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When the parents of a child decide that they are no longer able to care for their child or children, they may agree to a voluntary termination of parental rights. The process to terminate parental rights may happen as part of a plan for the child's adoption or may be the consequence of the decision to relinquish the care of the child to the state. Children are typically relinquished to the care of the state when their parents are unfit, unready, or unable to provide for them or because a child has overwhelming physical or psychological needs that his or her parents are unable to meet. In cases where a voluntary termination of parental rights is sought, individual governments may establish certain checks and safeguards to prevent this action from being taken in a hasty, exploitative, or inappropriate way.
When a parent plans to place his child for adoption, he will usually be required to sign a voluntary termination of parental rights. For example, if two young people experience an unplanned pregnancy and decide to relinquish their child for adoption, they will both terminate their parental rights by signing the forms prescribed by their local government. In cases where a child's parents are no longer together and one parent is willing to allow a stepparent to adopt his child, a similar process will take place, except that only one parent actually has his rights terminated.
While the policy of many governments is to preserve families, there are cases in which it is obvious that parents are unable to provide a safe, decent home for their children. If, even after many attempts by social services, the parents are unable to meet appropriate parenting standards, they may be encouraged to sign a voluntary termination of parental rights so that their children can be adopted. Alternatively, if a child has very comprehensive special needs and her parents are unable to afford her care, they may have to terminate their parental rights in order for the child to be made a ward of the court and thus receive the care that she needs.
Due to past and current abuses in the child welfare and adoption systems, there have been cases in which parents have been coerced into submitting to a supposedly voluntary termination of parental rights due to the effort of over-zealous social workers or adoption agency employees. In some cases, local law may provide biological parents with a so-called cooling-off period after signing a termination of parental rights. The law may also require that a parent be informed of his specific rights under the law or that he be offered the option of independent legal counsel. Judges in some cases may wish to investigate the circumstances of the termination of parental rights before granting or ordering an adoption.