Judging parents: Courts, child welfare, and criteria for terminating parental rights
Vesneski, William Michael
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Few legal proceedings in the U.S. have more profound consequences for families than the termination of parental rights. Previously described as family law's "death penalty," termination leads to the complete severance of the parent-child bond. Yet, despite its profound gravity, termination is infrequently addressed in social work scholarship. This dissertation aims to help fill this gap by examining North Carolina judicial opinions, written in 2010, that resolved disputed actions to terminate parental rights. A total of 100 opinions were examined using content analysis. All of the cases involved child neglect. The study focused on neglect because of ongoing difficulty in clearly defining this common form of child maltreatment. A large majority (n=86) of the cases resulted in the termination of parental rights. The study yielded a typology of factors appellate courts used to justify their termination decisions. Altogether, 39 factors were identified and organized into 10 different domains: parental conditions, service compliance, home environment, economic conditions, child conditions, bonding, child welfare history, physical abuse, physical presence, and sexual abuse. These factors are significantly more expansive than the termination criteria listed in the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act as well as North Carolina statutes. Just as important, chi-squared analyses revealed that when courts made their termination decision, they looked to different factors depending upon which parents were involved in the cases (mothers, fathers, or both parents). Two domains were selected for closer examination using discourse analytics: "service compliance" and "economic conditions." Here, the goal was to understand the ideology and social values underlying the rulings. The results indicate that the courts placed great weight on parents' compliance with case plans in justifying their termination decisions. The courts also emphasized parents' poverty and their surrounding economic circumstances when explaining their decisions in the opinions. Overall, the study underscores the critically important role the courts play in the child welfare system. The results indicate that the courts help create child welfare policy and that they contribute to setting the broad parameters of social work practice in the field.