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Under What Circumstances Will a Court Terminate Parental Rights?

Under What Circumstances Will a Court Terminate Parental Rights?

When you think of terminating a parent’s rights, it may invoke images of severe child abuse and neglect. However, a parent’s rights can also be terminated for reasons such as abandonment, parental disability, or a parent’s prior voluntary termination of parental rights to another child. A parent’s right to care for their child has Constitutional implications, and, outside of extreme circumstances, it can be difficult to establish that they should be terminated. So, under what circumstances will a court terminate parental rights?

Wisconsin Termination Law

Wisconsin law favors a child having a relationship with both of their parents. The courts also tend to be reluctant to sever parental relationships unless there is a significant risk presented to a child’s well-being. Wisconsin, like most other states, has a termination statute that sets out the grounds for terminating parental rights. In cases of severe abuse or neglect where the state has to remove children from their parents' care, termination may be easier to establish. However, when the party seeking termination is the other parent, absent dangerous circumstances, he or she may have a more difficult time establishing the necessary grounds.


One common reason a parent may ask for termination is because of abandonment. When a parent has been gone several months without seeing or trying to communicate with their child, this may constitute abandonment. However, the petitioning parent would have to show that the absent parent knew where the child was, and that he or she did not attempt contact or visit them. Often, parents will ask for termination on this ground after having moved without notifying the other parent of their address or phone number. Some parents even ask for termination on the abandonment ground after refusing to let the other parent see their child. A court’s willingness to terminate for abandonment will depend heavily on the facts and circumstances presented.

Other Grounds

Other Wisconsin termination grounds include incest, child abuse, homicide or attempted homicide of the other parent, termination of rights to another child, mental disability, the commission of a felony against the child, parenthood as a result of sexual assault, and other egregious acts. If a parent is involved in these types of behaviors, it's likely that the state will also be filing petitions concerning their parental rights.

If a parent is manifestly dangerous and presents a threat to a child's emotional and physical safety, termination may be more likely. However, parents seeking termination may view the other parent as meeting this definition but not be able to provide the evidence needed to support their case. For instance, a parent may believe their child is being exposed to people who are using drugs during placement time but not have tangible proof of their suspicions. Speculation will not be enough for a court to take away someone's parental rights.

Phases of an Involuntary Termination Proceeding

Generally, there will be a hearing held within 30 days of the filing of the petition, wherein the accused parent will be offered an opportunity to contest the petition. Next, there will be a fact-finding hearing with a judge or jury to determine if one or more of the termination grounds has been established. If one or more grounds has been proven, the court will schedule a disposition hearing to determine if termination is in the best interests of the child.

Voluntary Termination of Parental Rights

Wisconsin law provides that if a parent wishes to terminate his or her parental rights, the court may accept a voluntary consent after the judge explains the effect of termination and confirms that the parent's consent is voluntary. If this cannot be accomplished in person, the judge may accept a written consent under certain conditions. However, the consent would need to be accompanied by specific findings confirming that the consent was voluntary and informed.

Gathering evidence and developing arguments to support a Wisconsin termination of parental rights case is complicated and can sometimes feel impossible. However, there can be situations that warrant termination, and doing what is best for your child can be a matter of being able to present the right information to the court.


At First Look Family Law we can assist you in answering questions about parental rights, and refer you to the proper resources to help your family. Contact us today for a consultation.

Looking for a free 30-minute consultation? Contact Attorney Karyn Youso at First Look Family Law today.