The Department of Human Services will be able to trigger court hearings to terminate parental rights and initiate adoption of severely abused and neglected children who are already in out-of-home placement if a bill passed by the V.I. Senate on Wednesday is signed into law.
About 900 children with problems at home are in various Human Services programs, of which only 136 are in foster care, and of those, 22 are recommended for adoption. Those are all severe cases of neglect or abuse, and often the parents actively refuse to have contact with their children, according to Human Services.
Under existing law, Human Services’ Family Division may ask the court to terminate parental rights under very specific circumstances. The court may terminate parental rights if the child was removed from the home for abuse or neglect, and if after more than six months, despite diligent government efforts, the court cannot be reasonably certain the child will not suffer more abuse or neglect.
Under the bill approved by the Legislature, the grounds and process for termination are laid out in greater detail, and proceedings are triggered automatically in some situations, such as if the parent has been convicted of aggravated child abuse or neglect.
Sens. Louis Hill and Patrick Sprauve sponsored the measure.
As originally written the bill would have given the court authority to terminate parental rights if it finds any of the following grounds exist:
– abandonment has occurred for more than six months;
– unwillingness or substantial noncompliance with reasonable efforts to achieve reunification;
– the child has been removed from the home for more than six months and the conditions that led to the child’s removal would cause the child to be subjected to further abuse or neglect still persist;
– when the child has not been in the physical custody of the parent for 15 of the most recent 22 months; a presumption exists that the above conditions exist unless the parent can prove it is more likely than not the child will be returned within six months;
– the parent has been found to have committed aggravated child abuse;
– the parent is incarcerated and either will be in jail for a substantial time before the child is 18 or the court has determined the parent is a habitual violent felon or sexual predator;
– the parent is convicted of the intentional and wrongful death of the child’s other parent or legal guardian;
– the parent has failed to comply with child support obligations;
– and an array of other severe circumstances.
The Rules Committee approved an amendment from Hill removing a passage saying any interested party could file for termination, limiting that role instead to Human Services and a court appointed guardian ad litem. It also clarifies that children age 15 or over, deemed competent by the court, would have the right to decide for themselves if they supported termination of rights. It also removed a passage that would allow termination of parental rights if the court simply found termination was "in the best interest of the child."
On Wednesday, the Legislature approved an amendment from Sen. Usie Richards eliminating provisions to allow termination proceedings when the parent is incarcerated and either:
– will be in jail for a substantial part of the child’s youth;
– is found to be a habitual violent felon or sexual predator;
– or the court simply found a continued relationship with the incarcerated parent would be bad for the child.
Richards’ amendment also removed a section that would have allowed Human Services to seek termination if the parent has failed to seek reasonable visitation with the child, or if given visitation, never or very rarely visited.
The Legislature also approved an amendment from Sen. Louis Hill changing one passage clarifying "at an early date" as "within the next 18 months."
Voting yea on the bill as amended were Richards, Hill, Sens. Craig Barshinger, Neville James, Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, Sammuel Sanes, Alvin Williams and Janette Millin-Young. Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen voted nay. Sen. Celestino White was absent on medical leave.
After the vote, Hill said some V.I. children are in foster care from infancy through age 18, and foster parents who have cared for them for years are unable to adopt them.
"They deserve a better life with parents who will love and take care of them," Hill said.