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Kevin O'Flaherty

In Indiana, parental rights can be ended voluntarily through adoption consent or involuntarily by the Department of Child Services (DCS) for child welfare. This irreversible process requires adherence to specific legal requirements and aims to prioritize the child's best interests, with a focus on family placements when possible. Understanding this process is crucial for anyone navigating parental rights issues in Indiana.

Termination of parental rights in Indiana can happen in two main ways.  Parental rights may be relinquished by the parent(s) when they consent to adoption of a child or they can be voluntarily or involuntarily terminated when the Indiana Department of Child Services (“DCS”) institutes a Termination of Parental Rights action.  Whatever your situation, there are five (5) things to keep in mind.

  1. A written consent to adoption may only be withdrawn within 30 days of signing.  IC 31-19-10-3
  1. Numerous persons or agencies may need to be notified in a termination of parental rights proceeding.  IC 31-19-9-1
  1. Once the Indiana Department of Child Services is involved in a parent-child relationship, a parent should follow any recommended service plan in order to maintain the parent-child relationship.  IC 31-34-21 et seq.
  1. Normally, the Indiana Department of Child Services must make reasonable attempts to preserve and re-unify the family.  IC 31-34-21-5.5  There are exceptions to this rule.
  1. If the child is to be placed outside of his or her household by DCS, first consideration for the child’s placement must be given to blood relatives or adoptive relatives.  IC 31-34-19-7(b)  


Parental rights may be relinquished if the birth parent(s) consent to the adoption of a minor child.  Indiana probate courts have exclusive jurisdiction over adoptions.  IC 31-19-1-2  This voluntary termination of parental rights has serious consequences, so a petition for adoption must be filed by an attorney in the probate court of proper venue and accompanied by written consent signed by all parties whose consent is required under IC 31-19-9 and a certified copy of a court order terminating the parental rights of the birth parents pursuant to IC 31-19-9.  Anyone signing a consent to adoption must show that they understand the consequences of their consent, and can only withdraw their written consent within thirty (30) days of signing it.  IC 31-19-10-3.

The parties who must consent to the adoption of a minor child include 1) the birth mother, 2) any biological father, 3) any presumed father, 4) any person determined by a court of law to be the father, 5) any father appearing in the Indiana putative father registry, 5) any adoptive parent, 6) any person, entity or agency having lawful custody of the child, 7) any court having jurisdiction over the child, if the person having custody of the child is not empowered to consent, 8) the child sought to be adopted if the child is fourteen (14) years of age or older, and 9) the spouse of the child to be adopted, if the child is married.  IC 31-19-9-1  

There are a number of circumstances under which consent to an adoption may be implied by Indiana law, however.    If you feel that you have parental rights in an adoption proceeding, visitation rights, or custody rights that have been violated, please read these related articles:  


Indiana has a statewide social service department called the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS).  Sometimes the DCS gets involved with family or child issues because a child is in need of services.  When a child is found in need of services, usually by a social worker or other official, the DCS’s Department of Child in Need of Services (CHINS) handles the matter, which often ends up in a court of law.  There are many reasons why CHINS might get involved in the parent-child relationship.  Among the reasons delineated by the Indiana legislature are:

  • A parent’s inability, refusal, or neglect to supply a child with necessary food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, or supervision
  • An act or omission of the parent that seriously endangers a child's physical or mental health
  • The child is the victim of specified offenses or living in a household with a child who is the victim of a specified offense or in a household with an adult who committed or is charged with a specified offense
  • The child is the victim of human or sexual trafficking
  • The parent allowed a child to participate in an obscene performance
  • The parent allowed a child to commit a sex offense
  • The child is substantially endangering his or her own or another's health
  • The parent failed to participate in school disciplinary proceedings
  • A disabled child is deprived of necessary nutrition, medical or surgical intervention
  • The child was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, neonatal abstinence syndrome, or drugs in the child's body IC 31-34-1 et seq.  

Anyone who has reason to believe that a child is being abused or neglected must make a report to local law enforcement.  IC 31-33-5-1  Failure to do so is a class B misdemeanor in the state of Indiana IC 31-33-22-1.  Anyone who in good faith reports suspected abuse or neglect of a child is immune from civil or criminal liability.  IC 31-33-6-1  

Once a report of abuse or neglect of a child is received by DCS, it must initiate an investigation within 5 days, or as little as 2 hours, depending on the circumstances of the allegation.  31-33-8-1  Any investigation performed by DCS must be followed by a “substantiated” or “unsubstantiated” finding.  IC 31-33-8-12  

If, while performing the initial assessment, a DCS or law enforcement agent believes that immediate removal of the child from his or her environment is necessary to protect the child from further abuse or neglect, the court may issue an order for immediate removal of the child.  IC 31-33-8-8  The agent may also, under limited circumstances, remove the child prior to obtaining a court order.  IC 31-34-2-3  If the child is taken into custody and not released, a detention hearing must be held within forty-eight (48) hours, excluding weekends and holidays.  IC-31-34-5-1.

At the detention hearing, the court must make a written finding that:

  1. Removal of the child was necessary to protect the child;
  1. A description of the family services available before removal;
  1. Efforts made to provide family services before removal of the child;
  1. Why efforts made to provide those services did not prevent removal of the child; and
  1. Whether efforts made to prevent the removal of the child were reasonable.

IC 31-34-5-2

If the court finds that continued detention of the child is necessary, it must make a set of different written findings as to why.  IC 31-34-5-3  Whether or not the child is further detained, in cases found to be substantiated, the court will either entertain 1) a plan of Informal Adjustment (“IA”) proposed by DFS or 2) a Petition to Declare the Child in Need of Services (“CHINS”).

Informal Adjustment

A plan of Informal Adjustment (“IA”) usually consists of recommended services (e.g. counseling, substance abuse treatment, supervised visitation services, etc.) that the child, parent and/or family are suggested to undertake in order to keep the family whole and prevent removal of the child(ren).

Child in Need of Services

A Child in Need of Services (“CHINS”) Petition is followed by an initial hearing at which the parent(s) may admit or deny the allegations in the Petition.  A failure to respond by the parent(s) is considered a denial.  The burden of proof in a CHINS case is by a preponderance of the evidence, IC 31-34-12-3, and spousal and physician-patient privileges do not apply, IC 31-34-12-6.

If the court finds that the child is a CHINS, the court will hold a dispositional hearing at which time the court will consider:  

(1) Alternatives for the care, treatment, rehabilitation, or placement of the child.

(2) The necessity, nature, and extent of the participation by a parent, a guardian, or a custodian in the program of care, treatment, or rehabilitation for the child.

(3) The financial responsibility of the parent or guardian of the estate for services provided for the parent or guardian or the child.

(4) The recommendations and report of a dual status assessment team if the child is a dual status child

IC 31-34-19-1

The court will then enter a dispositional decree which determines in whose physical custody the child shall remain, by aiming at a location:

(1) in the least restrictive (most family like) and most appropriate setting available; and

(2) close to the parents' home, consistent with the best interest and special needs of the child; which

(a) least interferes with family autonomy;

(b) is least disruptive of family life;

(c) imposes the least restraint on the freedom of the child and the child's parent, guardian, or custodian;

(d) provides a reasonable opportunity for participation by the child's parent, guardian, or custodian; and

(e) provides a reasonable opportunity for the child's parent who: (A) is incarcerated; and (B) has maintained a meaningful role in the child's life;

to maintain a relationship with the child.

IC 31-34-19-6

First consideration for the child’s placement must be given to blood relatives or adoptive relatives.  IC 31-34-19-7(b)  After the dispositional hearing, the court must review the case at least every six (6) months.  IC 31-34-21-2  

Although the DCS must make reasonable efforts to preserve and reunify the family, IC 31-34-21-5.5, if parents fail to follow through with court ordered remedial measures or DCS and/or the parents otherwise find it appropriate, a Petition for Termination of Parental Rights may be filed.

Reasons Why Parental Rights Are Terminated

1. Voluntary

A parent may voluntarily relinquish parental rights during a DCS proceeding by requesting that the local DCF file a Petition to that end or that a licensed child placement agency do so on the parents’ behalf.  IC 31-35-1-4  If the court finds that it is in the best interests of the child to grant the Petition, parental rights will be terminated.  IC 31-35-1-10

2. Involuntary—CHINS or Delinquency

A petition to terminate the parent-child relationship may be filed by DCS, the child’s guardian ad litem or the child’s special appointed advocate in a CHINS or juvenile delinquency case. IC 31-35-2-4  If the court finds the allegations set out n the petition filed pursuant to IC 31-35-2-4, it shall terminate the parent-child relationship.  IC 31-35-2-8

3. Involuntary—Certain Crimes

A petition to sever parental rights may be filed by DCS, the child’s guardian ad litem or special appointed advocate if a “parent” is convicted of the offense of: (A) murder; (B) causing suicide; (C) voluntary manslaughter; (D) involuntary manslaughter; (E) rape; (F) criminal deviate conduct; (G) child molesting; (H) child exploitation; (I) sexual misconduct with a minor; or (J) incest if the victim was less than sixteen (16) years of age.  IC 31-35-3-4  If the court finds that the allegations in the petition brought under IC 31-35-3-4 are true, it shall terminate the parent-child relationship.  IC 31-35-3-9

4. Involuntary—Rape

A  petition to sever parental ties of an individual that raped a birth mother may be filed by the alleged victim under certain circumstances and within tight time frames.  IC 31-35-3.5-4

Frequently Asked Questions About Termination of Parental Rights

Hopefully, this general overview of termination of parental rights in Indiana has been helpful and informative.  Some additional answers to typical questions appear below.

Q: “How do parental rights get terminated?

A: Either through an adoption proceeding or through Indiana DCS involvement on behalf of a child alleged to be abused, neglected or delinquent.  

Q:  “Is Indiana a mother or father state?”  

A:  Indiana is neither.  Allocation of custody and parenting time is not based on gender in Indiana.  Neither is gender considered when alleged abuse, neglect or delinquency lead to a proceeding in which the state gets involved in the parent-child relationship.

Q: “What makes a parent unfit in Indiana?”

A: “Unfit” as related to parenting, is not a term used by the Indiana legislature.  Only IC 31-19-9-8 uses the term “unfit” as it relates to parenting.  It is not nomenclature used anywhere else in the Indiana Code.  For reasons that a child is found in need of services, please see the section entitled DEPARTMENT OF CHILD SERVICES ACTION, above.

Q: “How long does a father or mother have to be absent to lose parental rights in Indiana?”

A: Being “absent,” in and of itself, does not lead to loss of parental rights.  There are circumstances under which a parent charged with caring for the child or for responding to legal process regarding the child could lead to loss of parental rights if the parent remains “absent,” however.    

Q: “What determines parenting time in Indiana?”

A: Indiana has rules and guidelines, that may be deviated from, but are generally followed by the courts.  The rules can be found at:  

Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Each individual's legal needs are unique, and these materials may not be applicable to your legal situation. Always seek the advice of a competent attorney with any questions you may have regarding a legal issue. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

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