It doesn’t happen often, and that’s something to be thankful for. Yet, a stark reality of juvenile justice court is that sometimes a relationship between a parent and child is severed. Sometimes a parent chooses this.
It is hard for most parents to imagine any situation in which they would sign a paper that relieved them of all legal responsibility or connectivity to a biological child. This paper does exist and some parents do choose this route.
Why? That can be a complex question with many answers. Some parents know that if they don’t sign over their rights their rights will eventually be terminated because they have refused to engage in services, have legally abandoned the child by going months without making contact with the child, or have not been able to get clean of illegal substances. Some parents acknowledge that the foster home their child is placed in provides a safer, more stable environment for the child to grow.
Some parents choose to willingly sign over their rights instead of heading to termination because termination has very severe, lasting consequences. If a parent were to have their rights terminated any subsequent children who enter the system would be on a fast track to termination as well, as the parent has proven incapable of remedying the dysfunction that first brought them into the system.
No matter what the reason for signing what is officially called a Final and Irrevocable Surrender for Purposes of Adoption, the atmosphere of the courtroom is always sad. A parent appears before the judge, who goes through a list of questions with the parent to make sure that the parent understands the gravity of signing the document. The judge makes sure that the parent knows that, even if the foster/adoptive parent dies, the biological parent will not regain parental rights. If the prospective adoptive parents are married, the judge asks the biological parent who they would like the child to be with in the circumstance of divorce.
During this fairly long process the courtroom is usually quiet, and parents that sign often are tearful. A bailiff or clerk may approach and offer Kleenexes. Some parents shake, others have needed to take a seat while signing. This document will forever change both the parent’s and child’s life. Everyone in the courtroom knows that this decision is wrenching, even if it does lead to a better life for the child.
After signing the document the parent is no longer a party to the case. They will no longer be notified when their child’s case is scheduled in court. DCFS will no longer pay for services for the parent, and visitation between the parent and the child will either cease or will be left up to the discretion of the adoptive parents. Some biological parents continue to have contact if it is a grandmother, aunt, or other relative who is adopting. Yet, this contact is the choice of the adoptive parent and can be monitored, reduced, or declined by the adoptive parent at any time.
DCFS will continue to monitor the child’s case until the adoption is completed. The same applies to CASA as well.
The truth is that you never get used to it. No matter how many times you bear witness to a parent signing over their rights, no matter how long the child has been in the care of the adoptive parents, no matter how hard the parents have struggled with their presenting problems (drug abuse, repeated partner violence, uncontrolled severe mental health issues, sexual crimes) it is always terribly sad to watch a parent sever their legal ties to their child. However, a child languishing for years in the system, unable to go home because the parent is unable or unwilling to fix the presenting problems and seeing the child unable to commit fully to a forever
family is sad as well.