Georgia, like every other state, strongly favors keeping the parent-child relationship intact. Severing that connection is a drastic step—one the state takes very seriously. That's why the law sets out specific reasons and a rigorous process for terminating a parent's rights.
Typically, the Georgia Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS) will seek to terminate parental rights after a judge has found that the child is a "dependent" of the court based on a parent's failure to provide proper "care or control," and the DFCS hasn't been able to return the child safely to the parent because:
Parental rights may also be terminated in other circumstances, including when a parent has:
(Ga. Code § 15-11-310(a) (2023).)
The process of terminating a parent's rights begins with filing a written petition with the court. Usually, the DFCS will file the petition with the juvenile court. But when the agency or an individual is requesting termination of parental rights as part of an adoption proceeding, the petition should be filed in the superior court.
Whoever files the petition to terminate parental rights must also serve everyone who has an interest in the proceedings (such as the child's mother, legal father, guardian, or legal custodian) with a summons (legal notice) and copy of the petition.
A petition to terminate parental rights must be served on any man who's identified as the child's biological father (but isn't a legal father), including a man who has:
The notice will inform the biological father that he may lose all rights to the child unless, within 30 days, he files a petition to "legitimate" the child in Georgia and files notice of that petition in the court handling the termination of parental rights. (Ga. Code § 15-11-283 (2023).)
When judges are considerating a request to terminate parental rights, they must first determine if one of the legal grounds (discussed above) exist. Then, they must decide whether it would be in the child's best interests to terminate the parent's rights. When making that decision, judges must consider any relevant factors, including:
The judge will presume that termination of parental rights is in the child's best interests if the parent murdered the child's other parent. (Ga. Code § 15-11-310 (2023).)
Once a judge has terminated a parent's rights, the child is free to be adopted by someone else, and the parent no longer has any legal rights to:
Until the child is adopted, however, a parent whose rights have been terminated will still have the obligation to support the child financially, and the child may still inherit from the parent. (Ga. Code § 15-11-261 (2023).)
Parents may voluntarily relinquish their parental rights. Usually, a parent will do this before the child is adopted or placed for adoption. (Ga. Code § 19-8-26 (2023).)
This is very serious step. The agency accepting the relinquishment must be convinced that the parent is doing so with full knowledge of the consequences. It must also be clear that the parent isn't impaired or suffering a disability that would diminish the capacity to make a voluntary and informed decision.
Georgia law gives parents a very short window of time to change their mind and revoke a voluntary surrender of parental rights. Within four days of signing the surrender, the parent must deliver a written notice in person, or send it by registered mail or overnight delivery, to the agency that received the original relinquishment. (Ga. Code § 19-8-9(a) (2023).)
If a child hasn't been adopted within three years after a parent's right have been terminated—or an adoption is unlikely even if it hasn't yet been three years—the child may file a petition to have the parent's rights reinstated. (The parent has no right to make this request.)
Children who are at least 14 years old must sign the petition themselves unless there's a good reason they can't do so.
The judge will dismiss the child's petition if the parent whose rights were terminated can't be located or objects to the reinstatement. Otherwise, the judge will grant the request if clear and convincing evidence shows that the child isn't likely to be adopted, and that reinstatement of parental rights would be in the child's best interests. Among other things, the judge will consider whether the child is mature enough to express a preference, whether the parent is now fit, and whether the reinstatement would pose a risk to a child's health, welfare, or safety. (Ga. Code § 15-11-323 (2023).)
Parents who are facing a proceeding to terminate their parental rights are entitled to have an attorney represent them. Considering the dramatic—and possibly traumatic—consequences of losing your parental rights, take full advantage of the opportunity to have a lawyer represent you and present the kind of evidence needed to convince the judge that you're willing and able to be a fit parent.
When the termination proceeding is in juvenile court, you may have the right to a court-appointed attorney if you can't afford to hire one on your own. Be sure to ask the court about this as soon as you receive notice of the proceeding. (Ga. Code §15-11-262 (2023).)