What Are "Parental Rights"?
When you have "parental rights" to a child, you are that child's parent in the eyes of the law. When your parental rights to a child are terminated, you stop being that child's parent. You no longer have the right to say where the child will live, or what kind of education or medical care the child will get, or what religion the child will be brought up in. You no longer have the right to get information about the child, such as school or medical records, child abuse reports, and information from law enforcement agencies and the courts. You cannot even have contact with the child unless the child's legal guardians say you can. There is a saying in the law that a parent whose rights to a child are terminated becomes a "stranger" to that child.
Why Are Parental Rights Terminated?
Only a judge can terminate someone's parental rights. In most cases, judges are asked to terminate a parent's parental rights by the state, or by whoever has been taking care of the child, usually the child's other parent.
The state is represented in the court system by the county attorney. When a county attorney believes that a child in that county is in danger because their parents are not taking care of the child properly, the county attorney may file a special kind of case called a CINA. CINA stands for "Child In Need of Assistance." If a judge decides the child does need assistance, then the Department of Human Services will try to help the parents take better care of the child. Sometimes this works, and the parents are able to go on raising their child. Sometimes the county attorney decides that the child is not going to be safe unless the child is taken away from their parents permanently. Then the county attorney will ask the judge to terminate the parents' parental rights.
It is also possible for someone who is not the county attorney to ask a judge to terminate someone's parental rights. Sometimes the parents live apart, and the child lives with one parent. The parent with whom the child lives is called the custodial parent. If the custodial parent gets married again, their new spouse may want to adopt the child. Before this can happen, the custodial parent will have to ask the court to terminate the other parent's parental rights (the other parent is called the non-custodial parent).
Sometimes the child is not living with either parent, but is being taken care of by a family member (such as a grandparent) or even a non-relative (such as a friend of the family). People like these can ask a judge to terminate the parents' parental rights too. They do this so that they can adopt the child themselves.
A court will not terminate someone's parental right just because someone else asks. The person asking for the termination must show that the parent has abandoned the child or is a danger to the child. They must show this in court, with evidence. Evidence can be witness testimony. It can also be documents, like medical reports. Terminating a person's parental rights is a very serious step, and a court will not do it unless the evidence is "clear and convincing." That means the evidence must be better than in an ordinary civil case, like a personal injury case. But it does not have to be as good as the evidence in a criminal case.
How Are Parental Rights Terminated?
Your parental rights can only be terminated by a judge, and only when somebody asks the judge to do it. You cannot "give up" your parental rights, although if somebody asks the court to terminate your parental rights you can consent (agree) to the termination.
Many people wonder if they can give up their parental rights because they don't want to pay child support. In most cases, a court will not allow this. That is because a person with parental rights is also a person with parental responsibilities. Under Iowa law, parents are responsible for supporting their children. Iowa law also says it is almost always best for children to have parents who are responsible for supporting them.
If you don't want your parental rights terminated, you have the right to a trial. It will be a "bench trial," which mean there will not be a jury. The judge will hear the evidence and make the decision. At your trial you have the right to present witnesses and other evidence. You also have the right to question the other side's witnesses and examine any other evidence they present.
Do I Have The Right To A Lawyer?
You always have the right to a lawyer in Iowa. The trouble is, in most cases you have to pay for one. There are a couple of exceptions: in a criminal case where the court could sentence you to jail or prison time, you have the right to a lawyer who is paid by the court if you cannot afford to pay one yourself.
Although parental rights terminations are civil, not criminal, cases, you may also have the right to a court-appointed attorney in these cases, so long as you can prove to the judge that you cannot afford your own attorney. "Court appointed attorney" is another way of saying an attorney whose fee is paid by the court. Low-income people in Iowa have this right because Iowa Legal Aid won it for them back in 2004.
What To Do If You Are Facing Termination Of Your Parental Rights
Make sure you ask the court for an attorney immediately. Usually the clerk of court's office has a form you will need to fill out. Go to the clerk's office and get one. You will have to put down how much money you make, how much property you own, and other information about your household finances. Remember, you are only entitled to a court-appointed attorney if the judge decides you can't afford to pay for an attorney.