Any time society has the power to step between a parent and his or her child or children, serious legal consequences are at stake. All parents should be aware of their legal rights, whether in a contested child custody dispute during divorce or in proceedings involving an involuntary termination of parental rights (TPR).
Terminations of parent-child relationships in Arizona are governed by state child welfare laws. Petitions can be filed by any person or agency that has a "legitimate" interest in a child's welfare, including foster parents, physicians, private child welfare agencies or the Child Protective Services (CPS) division of the Arizona Department of Economic Security.
Grounds for TPRs in Arizona
A wide range of allegations can be used as the justification to terminate a parent's relationship with a child. In addition to a consideration of the child's best interests, the juvenile court judge who hears the petition can base a TPR on evidence that:
- A parent has abandoned a child
- A parent has neglected or willfully abused a child, including emotional abuse and failing to protect a child from abuse or neglect by another person
- A parent has a mental illness or drug or alcohol abuse problem that is ongoing and prevents carrying out parental responsibilities
- A parent is incarcerated for a felony that proves unfitness, such as murder of a child, or will be in prison for a sufficient duration to deprive the child of a normal home
- A potential father served with a paternity notice failed to respond within 30 days
- A putative father (a person commonly believed to be the father of a child) failed to file a notice of claim
- A parent or parents have consented to adoption and given up their rights to an adoption agency
- A child has been in foster placement or other out-of-home care under juvenile court supervision for a sufficient time and reunification attempts or remedies of abusive circumstances have not succeeded
- The identity of a child's parents is unknown after three months of attempting to locate them
Once a proper petition has been filed, the court must send notice to parents of their right to appear as a party, and warning them that failure to appear at the initial hearing can result in a termination. Parents who find themselves at this stage of the process are well advised to consult with an Arizona child custody lawyer.
The Legal Process for Terminating Parental Relationships
An initial hearing to consider a petition to terminate a parent-child relationship cannot take place until at least ten days have passed from the point when notice is served upon a child's parent or parents. The initial hearing provides an opportunity for a parent to declare their opposition to the petition, and for the court to schedule pretrial conferences and set the date for a termination adjudication hearing.
After a petition has been filed, the court requests a social study from a relevant person or agency to document the social history of the child and parent, their present condition, future plans for the child and other circumstances of the petition. Unless the proposed plan for the child involves placement with grandparents or other relatives, the social study must provide information that shows the placement to be in the child's best interests.
Termination hearings are not open to the public, but a parent is entitled to be represented by a lawyer and can request that witness testimony be heard on his or her behalf. The most important service a family law attorney can provide is to help the parent prepare and present a clear alternative to the allegations of abuse or neglect that are outlined in the petition and social study.
If the court determines that the child's best interests require a termination of parental rights, it will appoint an individual as the child's guardian. All such orders must be in writing and must recite the factual findings that the judge used as the basis for the decision. However, a parent who disputes the court's findings is entitled to appeal the court's order.
Many Arizona family law issues can lead up to a TPR petition or play a role at the termination hearing, including child support enforcement actions, child abuse allegations in divorce cases and disputes over parenting time/visitation. By working closely with a family law attorney, a parent can take on the legal complexities while ensuring that they have an aggressive advocate on their side.