In Tennessee, only persons who have physical custody of a child, or who are entitled to receive physical custody of the child, may file a petition to adopt. Unless an adoption agency or the Tennessee Department of Children's Services have full guardianship of a child, adoption requires that the parental rights of both the child's biological mother and father be surrendered or terminated.
Surrender of Parental Rights
A birth parent may voluntarily surrender his/her parental rights to a child. This is a formal process that takes place in front of a judge. Once this takes place, the birth parent has 3 days to revoke the surrender.
Termination of Parental Rights
If one or both of the birth parents are unwilling to surrender their parental rights, then those rights must be terminated by a court. This requires the filing of a lawsuit against the birth parents and, usually, a hearing before a judge. The process usually takes between 3 months to a year, although the termination hearing should be held within 6 months of the filing of the petition.
Termination requires proof of at least one legal ground, and proof that the termination is in the best interest of the child. There are numerous grounds that will support termination, but the most common in the Upper Cumberland are:
- willful failure to support the child
- willful failure to visit the child
- child abuse
- mental incompetence
Child's Best Interest
Once a court determines that there is at least one ground for termination, it then must decide whether the termination is in the child's best interest. The parental rights termination statute lists 9 factors that a court should consider when it makes this determination. Those factors include:
- Whether the birth parent has made changes necessary to make his/her home safe for the child
- Whether the parent has made necessary changes after having the assistance of social service agencies;
- Whether the parent has visited the child regularly;
- Whether the birth parent has a meaningful relationship with the child;
- How the child would be affected by a change in home or caregivers;
- Whether the birth parent, or someone living in his/her home, has abused or neglected any child or adult;
- Whether the birth parent's home is safe, free from criminal activity and free from substance abuse;
- The birth parent's mental and emotional condition;
- Whether the birth parent has paid child support consistent with the Tennessee child support guidelines.
Adoptive parents must have a home study done by a licensed agency or licensed social worker. This involves an assessment of the adoptive parents' medical, psychological and financial fitness, criminal background checks of everyone in the adoptive home, an evaluation of the physical safety of the home, and an assessment of the adoptive family's stability.
The home study requirement may be waived when the adoptive parents are closely related to the child.