The law is very protective of a parent’s legal rights over a child. Of course, that means that the law must know who the parents are. In contrast, other family members have very few rights over a child, though they might have some.
Traditional rights of parents
Parents are basically given complete authority over their children. A parent can choose where his or her children will go to school, what type of medical care they will get, and what type of religious services they will attend. Parents can also make day to day decisions for the child, such as what the child will eat and where he or she will sleep. Parents also have authority to discipline their children, within reason. Parents can lose their parental rights if they abuse or neglect their children.
Parents can also relinquish their legal rights over a child if another person (like a stepparent) is willing to take on responsibility for the child.
Who is a parent?
Every state has its own rules for deciding who is a child’s parent, but most are fairly similar to the Uniform Parentage Act that many states have adopted. The law says that when a woman gives birth to the child she is presumed to be the mother. Fathers are a bit more complicated. The mother’s husband is presumed to be the father.
Of course, the husband is usually the biological father, but genetic testing could be used to prove that another man was the father. A father that registers with the state as the parent must be given notice if someone is attempting to adopt the child. It is worth noting that sperm and egg donors generally do not get parental rights or responsibilities.
Rights of non-parents
Some states will give non-parents some legal rights over a child. For example, some states say that grandparents can be given visitation rights. This is especially true if one parent has passed away or is no longer involved in the child’s life. These rights vary widely from state to state, though, and the Supreme Court has said there is no constitutional right to visit your grandchild. In that sense, the right to exclude a grandparent from the child’s life can actually be seen as a parental right.
Termination of parental rights
A parent’s legal rights over a child are very hard to take away.
Parents usually can only relinquish their rights if someone else is prepared to take on those rights. Otherwise, parent’s rights are generally only terminated for abuse, neglect, mental illness, or complete abandonment of contact with the child. A parent will get due process before losing his or her parental rights. A court will hear evidence for why the parental rights should be terminated and the parent will have a right to defend him or herself.
Generally, rights will not be taken away except for very serious cases of abuse. A parent with substance abuse problems may lose physical custody rights, for example, but may continue to have the right to visit the child and have input into long-term decisions about the child’s upbringing.