The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Key Factors in Court Decisions to Terminate Parental Rights

Friday, January 18, 2013: 9:00 AM
Nautilus 4 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
William Vesneski, JD, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Washington, Seattle, WA

Courts have long played an essential role in shaping child welfare policy and practice. Yet, social welfare scholarship infrequently examines courts and their decision-making. The need for greater understanding of the intersection between the courts and social welfare is especially acute when considering the termination of parental rights. Previously described as family law’s “death penalty,” termination leads to the irrevocable severance of the parent-child bond. Termination is a significant issue – between 2002 and 2009, more than 600,000 children had their parental rights terminated.

This paper describes a mixed-methods research project specifying the factors North Carolina courts consider when deciding to terminate parents’ rights to their children because of neglect. Neglect is highlighted because it affects nearly 60% of the children involved in the U.S. child welfare system.


This research was designed as a case study. It examined publicly available opinions written by North Carolina Courts of Appeal resolving disputed termination cases. North Carolina was selected because it is one of 34 states that explicitly allow termination because of neglect. Its courts also write lengthy, detailed decisions in termination cases, helping facilitate significant insights into judicial decision-making.

A detailed content analysis of the 101 opinions written in 2010 was conducted in three stages. First, a comprehensive coding sheet was developed to guide data collection. This sheet was informed by prior research on child welfare case records and was organized around Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory. Second, the frequency of words and concepts listed in the coding sheet, as well as those that emerged during review of the opinions, was determined. The overall goal of this stage of analysis was to identify the key factors courts consider when deciding to terminate parental rights. Third, integrating discourse analytics, an analysis of several key words – “failure,” “poverty,” and “compliance” – was completed. This research is innovative in its use of judicial opinions, a highly detailed coding process, and incorporation of mixed methods.


The study found that NC courts decide termination cases on 39 different factors. These factors were grouped together, based upon their underlying commonalities, to form 10 different domains. There are four primary domains, appearing in at least one-half of the cases: (1) parental conditions, (2) service compliance, (3) safety and home environment, and, (4) economic conditions. There are also six secondary domains appearing in less than one-half of the cases: (1) child conditions, (2) bonding, (3) child welfare history, (4) physical abuse, (5) physical presence, and, (6) sexual abuse.

Chi-square analyses were used to determine whether cases involving mothers, fathers, and both parents differed from one another in the factors considered by the courts. The analysis reveals that courts focus on mental health issues in mother’s cases, father’s substance abuse and incarceration, and domestic violence when both parents are involved in the case. Based upon the frequency of key words in the opinions, the study also found evidence that family poverty and parental compliance with casework services lay at the heart of many of the courts’ decisions.