Q: What are parental rights?
A: The Supreme Court of Ohio has recognized that parents have a constitutionally protected fundamental interest in the care, custody and management of their children. Therefore, the rights of parents to raise their own children are basic and essential. A parent's natural parental rights, however, can always be modified if the welfare of the child is at risk.
Q: If I am a single parent, do I have parental rights?
A: In Ohio, an unwed mother is recognized as the sole legal custodian of a child unless and until the father establishes parentage. Therefore, an unwed mother always has parental rights upon the birth of her child. The biological father of that child has no parental rights unless he establishes his equal right to the child by either acknowledging paternity, or by confirming kinship through DNA testing. Even after parentage is established, an unwed father may be required to petition the court to visit with the child.
Q: If I get divorced, are my parental rights automatically terminated?
A: No. The rights of each natural parent, with respect to where the child will live and which parent gets to visit with the child and when, usually are decided by the time the divorce is final.
Q: The local child services agency is threatening to take my child. Will that terminate my parental rights?
A: No. Even if the child services agency has filed an abuse, neglect, or dependency action in juvenile court against you, your parental rights may not be terminated without due process. Also, you have the right to have an attorney represent you at court hearings to determine whether or not your rights should be terminated. The child services agency cannot move to terminate your rights without first filing a motion expressly asking that the rights be terminated. Such an agency cannot move for termination unless a child has been in its custody for a long period of time.
Q: How are parental rights terminated in Ohio?
A: A natural parent may voluntarily give up parental rights to a child, as in the case of a parent permitting his or her child to be adopted by a stepparent.
If a child services agency moves to terminate parental rights against a parent's wishes, it must have grounds to do so. In Ohio, grounds for termination include: abandonment or extreme parental disinterest; abuse and/or neglect of the child in question or abuse and/or neglect or loss of rights to another child; mental illness or deficiency; alcohol or drug-induced incapacity; felony conviction(s) and/or incarceration; the parent's failure to make reasonable efforts to take steps requested by the child services agency in order to regain custody of the child; sexual abuse; failure to maintain contact with the child while the child is in the care of a child services agency; failure to provide support; a court's determination that the child is "dependent" and in need of services; a determination that termination of parental rights is in the child's best interests; the fact that the child has been in the care of a child services agency for 12 of 22 months; felony assault of a child or sibling; and murder or manslaughter of the child's sibling.
A court must hold a hearing specifically on whether a natural parent's rights can be terminated. The court must decide, by clear and convincing evidence, that termination of parental rights is in the child's best interests.
Q: Once my parental rights are terminated, can they be reestablished?
A: No. Termination of a natural parent's rights is permanent.
A "Law You Can Use" column prepared by attorney Lisa Fields Thompson of Thompson Steward Hall, LLP in Columbus for the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA).
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