Sometimes termination happens because the parent has abused the child, but a parent doesn’t have to do something that explicit to lose their rights. Neglect, such as failing to support a child’s physical and emotional needs, is a form of child abuse as well. Because cases of physical abuse and endangerment are often straight forward, the cases I deal with most are those where the parent hasn’t had regular contact with the child for long periods of time.
It’s not just judges, lawyers, and the State who wield and direct this tremendous power to terminate parental rights. Under Washington law, a person seeking to adopt their spouse’s child can petition the court to terminate the other parent’s rights. . A recent case from the Washington State Court of Appeals, Division II, clarifies the legal requirements for when a parent’s lack of contact and support is enough to declare that parent unfit. .
A military context: In the Matter of the Adoption of K.M.T.
The case arose in the context of a father who, for most of the child’s life, served in the U.S. military and was stationed out of country. With over 150,000 U.S. military personnel stationed overseas, it’s immediately apparent how important this context is. The Court’s opinion seemed considerate of that fact, noting that the father was stationed in Afghanistan and Germany, and that he had planned a 20-year military career before being discharged with full disability for PTSD, back injury, and traumatic brain injury. The mother, with whom the father did not have an amicable relationship, also refused to facilitate the father’s contact with the child.
The importance of the military context can be seen in the Court’s ruling as well. The Court emphasized that, to terminate an objecting parent’s rights, it is not enough to show that a parent has failed to perform their parental duties. It must also be proven that the circumstances surrounding such failure show that the parent lacked substantial regard for their parental obligations. In other words: does the parent have a good reason for not supporting their child? If so, the failure to perform parental duties may be excused. As this case shows, claiming that the other parent wouldn’t let you see your child is usually not considered a good enough reason. To paraphrase the Court: even if it feels futile, a parent’s first priority must be to get involved in their child’s life, no matter how hard that is.
Ultimately, the Court overturned the decision to terminate the father’s parental rights, but remanded to the trial court for further consideration. It remains to be seen what the trial court will decide.
Don't sleep on your rights
It is unfortunate for the father that he did not take legal action sooner. When a court determines a parent’s fitness, they look at what that parent has actually done to assert their parental rights and responsibilities. If a parent doesn’t pursue any of the available legal options, that will often weigh heavily against them.
Whether you’re a person seeking to adopt, or a parent who feels that the other parent is preventing you from seeing your child, you should consult with an attorney. Time is often a key factor. The longer that you wait to take legal action, the more likely that your ability to act might be taken away.
 RCW 26.33.100.
 In the Matter of the Adoption of K.M.T., August 23, 2016.