Parental rights are some of the most powerful civil rights held by persons under the Constitution. Such rights include the right to the care, custody and control of the parents’ child; the right to discipline the child; and the right to make decisions about what religion (if any) the child will be raised in, and to make decisions about how to educate the child. In Oregon, children are under the legal control of their parents until they reach their 18th birthday, at which point they become legal adults, and can make decisions about where they will live without input from their parents. Until a child turns 18, parents are also expected to support their children financially.
Normally, the state may not interfere with parents’ rights, so long as the parent fulfills his or her obligations to provide for the child’s care and support. However, when parents do not support and care for their children, the state may intervene. The state does this to prevent child abuse and neglect and may criminally prosecute parents as the state sees fit if the parents do not provide adequately for their children or if it is determined that they have abused their children.
If the state believes that the children are in danger from their parents due to abuse and neglect, then the state may temporarily or permanently remove the parents’ rights in order to best protect the best interests of the children. The court will consider all aspects of a child’s life and circumstances in order to determine whether the child should be removed from their home, and to also determine what kinds of services the child and family need.
Anyone who believes a child is in danger or needs help may call the juvenile court or the Oregon Department of Human Services, Child Protective Services division (CPS) Child Abuse Hotline at 1-855-503-SAFE (7233). In Oregon, medical professionals, educational professionals, attorneys, and others are legally required to report evidence of physical or psychological abuse, sexual abuse, or severe neglect to the police or to CPS. Anyone who makes a report in good faith and on reasonable grounds is immune from civil and criminal liability, and in most instances the reporter’s name will remain private.
Typically, CPS investigates reports of abuse and neglect. If the CPS investigation determines that abuse or neglect has taken place, then CPS may immediately remove the child from their home. A hearing will be held within 24 hours, or on the immediate next day when court is in session if removal occurs on a weekend or judicial holiday. At the hearing the court decides whether the child should be returned home or held in shelter care until a full hearing on the facts can take place. The court must also decide if reasonable efforts have been made by CPS to prevent removal of the child from the home. The parents have the right to be represented by a lawyer at all court hearings concerning the removal of the child from their home. At its discretion, the court may provide an attorney for the child and both parents, if the parents and child cannot afford to hire a private attorney.
If the court finds there is sufficient reason to believe a child has been abused or neglected, the child may be placed in the temporary legal custody of CPS or a qualified third party. In all cases, CPS must make a good faith attempt to place the child with a suitable relative, or other third party caregiver who has established a caregiver relationship with the child. Such third parties should contact CPS as soon as they are aware that the child has been removed, and let CPS know that they are available as a placement resource for the child. Such third parties also have a right to intervene and petition the court for caretaker status and/or visitation with the child. If CPS cannot find an appropriate relative or other third party, the child may be placed in foster care.
The parents have a right to a hearing when CPS seeks ongoing temporary legal custody. At any such hearing, CPS must prove it is more likely than not that the child would be in danger if left in the legal custody of the parents.
If parents lose temporary legal custody of the child, their rights to make decisions regarding discipline, education, medical care and placement are limited. Those decisions then become the responsibility of CPS, the caregiver and the court, with input from other professionals as ordered by the court, or requested by CPS. The court may also order the parents to engage in services to remedy the situation that led to their temporary loss of custody before the child will be returned to their care.
While the child is in foster care, a CPS caseworker will work with the parents until the court is convinced that it is safe to return the child home. If the child still remains in foster care after 12 months, the court will conduct a permanency hearing to review the parents’ progress in alleviating the conditions that required the removal of the child from their home. Such permanency hearings may take place prior to 12 months at the request of one of the parents or on the court’s own motion, if there is evidence that both parents are unable to correct the conditions that necessitated the child’s removal in the first place.
If the court concludes that reunification cannot occur within a reasonable time after the permanency hearing, the court may then terminate both parents’ parental rights and release the child for adoption. In Oregon however, courts are loathe to order such a permanent severing until all other possible avenues for reunification have been exhausted.
If the court does determine that the parents’ rights are to be terminated, the parents have a right to appear and object at the termination hearing. At the termination hearing, CPS must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the parents are unfit and that it is in the child’s best interest that they never regain custody. The court then decides whether one or both of the parents’ custodial rights should be terminated. If the court decides to terminate the parents’ rights, the parents may appeal that decision.
Termination of parental rights is permanent – once gone, such rights can never be recovered. As far as the state is concerned, the parents no longer have an obligation to support the child. They also no longer hold any right to discipline or educate the child, and they have no rights to any contact with the child. The court will also determine whether the child will remain in foster care, be placed with legal guardians, or be released for adoption.
Legal editor: Lisa Kenn, September 2019