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Can Parental Rights Be Terminated in a Georgia Custody Matter?

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The State of Georgia employs a two-pronged approach to evaluating the termination of an individual’s parental rights. The first consideration determines whether the statutory grounds for termination have been met. The statutory grounds for the termination of parental rights under O.C.G.A § 15-11-310 include:

  • Parental consent to termination of the voluntary surrender of the child for adoption;
  • Physical or emotional abuse of the child by the parent;
  • 12 or more months of failure to provide child support as specified by a court decree
  • Abandonment of the child; or
  • Lack of proper care and control of the child, resulting in dependency, and a determination that either severing the foster relationship, or failing to terminate would cause harm to the child.

If any one of the above grounds is met, the court will then consider whether termination is in the best interests of the child. To determine this, the court will assess a variety of elements, including:

  • The child’s emotional attachment to the parent;
  • The child’s wishes regarding the parent’s continued role in their life;
  • The child’s need for stability, including maintenance of parent, sibling and family relationships;
  • The benefit to the child of a stable, permanent home and the risks of delaying those benefits;
  • The current harm that an unstable home is having on the child; and
  • The child’s future physical and mental health

In addition to this two-pronged determination matrix, there is a third instance in which the court can terminate parental rights without consulting the above factors. If one parent murders the child’s other parent, the court can terminate parental rights in the best interest of the child.

Juvenile courts in Georgia have terminated parental rights for any and all of the reasons above over the last decade. A review of appellate court decisions in the last five years has provided valuable information regarding how the juvenile court decisions are reviewed and which will and will not be upheld. One of the main cases of the last five years was In re J.A.B., 336 Ga. App. 367, 785 S.E.2d 43 (2016). In this case, the juvenile court had terminated the mother’s parental rights citing both dependency and abandonment, using the terms interchangeably. The appellate court cited this lack of specificity as a symptom of the larger issue, that the juvenile court did not approach their decision with the proper deference towards the serious weight of the decision. Citing In re S.O.C., 332 Ga. App. 738, 743, 774 S.E.2d 785 (2015), the judge states,” There is… no judicial determination which has more drastic significance than that of permanently severing a natural parent-child relationship. Accordingly, compelling facts are required to terminate parental rights.” This case set the bar high for juvenile courts, requiring impartial, careful and deliberate scrutiny of the facts of the case prior to making the decision to terminate parental rights.

Section (a)(5) of O.C.G.A § 15-11-310 has been especially problematic on appeal.  Numerous cases over the past five years that have relied on this section of the statute have been reversed. In Interest of R. S. T., 345 Ga. App. 300, 812 S.E.2d 614 (2018); Hewlett v. Hewlett, 349 Ga. App. 267, 825 S.E.2d 622 (2019); In Interest of A. F., 346 Ga. App. 538, 816 S.E.2d 496 (2018); Interest of A.S., 339 Ga. App. 875, 794 S.E.2d 672 (2016); Interest of D.M., 339 Ga. App. 46, 793 S.E.2d 422 (2016); In Interest of E.M.D., 339 Ga. App. 189, 793 S.E.2d 489 (2016); In Interest of D. W., 340 Ga. App. 508, 798 S.E.2d 49 (2017) While the issue of dependency has been easier to support, the issue in these cases has been (a)(5)(A-B), the section that states that returning the child to the parent or otherwise maintaining the parent-child relationship would be detrimental to the child. In these cases, the higher court found that the juvenile court provided clear evidence as to dependency, but did not state the process by which they reached the conclusion that the dependency was likely to continue. In Interest of D. W., 340 Ga. App. 508.

Other sections of O.C.G.A. § 15-11-310 are less subjective than (a)(5) and have been easier to interpret and uphold upon appeal. Lack of support payments under subsection (a)(3) can be easily documented.  Abandonment under subsection (a)(4) has specified requirements that must be met. Aggravated circumstances under subsection (a)(2) is slightly more subjective, but abuse allegations can be supported by past evidence such as medical records and therapist’s testimony. The determination in (a)(5)(A-B) requires the juvenile court to make a judgment about the future well-being of the child based on dependency, which can come about due to a variety of factors, both permanent and temporary. Basing termination decisions on the determination of the permanence of the child’s dependent status has proven questionable in several appellate cases.

The termination of parental rights is not one that the Georgia courts takes lightly. The burden is on the juvenile court to both assess the facts and, equally importantly, to clearly state the process by which it determined that termination was in the best interest of the child.

Termination is permanent and therefore these cases and compliance with the governing statutes are carefully considered by the courts. An experienced custody attorney can help with with your matter.  The Atlanta child custody lawyers at Buckhead Family Law are here to assist you with your case and help this be a positive turning point for your family – not an end. Schedule a consultation by calling at 404-600-1403.

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