American jurisprudence has long held that a parent possesses a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody and control of their child. The fundamental right to parent a child, however, is not absolute, and when the welfare of a child is seriously jeopardized, the state may act on behalf of the child and request that a parent’s rights to their child be terminated.
It is when these two competing rights collide, that a judge must step in and determine whether a parent’s rights to their child should be severed. This is one of the most difficult decisions a superior court judge will ever confront. As a juvenile court judge for four years, I routinely encountered this case type, and had to analyze evidence and testimony in order to determine whether a parent would be able to remain in their child’s life.
Before this decision was made, however, both the parent and the child would spend several months, and in some instances years, in the child welfare system. Once a child is removed from a parent, the Department of Child Safety (DCS) is mandated to provide the parent with services designed to remedy the situation that caused the child to be removed from their parent’s care. During the time that DCS would provide services to the parent, I would periodically conduct court hearings and hear from all of the interested parties in the case; DCS, the parent’s attorney, the child’s attorney or their guardian ad litem and the child’s placement. The purpose of these hearings was to determine if the parent was progressing with DCS services.
If the parent failed to engage in services and show the necessary progress in order to have the child returned to their care, I would then hold a hearing to determine whether the parent’s rights to their child should be severed. At this hearing, I would again hear testimony and consider evidence from DCS, the parent, the child’s guardian ad litem, and other witnesses who possessed relevant testimony regarding the best interests of the child. If, at the conclusion of the hearing, I found that at least one statutory ground supporting termination has been established, and that it was in the child’s best interests to have their parent’s rights terminated, I would issue an order severing the parent’s rights to their child.
Presiding over a parental-rights termination case was never easy; even when the facts clearly showed that the parent could no longer properly care for their child. These decisions were especially difficult because I knew that my ruling would end that parent’s relationship with their child. And even when the evidence clearly showed that the child would be better off without their parent in their life, I could not help but be profoundly sad for these troubled individuals. And although these proceedings are properly focused on placing the child in the most loving and healthiest living environment, at the conclusion of a case that resulted in the termination of a parent’s rights, I honestly hoped and prayed that this parent would find the help they needed and would somehow be able overcome their loss.
Judge, Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One