What Is the Process of Termination of Parental Rights In California ?

In California, parental rights termination decision is not made at one single hearing. Instead, as our Supreme Court has explained, the decision results from a multistep review process. (Cynthia D. v. Superior Court (1993) 5 Cal. 4th 242, 247-250 19 Cal. Rptr. 2d 698, 851 P.2d 1307.) After a court assumes jurisdiction over a juvenile, the child may be removed from a parent's custody only upon a showing by clear and convincing evidence that continued custody will be detrimental to the child. (Id. at p. 248.) Then, at each six-month review hearing, there is a statutory presumption the child will be returned to parental custody unless the social services agency proves by a preponderance of the evidence "the return of the child would create a substantial risk of detriment to the physical or emotional well-being of the minor." (Id. at p. 249.) If the court makes this finding at the 12-month review hearing, and finds that there is no substantial probability of return to the parent in the next six months, the court shall "terminate reunification efforts and set the matter for a hearing pursuant to section 366.26 for the selection and implementation of a permanent plan." (Ibid.) "If the child is not returned to the parents at the 18-month review, the court must set the matter for a section 366.26 hearing." (Ibid.) The selection and implementation hearing must "be heard within 120 days of the hearing from which it was set." (Cynthia D. v. Superior Court, supra, 5 Cal. 4th at p. 249.) While the actual termination order may result from the hearing, the focus of the hearing is not on parental unfitness. ( Id. at p. 254.) Instead, because the " 'critical decisions regarding parental rights . . . and that the minor cannot be returned home' " were made at the earlier review hearing, the issues at the section 366.26 hearing are generally limited to the questions whether the child is adoptable and whether there is a statutory exception to adoption. (5 Cal. 4th at pp. 250, 254.) Thus, unlike the termination hearings in most states, the purpose of the final termination hearing in California "is not to accumulate further evidence of parental unfitness and danger to the child, but to begin the task of finding the child a permanent alternative family placement." ( Id. at p. 253.)