Child abandonment can result in serious legal consequences. For some parents, child abandonment may lead to the permanent loss of parental rights through an involuntary termination by the state. If a state agency has taken a child into the child welfare system or placed a child in foster care, the child's parents may need legal help to prevent the termination of their rights.
Definition of Child Abandonment
Most states define child abandonment in their child welfare laws. Some states include abandonment in their definitions of child neglect. Child abandonment often describes a parent who has left the child for a period of time without financial support or information regarding the parent's return; state law often sets a minimum length of time that qualifies as abandonment. In addition, the state might establish child abandonment if the parent's identity has never been known or if the parent's location is currently unknown. Some state laws also establish abandonment as a form of child neglect when the parent places the child in an unsafe situation with potential for serious harm.
Child Abandonment and Termination of Parental Rights
Every state allows for the involuntary termination of parental rights when a parent places a child in unsafe circumstances. Each state's laws include a list of grounds, reasons that show a parent's unfit conduct, to justify the termination of parental rights. The state must usually prove at least one ground before a court can approve a termination. In general, state laws include child abandonment or neglect as one of the grounds for ending parental rights against the wishes of the mother or father.
Consequences of Terminated Parental Rights
If a state court terminates a parent's rights because of child abandonment or neglect, that parent no longer has a legal relationship to the child. However, one parent's loss of rights does not affect the other parent's rights; the child's other parent may keep parental rights unless the state terminates the rights of both parents. After the termination, the state may decide to find a home for the child with foster parents or arrange a permanent placement with a family. In addition, the termination of parental rights may free the child for adoption.
Appeal After Termination of Parental Rights
In many states, a court order terminating parental rights generally becomes final when issued by the court. In some cases, a parent might be able to appeal the decision. The procedures for an appeal depend on each state's laws — the parent might need to consult with an attorney who handles cases in the state where the court terminated the parent's rights. State laws often establish time limits for the filing of an appeal. For example, state law might require an appeal within a specific number of days or months.
Reinstatement of Parental Rights
A few states allow the possibility of reinstatement, which would return parental rights to a mother or father, after an involuntary termination of parental rights for child abandonment. Each state's child welfare laws determine the availability of reinstatement. If permitted, reinstatement might depend on whether the state has been able to find a permanent placement with a family or arrange an adoption; if so, reinstatement may be unlikely.