Termination of Parental Rights

When families fail to care for and protect children, states have the authority, when granted legal jurisdiction by the court, to initiate family services and to provide substitute care for the children. The prevailing legal standard for the care and protection of children is the best interest standard. The state is expected to act in the best interest of the child. Termination of parental rights is a legal action initiated in state family or juvenile court by the state’s child protective services department. It typically follows a series of care and protection hearings and interventions designed to protect children within the confines of child welfare laws and regulations promoting child safety, family life, and parental rights. Cases of severe maltreatment, defined by statute, may move immediately to termination of parental rights without the provision of family services. Less serious care and protection cases are resolved without a termination hearing. When the conditions for family reunification remain unsuitable, a termination hearing is initiated according to state statutes, child protective service regulations, and codified timelines. The content of termination statutes varies across state jurisdictions (in some instances, federal statutes apply). Common thresholds for state jurisdiction and subsequent termination of parental rights include serious harm or the threat of serious harm to a child due to a caregiver’s physical abuse, sexual abuse, or physical and emotional neglect of the child. Some statutes contain other criteria, such as the amount of time the child has been in substitute placement and the child’s attachment to substitute caregivers after a defined period of time in their custody.

Termination of parental rights is a legal action and a subsection of child and family law and psychology. In termination proceedings, the attorney’s role depends on whom the attorney represents. The child protective services agency’s attorney, employed by the state, represents the interests of the state in the care and protection of children. When facing a termination hearing, parents in states allowing indigent funding are provided with attorneys. In other states, parents must hire attorneys privately. Usually, each caregiver has his or her own attorney. Children may be provided their own attorneys to represent their expressed interests and guardians ad litem to represent their best interests as determined by substituted judgment. The role of the psychologist, as a forensic evaluator or consultant, depends on the referral source and the referral question(s). The psychologist is retained by the court, the state, or one of the attorneys for the parent(s) or child. Evaluations are requested for five main reasons: (1) to assess the caregiver’s need for interventions after the state assumes jurisdiction; (2) to evaluate the risk of harm, if any, the caregiver poses to the child; (3) to assess the child’s level of functioning and intervention needs; (4) to assess the caregiver’s amenability to interventions; and (5) to determine the caregiver’s participation and progress in recommended interventions. Referral questions may be comprehensive, involving the evaluation of multiple family members; or they may be limited to a specific feature of the case.

A properly qualified forensic psychologist has knowledge of jurisdictional legal and regulatory care and protection standards. The acceptance of a referral takes place within the legal context. The referral question is framed in a manner that respects parents’ rights, the rights of children, the socioeconomic and cultural dynamics of the case, and the role and purview of the judicial finder of fact. Psychologists consult ethical standards and guidelines for practice, and they have a strong foundation in theories and research relevant to child maltreatment, parenting, child development, parental risk of harm through violence and neglect, parental mental illness and substance abuse, parental intellectual functioning, and parental poverty. They use the forensic assessment report and court testimony as communication mechanisms addressed to all parties relevant to the case.

Legal and Regulatory Standards

Societal responses to child maltreatment take many shapes, with the legal system representing the most formal mechanism of response. The nature and breadth of state jurisdiction in child care and protection matters are found in legal definitions of child maltreatment and in legal and regulatory procedures for identifying, investigating, intervening in, and making judicial decisions about family reunification or separation. Broad constitutional rights serve as the legal basis for family privacy, parental rights, and children’s rights. Federal regulations influence developments and changes in state statutes, with the most recent guidance found in the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. Child-abuse-reporting requirements and statutes influence the frequency and nature of cases entering the child protective services system. Procedural laws and regulations govern the sequence of hearings and the structure and process of service provision as cases move through the system. The confluence of these sources of laws and procedures provides a framework for the relative judicial weight given to state jurisdiction, family privacy, parental rights, and children’s interests in their protection from harm or the threat of harm. From a legal perspective, children are neither fully independent nor fully dependent legal actors in actions taken by the state over the competence of their caregivers.

A typical case in which a termination hearing is eventuated moves through the following phases: an anonymous report of maltreatment by a mandated or a nonmandated reporter; an initial screening of the complaint by the local or regional child protective services agency representatives; an investigation of the allegations in the complaint; an emergency evidentiary hearing and removal of the children from the custody of the caregivers; an evidentiary hearing over whether the emergency removal will stand or will be overturned; placement of the children in substitute care; provision of relevant services to the caregivers and the children; periodic reviews and hearings relevant to the continued need for state intervention and service provision; and a final evidentiary hearing that leads to an outcome of a reunification plan, permanent substitute care, or termination of parental rights. Only the most serious and protracted cases reach termination. If their rights are terminated, parents occasionally are allowed posttermi-nation contact with their children under carefully specified and limited circumstances. More commonly, ties are severed, and posttermination contact is disallowed.

Forensic Assessment in Context

Referrals for forensic assessment in the context of care and protection matters are made to assist the court in gathering data relevant to the case. Referrals may originate directly from the court by prior agreement of all involved parties, through an ex parte motion by the attorney for one parent or a joint motion by the attorneys for both parents, from a representative or an attorney for the child protective services agency, through a regional child protection agency’s contracted relationship with specific consultants/evaluators, or through an ex parte motion by the attorney for the child. Ex parte motions are those that occur in front of the judge without the knowledge of the other parties to the case. They preserve attorney-client privilege until the report is introduced into evidence. Motions may or may not be requested in this private fashion. The use of exparte motions gives the attorney the option of quashing results unfavorable to the client’s case. The disadvantage is the difficulty of retaining attorney-client confidentiality and protecting the evaluation results under the attorney work product rule because of the eventual need for the evaluator to contact multiple parties to conduct a thorough evaluation that would typify most referral questions in care and protection matters.

Referral questions cover a range of topics. The evaluator might be asked to assess the child’s psychological well-being in the aftermath of maltreatment or threats of maltreatment, to determine what services should be offered to the child and/or the caregiver to promote child well-being and safety, the amenability of the caregiver to interventions designed to reduce the risk of harm to the child, the psychological impact on the child of a return to the custody of the caregiver, the psychological impact on the child of permanent substitute care or parental rights termination, and the child’s attachment to substitute caregivers.

Ethical Standards and Guidelines for Practice

Psychologists and other mental health professionals seek the relevant education, professional training, postdoctoral training, and continuing education. They turn to ethical standards and principles to guide their practice. Professional organizations develop guidelines for practice. Guidelines have been written specifically for the subspecialty of forensic assessment and consultation in care and protection matters. Guidelines relevant to cultural competence are particularly important because of the broad diversity of families that come to the attention of the care and protection system. Advocacy organizations for child welfare sometimes develop their own suggested practice guidelines.

Child Maltreatment

Legal definitions of child maltreatment are drawn from statutes, child protective service regulations, and case law. Social science definitions and nosologies of child maltreatment may not be fully consistent with the legal standards because of differing classification schemes and thresholds for maltreatment. Research on the etiology and impact of child maltreatment is complicated by differences in the definitions of maltreatment, differing standards for quantifying the scope and impact of mal-treatment, and differing classification and diagnostic schemes. Theories of child maltreatment are drawn from sociobiology, the emerging field of genetics and human behavior, the psychology of human attachment, and the psychology of the inner life of the individual. Such theories may also take into account violence in the individual and society, parental attribution style, parental intellectual and social support resources, the impact of mental illness and substance abuse on parenting, intergenerational transmission or desistance of child maltreatment (i.e., whether parents who were vic-timized by child abuse become abusers or set about making sure they do not become abusers), social isolation, youthful parenting, and macrosocial issues such as neighborhood quality or the stress of parental impoverishment. Scholars are careful to point out that parents may parent competently even when they face multiple challenges. Parental factors such as mental illness, parental substance abuse, or intellectual limitations must be linked directly to the maltreatment to be considered legally relevant. Parental violence and neglect involve multiple complex factors that result in child maltreatment by some but not all parents. Research usefully illustrates the features that are common in cases of child maltreatment, but none of the features or combinations of features is isomorphic with maltreatment per se. Although much is known about the factors that predict child maltreatment, the relative weight of individual factors is less clear. Cumulative risk and chronicity of risk are not well researched, in part because of the inherent ethical and methodological challenges of conducting relevant empirical research in applied settings.

Parenting and Child Development

Theories of parenting and child development provide a framework for considering multiple styles of parenting, multiple forms of family structure, and child development trajectories. Theory serves as an organizing framework for understanding the inner life of individuals, family dynamics, the social biological context, and the cultural context of cases. It facilitates the use of logic and reasoning in the integration of evaluation data. Research provides a basis for understanding family relationships, understanding the family system from the child’s perspective, recommending relevant interventions, understanding and interpreting parental risk of harm, and placing parameters around interpretations and recommendations based on limitations in the state of the science. A forensic assessment report with legal utility has probative value based on the science of psychology as it is applied to and interpreted within specific legal standards.

Forensic Assessment in Care and Protection Matters

Evaluation methodology and forensic assessment reports in care and protection matters vary with the breadth and comprehensiveness of the referral questions^). A typical evaluation involves an interview with the caregiver(s), an interview with the child, caregiver-child observations, collateral information, relevant records, and psychological assessment and/or risk assessment measures when indicated. Multimodal assessment is the most optimal approach. Focus is placed on hypothesized factors that potentiated family distress and child maltreatment, the viability and treatment utility of the service plan, whether conditions have changed or have been adequately addressed, and whether positive changes might be stable over time. Evaluation methodology might alternatively focus on the child’s attachment to substitute caregivers and the child’s readiness for adoption. Depending on the referral question, the interpretation section of a report might address the parent’s level of functioning; the strength and quality of the parent-child relationship; child maltreatment risk and the mediators of risk; parental amenability to treatment; accommodations that might contribute to parental amenability to treatment; the expected intervention outcome for a parent or a child; specific changes (or lack thereof) in a parental condition, such as mental illness or substance abuse; support services that would allow a parent with intellectual limitations to parent adequately; the description of a particular child’s special needs and their bearing on the child’s parenting needs; and the matter of whether a positive intervention outcome might be expected within statutory time limits. Meaningful reports and testimony answer the referral question(s) with scientific integrity, within the parameters of the legal standards and context, in a tone respectful of all parties to the case and the judiciary, and with appropriate caveats.


  1. American Psychological Association, Committee on Professional Practice and Standards. (1988). Guidelines for psychological evaluations in child protection matters. Washington, DC: Author.
  2. Belsky, J. (1993). Etiology of child maltreatment: A developmental-ecological analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 413—134.
  3. Condie, L. (2003). Parenting evaluations for the court (Perspectives in Law and Psychology, Vol. 18, R. Roesch, Ed.). New York: Kluwer-Plenum.
  4. Dubowitz, H. (1999). The families of neglected children. In M. E. Lamb (Ed.), Parenting and child development in “nontraditional” families (pp. 327-345). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  5. Goldstein, R. D. (1999). Child abuse and neglect: Cases and materials. Paul, MN: West.

See also: