In Georgia, as in other states, the law favors keeping families intact and keeping children with their parents. The termination of a parent's rights permanently severs the parent-child relationship, so the law treats these proceedings very seriously. A parent's rights may be terminated in Georgia only for certain reasons, and only if the procedures laid out in the statute are followed.
This article provides some background information on the termination of parental rights in Georgia. For all of our articles on family law in Georgia, see our Georgia Divorce and Family Law page.
Procedure and Notice Requirements
A proceeding to terminate a parent's rights begins when someone with "knowledge of the facts" (such as another family member) files a petition for the termination of parental rights. In Georgia, the petition is brought in juvenile court. In fact, juvenile courts have exclusive jurisdiction over termination proceedings except in the case of adoption, for which the Superior Court shares concurrent jurisdiction. Because of the sensitive nature of termination proceedings, the petition must be verified and endorsed by the juvenile court before it is filed.
Once a petition for termination of parental rights is filed, the court will appoint an attorney to represent the child. Unlike in most civil proceedings, the court will also appoint an attorney for the parents if they can show they are indigent. Georgia law recognizes the gravity of terminating parental rights, and making sure everyone is represented by counsel helps the court ensure that all of the relevant facts are raised.
The petition must served (delivered) on the parents. If a parent fails to respond to the petition or appear in court, the court may take the child into protective custody.
A hearing must be scheduled within 90 days after the petition is filed. The hearing is conducted without a jury; it is up to a judge alone to determine whether to grant or deny a petition to terminate parental rights in Georgia.
Reasons for Terminating Parental Rights
Under Georgia law (Section 15-11-94), a court may only terminate parental rights if one or more of the following circumstances has occurred:
- the parent consented (in writing) to the termination or voluntarily surrendered the child for adoption
- the parent willfully failed to comply with a child support order for at least 12 months
- the parent abandoned the child
- the parent has been convicted of murdering the child's other parent, and/or
- the court finds parental "misconduct or inability."
What is Parental Misconduct or Inability?
A court will find parental misconduct or inability only if it finds that all four elements listed in Section 15-11-94(b)(4)(A) of the Georgia Code are met. These four statutory elements are:
- the child is a deprived child
- the parent failed to exercise proper parental care or control and this is the reason why the child is deprived
- this cause of deprivation is likely to continue or will not likely be remedied, and
- the continued deprivation will cause or is likely to cause serious physical, mental, emotional, or moral harm to the child.
Courts in Georgia must follow a two-step procedure when determining whether to terminate parental rights because of parental misconduct or inability. First, the court must determine whether there is clear and convincing evidence of parental misconduct or inability. Georgia law provides a list of factors the court may look at, but it is by no means exhaustive. The list includes factors such as drug or alcohol abuse, conviction of a felony, abuse of the child, neglect of the child, and injury or death to a sibling resulting from parental neglect or abuse. If the child is not in the custody of the parent whose rights are at issue, the court will also look at whether the parent (usually for at least one year prior to the petition) failed significantly to develop a parental relationship with the child, to provide for the child as required by law or judicial decree, or to comply with a reunification plan.
Once a court determines that there is parental misconduct or inability, it must then determine whether it is in the best interest of the child to terminate the parental rights of the parent at issue. As with other issues involving children in Georgia, the court has broad discretion in making this decision.
Effect of Termination of Parental Rights
An order terminating parental rights forever terminates the rights and obligations of the parent at issue. The parent no longer has a right even to notice of further proceedings regarding the child.
Once a Georgia court terminates a parent's rights, the court must determine where to place the child. Courts will look to other blood relatives, the Department of Human Resources, other licensed child placing agencies, or foster homes. As with most other Georgia family law standards, the court's overriding concern will be the best interest of the child.