Case Notes: Incarceration and termination of parental rights

Under Pennsylvania law, a parent's rights may be terminated if the parent has "abandoned" the child and not sought contact for at least 6 months. In a recent case, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that an incarcerated father should have his parental rights terminated. See In re: Z.P., 994 A.2d 1108 (Pa. Super 2010).

The Superior Court noted that incarceration alone does not warrant a termination of the imprisoned parents rights. Instead, the court must look at whether the incarcerated parent used the resources available in prison to attempt to maintain a bond with the child. The Trial Court found that father sent a birthday card and pictures of himself and made diligent efforts to locate the child.

However, the Superior Court found that the father was not able to meet the needs of the young child and would remain incarcerated for some time along. The Court also expressed concerns over father's sobriety and housing situation. Also, father had never sent any money for the child (despite receiving SSD payments) and fell into recidivism over a 9 year period. Finally, the court found that the child had no bond with father.

This case is indicative of the factually intensive nature of cases involving termination of parental rights. Such cases are typically won or lost on the individual facts of the case, rather than broad legal principles.

As always, speak to your attorney before applying this case to your circumstances. In the interest of clarity, I did not address several aspects of this opinion. Also, almost all rules have exceptions and the exceptions often have exceptions.