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Parenting disputes, and accusations of being a bad or unfit parent, are extremely common in the world of divorce, juvenile, and family law. Many parents enter the courtroom with a laundry list of accusations of poor parenting against the other parent, often including abuse and/or neglect. However, most allegations are not extreme enough to rise to the level of a finding that a parent is truly unfit to raise their child, as the courts have consistently upheld that parents have a constitutional right to raise their child and considerable leeway in how they raise them. It is important to know how those allegations can impact your child custody case and, in extreme cases, what steps can be taken to prove in court that your ex is a truly unfit parent in order to protect the emotional and physical safety of your child.
It is critical to know that an individual’s parental rights cannot be involuntarily terminated, nor can an individual voluntarily relinquish their parental rights, in a domestic relations case. Many child custody clients inquire about whether it is possible to terminate the other parent’s rights as part of their divorce or parentage case, given their concerns about the other parent’s behavior and the impact on the child. However, that is simply not possible under current domestic relations law in Illinois.
Significant Restriction On Parenting Time If a Parent Is Unfit
Family Law does allow for significant restrictions to be placed on a parent’s parenting time and decision-making authority for a child, including reserving parenting time, mandating that all parenting time be supervised, and denying a parent decision-making authority for a child, domestic relations judges are unable to completely terminate an individual’s rights to parent their child—even in cases involving severe abuse and/or neglect. A judge can find that a parent is unfit to participate in certain kinds of parenting time or decision-making for the child, but generally, the court tries to facilitate a means for the parent to rehabilitate themselves in order to have increased time and influence in the child’s life. The courts strongly favor the idea that it is in a child’s best interests to have two involved and active parents in a child’s life, even if the parent in question is less than ideal, and only prohibits contact between the child and parent in the most extreme cases.
Termination of Parental Rights
Termination of parental rights does occur in adoption court, however, when an adoptive parent is seeking to become a child’s legal parent. The adoption process mandates that the parental rights of at least one biological parent be terminated for the adoption to be completed unless the parent is deceased. In adoption cases, a parent can either consent to having their parental rights terminated or contest the adoption. When a parent contests the adoption, the court must then conduct a hearing to examine the fitness of the parent to determine:
1) whether the parent is “unfit” to parent the child and their parental rights should be terminated; and
2) if said termination is in the best interests of the child.
Generally, that decision is made after two hearings during which the judge will hear evidence as to the unfitness of the biological parent and what impact their behavior has had on the child and their well-being.