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Kevin O'Flaherty

In Illinois, involuntary termination of parental rights can occur through a judicial determination of "unfitness" based on factors like severe neglect, substance abuse, or criminal convictions related to heinous crimes, ensuring the child's safety and best interests are prioritized. Our explanation guide walks you through the reasons behind termination, from severe neglect to criminal convictions, and outlines both involuntary and voluntary procedures, providing a comprehensive view. By the end of this article, you should better understand the basis for terminating parental rights, what grounds parental rights can be terminated on, how to terminate parental rights in Illinois, and how to prove a parent is unfit.

Understanding the Basis for Terminating Parental Rights

The primary concern in legal debates surrounding the termination of parental rights is determining whether such a drastic measure is necessary. In Illinois, there are two main reasons that may lead to this decision: unfitness and criminal convictions. The state’s definition of ‘unfitness’ encompasses factors like abandonment, mental health issues that hinder parenting responsibilities, and substance abuse affecting responsible caretaking.

Criminal convictions play a significant role in these discussions as well. Specifically, first or second degree murder charges as well as other heinous crimes such as sexual abuse can serve as grounds for terminating parental rights.These situations highlight the state’s commitment to prioritizing the wellbeing of children above all else, even if it requires severing any legal ties with their biological parents.

On What Grounds Can Parental Rights Be Terminated in Illinois?

Parental rights can be terminated in Illinois in various ways, including:

  • Voluntary consent to adoption or surrender of parental rights;
  • A finding by the court that the biological parent is “unfit”;
  • A finding by the court that the alleged father in question is not the biological or adoptive father of the child; or
  • A finding that the father in question fathered the child as a result of criminal sexual abuse or assault.

How to Terminate Parental Rights in Illinois

Parental rights can only be terminated on the basis of “unfitness” through either an adoption case or a juvenile case initiated by the state.  The typical scenario in an adoption case is when one of the biological parents has remarried and the new spouse would like to adopt the child.  In this case, the biological parent seeking to have his or her new spouse adopt the child must prove that the other parent is unfit to be a parent, generally based on one of the grounds discussed below.

Alternatively, if a step-parent is not willing to adopt the child, the state may initiate a juvenile case to terminate the parental rights of an abusive or neglectful parent based on “unfitness.”  This type of case cannot be initiated by the other parent.  

To learn more about proving that an alleged father is not the biological father of the child, check out our article: Illinois Paternity Law Explained.   

Filing for Termination: The Juvenile Court Act

In the state of Illinois, it is necessary to file for termination in order to end parental rights. This step can be initiated through either an adoption case or a juvenile case on the grounds of ‘unfitness.’’ The purpose of this legal process is to safeguard the well-being of children. In situations involving juveniles, it is up to the state - specifically, authorized parties such as the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) - to start proceedings.

The filing procedure requires certain documentation from the county courthouse. If a parent voluntarily surrenders their rights through DCFS, they may need to complete a Final and Irrevocable Surrender form for adoption purposes. It’s important to keep in mind that this process can be lengthy and could take more than 2 years before reaching its conclusion.

How to Prove that an Illinois Parent is Unfit

How to Prove a Parent Unfit in Child Custody Cases in Illinois

Any of the following factors are grounds to establish that an Illinois parent is unfit to have parenting responsibility with respect to a child:

  • Abandoning the child;
  • Failing to maintain reasonable interest, concern or responsibility with respect to the child’s welfare;
  • Continuous or repeated substantial neglect of the child;
  • Extreme or repeated cruelty to the child;
  • Physical abuse;
  • Failure to protect the child from conditions in his or her environment that are injurious to the child’s welfare;
  • Conviction of certain “depraved” crimes, such as murder or sexual assault;
  • Habitual drunkenness or drug use;
  • Continuous or repeated failure by parent to provide the child with adequate food, clothing, or shelter despite being physically and financially able to do so; or
  • Mental impairment or illness that prevents the parent from discharging parental responsibilities.

In a hearing to determine the fitness of a parent, the burden of proof is on the party seeking to show that that the parent is unfit.  This must be done by clear and convincing evidence, a higher standard of proof than the default standard, which is a significant amount of of the evidence.  

Courts are less likely to find a parent to be unfit if there is not another parent involved or another person willing to adopt the child.  

The parent whom the unfitness claim is being made against may counter a claim of abandonment or lack of reasonable interest in the child by providing proof that:

  • He or she has attempted to create a relationship with the child;
  • He or she has been paying child support;
  • He or she has been attempting to visit and/or correspond with the child; or
  • That the other parent was interfering with his or her attempt to maintain an interest in the child.  

What Happens if an Illinois Parent is Deemed Unfit?

Outside of the context of an adoption case, if the court finds that a parent is unfit and there is another parent involved in the child’s life, the other parent will receive a greater allocation of parenting time and responsibility.  If there is not another parent in the child’s life, the child will be placed in the care of the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services.  

Our team is ready address your legal needs remotely OR at one of our many physical locations, including our Chicago attorneys located at:
O’Flaherty Law of Chicago
1941 N. Elston Ave., Ste. A
Chicago, Illinois 60642
(312) 736-1384

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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