Termination: a rigorous process
Termination of parental rights is a legal process as lengthy as its name.
New federal legislation, called the Adoption and Safe Families Act, requires agencies to ask judges to sever the rights of abusive or neglectful parents whose children remain in foster care 15 months. But asking for it then doesn't mean it will occur anytime soon after that.
In some cases, before the termination petition may be filed, agencies such as Allegheny County Children and Youth Services have to ask a judge to change the goal for the child to adoption. The goal initially would have been to return the child to the parents.
Also before petitioning for termination, CYS tries to notify parents in person that it plans to sever their rights.
That isn't too difficult if CYS knows where the parents live. But often the agency doesn't. The caseworker may have lost track of a homeless mother or one who hops from one relative's house to another. It may never have had contact with the father. In those cases, it must search.
Lawyers at CYS also must gather the evidence they need under state law to terminate rights. This may include proof that the parent has failed to visit or support a child in any way for six months or that parents have made no progress toward renting an apartment or getting off drugs.
In Allegheny County, it typically takes three to six months after the goal is changed to adoption for the termination petition to be filed.
If parents don't go to the termination hearing, their rights are almost always severed that day, and in some cases, the children are adopted by their foster parents immediately after that hearing.
If the birth parents do attend, the hearing is postponed, often for another two to three months because time must be found on busy judges' schedules for a lengthy hearing.
Judges often issue termination decisions within a week after the hearing. Less frequently, they'll ask the attorneys to write briefs supporting their positions. That may take months because they'll need a transcript of the hearing.
If the parents want to appeal a termination, they must tell the judge within 10 days what they believe is wrong with the decision. Then, within 20 days after that, they must file an appeal before Superior Court.
It can take a year for Superior Court to decide these appeals.