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As we showed you in the first lesson, often the objective of the foster care system is to try to reunify a child with their birth family. However, when a judge comes to the conclusion the birth parents can’t responsibly look after the child, their “parental rights” are terminated. In this case, the court will try to establish a long term permanency plan, such as adoption, to give the child a stable home.
As you can see in the data below, 15%–20% of foster children will have their parental rights terminated in any given year. Those numbers have been steady for years. However, the percentage of children who get formally adopted (often taking 14–18 months) thereafter has steadily moved up.
The laws around when a court can terminate parental rights vary by state. Nearly all states allow termination when the child has been abandoned or the parent has been convicted of a violent crime against the child.
If a birth parent hasn’t made large enough strides to address the reason the child was removed in the first place, a judge may move to terminate parental rights. Below are the grounds on which rights tend to be terminated.
Technically, the Adoption and Safe Families Act requires state agencies to try to get parental rights terminated when the child’s been in the foster care system for 15 of the previous 22 months. Yet, many states provide for exceptions, and they can be broadly interpreted, including if:
It’s in the child’s best interest not to have rights terminated
State services have not made best efforts to help the birth parent. However, “best efforts” aren’t required for termination in some cases (e.g. in the case of some violent crimes)
What’s more, in a number of large states (e.g. New York and California), parental rights cannot be terminated over the objection of a child ages 12–15 (state dependent) and up.
In many instances, this can be a long, difficult process for foster-to-adopt parents and can feel frustrating at times. Many have expressed they observed little accountability, consistency, or consequence in this process and some worry that the interest of the birth parent is placed before what’s best for the child.
If you’d prefer to foster a child who’s parental rights have already been terminated, that’s often possible. Alternatively, agencies will often know of circumstances where rights have not yet been terminated, but it’s looking like an eventuality.
Generally speaking, when a family initiates the process to adopt a child from the foster care system, the process works out. A study of foster children in Illinois showed that in the period between when a child went to live with an adoptive family and the adoption was finalized, only 12% of adoptions were “disrupted”. Once an adoption went through, in less than 6% of cases were the adoptions “dissolved” and the child returned back to the foster system.