Chris Jan. 7, 2019

A common phrase heard in or about juvenile court goes along the lines of, "I signed my rights over" or "DCF said I have to sign my rights over..." Or the question, "How do I sign my kids over to [relative/friend]?" It often refers to the guardianship or parental rights over a child. It is not only parents and litigants who say it in the context of neglect or termination of parental rights (TPR) proceedings, but sometimes DCF social workers. I hear it from current and prospective clients and always correct them immediately. Because that is not how it works.

Children are not real estate (which can be transferred through a deed, without court process). Only a court can change the custody, guardianship or parental rights of a child. Absent that occurrence, parents automatically have parental rights, guardianship and legal custody over a child. Parents can initiate custody actions in family court. Parents and other relatives and interested persons can initiate guardianship and termination of parental rights actions in probate court. The government, most often through the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF), initiates child protection actions in juvenile court. Both juvenile and family courts are civil sessions of the Superior Court. 

There is often a written plea in agreements to adjudications of neglect/abuse and terminations of parental rights. You have a right to a trial on a petition for neglect, abuse and uncared-for allegations and to terminate parental rights. If you agree to the adjudication, you can either enter an admission or, more commonly, enter a nolo contendere (no contest) plea, by which you neither agree nor contest, but allow the court to adjudicate the petition. In a TPR, a parent who agrees with the adjudication can consent to the termination ground. A consent is both a written and oral plea. The parent must submit a signed affidavit of consent. The court must then accept the consent and canvasses the parent on the consent to determine whether it was knowing, voluntary and intelligent. Nolo pleas must also be accepted through a canvass. One cannot just sign a nolo form or a consent affidavit and then not show up in court. That would be a default. (In many cases, a parent nolos to neglect or consents to a TPR ground but still disputes the dispositional phase. The consent/nolo is done for strategic reasons.)  

Why is it not just a written process? Because children are people. Courts must determine that a change in legal status is in their best interests. They are often represented by their own counsel. The parents and opposing parties might have an agreement but could still be wrong. Although a parent can agree to transfer guardianship to a prospective guardian, a court must still approve the transfer because a proposed transfer might not be the best interests of the child. The court effectively has to approve of the guardian. An agreement to transfer guadianship to a potentially dangerous person or to an otherwise good person but in a difficult situation might be denied. There is no other way to legally give a person rights and responsibilities over a child. You cannot do with a power of attorney. At least not in Connecticut. 

These are complicated cases with a lot of difficult legal terms. One should consult with an attorney when in any situation in which their custodial, guardianship or parental rights are at stake.