Terminating Parental Rights in North Carolina

Individuals can have their legal parenting rights taken away by the courts. Involuntary termination of parental rights can occur when the parents break certain laws that place their children in danger or are considered a threat to the health and safety of the child. If someone is threatening to take away your parenting rights, you should talk to a family law attorney who can help protect your family and defend your rights.

Who Can Terminate a Parent's Rights in North Carolina

In most cases, petitions to terminate parental rights are filed against parents in cases of alleged abuse, neglect, or drug and alcohol dependency. This usually involves the County Department of Social Services (DSS), filing a petition after a parent is suspected of abuse or neglect.

A parent can also file a petition to terminate the parental rights of the other parent. This can involve parents who are separated or where one parent abandons the child. The legal guardian can also petition to terminate parenting rights, as can any person who filed a petition for adoption or any person who has lived with the child for a period of two or more years.

Reasons for Terminating Parental Rights

Termination of parental rights is a very serious action and requires showing the petition meets the grounds for termination and termination of parental rights are in the best interest of the child. Grounds for termination include:

  • Abuse or neglect of the child
  • Leaving a child in foster care for more than a year
  • Failure to pay child support
  • Failure of a father to establish paternity
  • Dependency
  • Abandonment
  • Committing a violent felony
  • Terminated parenting rights of another child

Even after establishing that the grounds exist to terminate a parent's rights, the court still considers the best interests of the child in deciding whether to terminate the parent's rights.

Abuse or Neglect

A petition to terminate parental rights can be filed immediately after allegations of abuse or neglect, or based on prior incidents of abuse. When a parent is facing allegations of serious abuse or neglect, the court may issue a ruling at that time that reunification efforts would be futile and the court should pursue actions to terminate the parent's rights.

Alternatively, a petition to terminate parental rights can be based on prior adjudications of abuse or neglect. The court will examine the prior incidents and whether there have been changed circumstances since that time to determine whether there is a probability of repeated abuse or neglect in the future. Based on this determination and what is in the best interests of the child, the court will decide whether to terminate the parent's rights.

Factors that speak to the present ability of the parent and the likelihood of repeating abuse include:

  • The parent's efforts to maintain a relationship with the child
  • Parent's effort to improve their situation, including housing or employment
  • Whether the parent is physically and mentally able to care for the child

Leaving a Child in Foster Care (Over 12 Months)

Leaving a child in foster care or placing the child outside the home for more than 12 months without showing progress in correcting the conditions that led to the child's removal may be grounds for terminating parental rights. However, if the only reason for placing the child in foster care is because of poverty, that alone, is not a basis for terminating parental rights.

Failure to Pay Child Support

When one parent has custody of a child (under a court order or divorce agreement) and the other parent has willfully failed to pay child support, the parent with custody can petition to terminate the other parent's rights. Without providing child support, care, or education as required by the court order for one year or more, the court can terminate the parent's rights.

Alternatively, placing the child in the custody of DSS or a foster home and failure to pay a reasonable portion of the child's care for at least 6 continuous months (where the parent is physically and financially able to provide support) may be grounds for terminating parental rights. A parent cannot use ignorance of the requirement to provide support as a defense.

Failure to Establish Paternity

When a child is born out of wedlock, the father can have his parental rights terminated if the father fails to establish paternity, legitimate the child by petition or by marriage, or fails to provide financial support and care to the child and mother.


Terminating parental rights based on dependency involves the parent being incapable of providing care or and supervision for the child, where the child is considered a “dependent juvenile.” This may include parents who are incapacitated through mental illness or as the result of drug or alcohol abuse, where there is a detrimental effect on parenting ability.


A parent who has willfully abandoned a child for at least 6 consecutive months (or an infant for at least 60 consecutive days) can have their parental rights terminated. Abandonment involves a parent's intention to give up their parenting duties and claims. This generally requires showing more than simple neglect.

Committing a Violent Felony

Committing certain violent felonies could result in the loss of parenting rights. This includes committing or attempting murder or voluntary manslaughter, or assault resulting in serious injury to a child of the other parent or other child residing in the home.

Terminating the Rights of an Unknown Parent

When the identity of a parent is not known, the court conducts a preliminary hearing to attempt to determine the identity of the unknown parent. This hearing must take place before the parental rights of an unknown parent can be terminated. The court may even appoint a “guardian ad litem” to conduct a search for the unknown parent.

If the court cannot identify the unknown parent, a public notice will be published to provide notice to the unknown parent. If there is no response to the publication and the court cannot identify the unknown parent through a search, the court can issue an order terminating the unknown parent's rights.

In filing a petition, the person seeking to terminate parental rights must provide facts sufficient to support a finding to terminate parental rights based on one or more grounds. Making broad claims that a child is neglected may not be considered enough to terminate parental rights. When possible, detailed information should be provided to support the petition.

Filing a Petition and the Hearing

In filing a petition, the person seeking to terminate parental rights must provide facts sufficient to support a finding to terminate parental rights based on one or more grounds. Making broad claims that a child is neglected may not be considered enough to terminate parental rights. When possible, detailed information should be provided to support the petition.

After a petition is filed, a summons is sent to the child's parents, any court-appointed guardian, DSS or adoption agency, and the child. The summons includes notice that an answer must be filed within 30 days, or the parent's rights may be terminated. It also includes notice that if the parent cannot afford a lawyer, an attorney may be appointed to represent the indigent parent.

If the parent does not respond to the summons, the court may issue an order terminating all parental and custodial rights. If the parent does respond, the court will conduct a hearing to determine the issues in the petition. In most cases, the parent has the right to attend the hearing and the right to be represented by a lawyer.

Voluntary Termination of Parenting Rights

In some cases, a parent may want to voluntarily terminate their parental rights. This may be because the parent or child no longer want to be a part of the other's life. However, a parent cannot generally terminate his or her own parenting rights. Also, voluntarily giving up your rights to parent a child will not mean the parent does not have to pay child support.

Jerkins Family Law

If you are being threatened with losing your parenting rights, Jerkins Family Law is here to help. We can also help relatives who are concerned that family members are not taking care of their children to make sure the children are kept safe from harm. Located in Raleigh, North Carolina, Jerkins Family Law is committed to helping our clients in their time of need. Contact us today and see how we can help your family.

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