Typically, parents who have been through a divorce are able to work together to ensure that their child(ren) are safe, cared for, and able to maintain relationships with each parent. However, in rare instances, a parent will observe that the other parent is either abusive, neglectful, or unfit as a parent in some manner. A parent might consider Utah laws regarding grounds for termination of parental rights, and submit a petition to a Utah Juvenile Court requesting that the other parent’s parental rights be terminated.
However, even if the other parent’s behavior meets one or more of the statutory grounds for termination of parental rights, does that mean that a Utah Judge would automatically terminate his or her parental rights? If a Judge finds that a parent is unfit, will the parent definitely lose parental rights? What about a parent who is found to have neglected their child?
Prior to August 23, 2018, the answers to these questions from one judge might vary from yes, no, or, it depends; (for example, it depends on whether there is a prospective adoptive stepparent ready to adopt the child). Essentially, the laws have not provided judges with entirely clear guidance, until recently.
On August 23, 2017, the Utah Appellate Court published a new opinion – V.T.B. v J.P.B., 2018 UT App 157 (Utah Ct. App 2018)*, clarifying some of the standards that juvenile court judges should use when it comes to determining the answers to these questions.
The “best interests” of children has always been a paramount, necessary factor in termination of parental rights cases. A court must find not only that (1) a parent is unfit, abusive, or neglectful, but also that (2) a termination of the parent-child relationship would be in the child’s best interests. However, before August 23, 2018, juvenile court judges could “almost automatically” find that the “best interests” factor existed, as long as the Court found that grounds for termination existed. In other words, if a parent was unfit, abusive, or neglectful, his or her parental rights were “almost automatically” terminated.
However, the Utah Appellate Court’s new decision has emphasized the importance of the second factor, the “best interests” factor, which should no longer be, essentially, bypassed. Ultimately, even if a parent is unfit, a Court could find that it’s not actually in the child’s best interests to legally sever the parental relationship with that parent. One reason the Court could find that it is not in the child’s best interests could be that the Court does not find that it’s “strictly necessary” for that parent’s rights to be terminated. (The Court clarified that this “strictly necessary” factor is encompassed in, rather than separate from, the “best interests” requirement.)
What does “strictly necessary” mean in a non-DCFS case (i.e., a case wherein Utah’s child protective agency is not involved), wherein the parents are not together, and only one parent is at risk of losing parental rights? The Utah Appellate Court’s August 2018 decision clarified that courts will, when determining whether it is “strictly necessary” to terminate a parent’s rights, definitely give consideration to whether or not there is a stepparent in place ready to adopt, or a similar situation such as “another person to step in to the role as the child’s father [or mother].” However, the Court stated clearly that it is not necessarily required in every case that a “pending adoption or similar change in the child’s permanent living situation” be in place in order for a court to find that it’s “strictly necessary” to terminate parental rights. An example the Court highlighted is: when a parent has been highly abusive against a child, courts will most likely consider it strictly necessary to terminate the abusive parent’s rights, regardless of other existing circumstances.
So in summary, if you are in the unfortunate scenario where the other parent of your child is neglectful, abusive, or otherwise unfit, and you are considering filing a petition to terminate his or her parental rights, you should keep in mind that a judge will consider whether there is a stepparent in place ready to adopt, or otherwise another long-term parental figure in the child’s life. In some cases, it could be the difference-maker; in other cases, it might not matter. Every situation and set of facts is different, and it is always best to consult with an attorney.
*The Utah Appellate Court’s decision was upheld by the Utah Supreme Court on August 14, 2020, in B.T.B. et al. v. V.T.B., 2020 UT 60 (Utah 2020).