary termination, a judge issues such an order because it is believed to be in the best interests of the child. This is a very serious step to take, and as a result extreme care is taken to avoid an erroneous termination of custodial rights.
A common context for a termination of parental rights comes up in adoption cases. An adoption cannot go through as long as the child's natural parent retains parental rights. A natural parent who intends to give a child up for adoption can file paperwork which will allow the court to terminate the custodial rights, allowing an adoption to proceed. This may be done in infancy, but it can also be done when a child is older and a natural parent feels unable to provide appropriate care.
Another situation which can arise is when children are in foster care for an extended period of time. The natural parents of children who are being fostered usually retain their parental rights, but they can opt to surrender them so that their children can be adopted. A court can also order an involuntary termination of parental rights in cases of extreme abuse and neglect where it is clear that the child cannot be returned to his or her natural parents and that adoption proceedings should be allowed to go forward.
Once parental rights have been terminated, parents do not have any rights with respect to their children. They also do not have any responsibilities. This court order severs the legal aspects of the parent-child relationship. However, terminating parental rights does not necessarily mean that a parent and child can no longer be in contact. For example, some natural parents involved in open adoptions incorporate opportunities to have contact with their children into the adoption contract.
When it comes to a voluntary termination of parental rights, judges may ask a series of questions to confirm that the natural parent really is acting voluntarily, and is not being coerced. Historically, there have been concerns that people such as teenage mothers may be forced into terminating parental rights and allowing their children to be adopted before they have an opportunity to explore and consider all of their options.