Parents choose to give up their children for adoption for a variety of reasons, often in the hopes of providing a better life for them – but it’s rarely an easy decision. Sometimes, though, the process is involuntary due to neglect or abuse on part of the biological parents. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ 2017 report, there were 59,430 adoptions with US public child-welfare agency involvement.

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Regardless of whether the adoption process is started voluntarily or not, parents should know the full extent of their legal rights to their children. Furthermore, anyone considering adoption with hopes of maintaining contact with their child in the future must understand the rules and expectations. The advice of an experienced adoption attorney is essential in guiding you through your unique situation.

What does it mean to relinquish parental rights?

Parental rights are significant rights and responsibilities to a child. These rights include decisions on education, medical care, living situation, and financial responsibility for the child until they turn 18 years old. Parental rights also include the right to spend time with the child. For parental rights to be terminated, a judge must order a decree that relinquishes the parents’ rights to their child.

States have different periods of time for parents to appeal the decision in cases of involuntary relinquishment. California allows birth parents 60 days to appeal, while Colorado has a smaller window of just 21 days.

Do both birth parents have to agree?

Having the consent of both parents simplifies the termination of parental rights. A birth parent who wishes to put the child up for adoption can ask the court to declare the other parent unfit due to neglect, abuse, or abandonment. If a birth parent fails to object to an adoption proceeding and the adoption is finalized (after the time period of appeal), the birth parent has lost the opportunity to stop the proceeding.

However, Kathleen Hogan of McGuane and Hogan, PC explains that the situation becomes ambiguous “when that person whose rights are terminated in a fashion they didn’t know about and didn’t have an opportunity to know,” such as in cases when a birth father was not informed of the child’s existence or falsely told that the child was aborted or miscarried. The birth father would not have known to object to the adoption proceedings. In these situations, it may be advisable to seek legal counsel.

Can the birth parent’s identity be sealed from their biological children?

In cases of voluntary adoption, a birth parent’s identity can be sealed. Children may want to reach out to their birth parents for medical history or interest in their background. Children can file a petition with the court to reveal the information.

Different states will have different procedures. New York has some of the strictest laws. Illinois has developed the Illinois Adoption Registry and Medical Information Exchange, which allows individuals to share important medical information anonymously.

However, there is a growing movement to end the sealing of birth records, promoted in part by adults who were adopted as children and wish to access their birth certificates. Open records would allow them to learn valuable information about their medical, family, and cultural history. Also, the rise of genetic testing has resulted in adopted children finding their birth parents. Even though a birth parent may have sealed their identity, a child might be able to find them later in life.

Can parental rights be restored?

It is difficult for parental rights to be restored once they have been terminated. Elizabeth Yang, an intellectual property and family law attorney at the Law and Mediation Offices of Elizabeth Yang, points to the severity of voluntarily giving up one’s parental rights.

“They have no legal right to their children anymore,” Yang says. “The law takes it very it seriously; what's on paper can't be reversed."

Hogan explains that the process is unlikely to be reversed even in cases where parents involuntarily give up their rights. During the adoption proceedings, the court would have considered the birth parent’s plan to rehabilitate themselves and would have taken it into consideration. Rehabilitation after the finalization of adoption is generally not sufficient to reverse the adoption.

Ultimately, the courts will decide what is best for the child. Removing a child from the adopted home, often the only home they have known, is strongly ill-advised.

Does a birth parent have a right to see their child after they’ve been adopted?

When a birth parent relinquishes their parental rights, that includes the right to see their child. However, it is possible for birth parents and adopted parents to have agreements in writing about visitation and other matters in what is known as open adoption. Yang explains that if an agreement is signed, it is enforceable. However, if it is not in writing, a birth parent could potentially never see their birth children again.

Should a birth parent consult an attorney?

While it is not necessary, the process of relinquishing parental rights is a difficult process and takes time. A qualified adoption lawyer can help the process along. If a birth parent wishes to contest an involuntary adoption, an attorney would be essential in fighting the case. Further, if a parent wants assistance in drawing guidelines for her access to her child after giving it up for adoption, an experienced attorney or family mediator can be sure both parties will have their needs met and their voices heard.