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VOL. 121 | NO. 210 | Thursday, October 26, 2006

Parental Rights Slippery Slope for Minors

By Amy O. Williams

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While many teenagers' biggest problems revolve around what plans they have on a Friday or what they're going to wear, some teens are dealing with much weightier issues.

Most of the problems facing teenage mothers deal directly with the limitations that come with being minors.

Because they don't enjoy many of the rights adults have, they can't enter into contracts, said Dan Michael, a referee for the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County.

For instance, a 17-year-old may not be able to rent an apartment because it involves signing a binding contract. The same goes for buying a car.

"It creates all kinds of problems because they don't have the same abilities that an adult has, which makes it that much harder," said Michael, who is also former director of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program. CASA consists of volunteers who work as guardians ad litem (GALs), or trained volunteers who advocate for children's best interests.

Babies and their babies

In his job as a referee - which is an attorney who acts as a judge - Michael said he sees too many cases involving teen parents. They can end up in juvenile court for many reasons, including the termination of parental rights.

There were 68 cases in juvenile court in 2005 in which parents, adult or juvenile, terminated their parental rights, according to a recent report by The Urban Child Institute called "The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County." And there were 18 instances in which children were voluntarily placed in foster care.

The majority of children in Shelby County are born out of wedlock, and a large percentage are born to girls younger than 18, Michael said.

In 2000, the most recent year for which a number was available, 64 percent of children were born to unmarried mothers in Memphis, according to the report. Babies born in Memphis have less than a 50 percent chance of being born into a married-couple family, the report states.

Another element that further complicates the issue of teens' parental rights is that many of the parents themselves are in the custody of the state.

"The law is designed to try to assist families in putting their lives back together. If the parent of a child is a minor - a mother or a father - it makes it that much more difficult."
- Dan Michael
Referee for the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County

"It's not unusual to have a foster care docket with a 16- or 17-year-old whose child is also in foster care," he said. "It's a very common occurrence that we see here."

The rights of teen parents present an especially big challenge when a teen parent is in the custody of someone else, whether it is a parent or foster parent, Michael said.

"The law is designed to try to assist families in putting their lives back together," he said. "If the parent of a child is a minor - a mother or a father - it makes it that much more difficult."

In the ideal situation, Michael said, the foster parents are willing to take on the care of the teenager and his or her child.

Shuffled to and fro

When teen parents are in foster care, they can fall into several different scenarios based on what their goals are, said Melanie Taylor, a Memphis attorney who has served as a guardian ad litem for nearly 15 years.

The Department of Children's Services (DCS) sets certain goals for children in state custody, Taylor said.

"For some, it may be reunification with their original family unit, or it may be adoption, so it just depends," she said.

If the children are not in state custody, it depends on the legal guardians of the minor parent. Since teenagers are not able to enter into contracts, their parents officially are the grandchildren's caretakers.

"The (grandparent) basically becomes the legal guardian," she said. "That's the person who has to be present with the minor mother for doctors' appointments, etc."

Until a minor mother turns 18 and either graduates from or drops out of high school, her guardian has custody of her child. Once she turns 18 and is emancipated, she can be the legal guardian for the child herself, Taylor said.

Stacked deck

At Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS), attorneys work to help prevent families from ending up in situations in which the state is involved, said Linda Seely, director of private attorney involvement at MALS.

The attorneys at MALS work with families in what Seely calls "preventative law," which helps keep teen parents from falling into a situation in which they are dependent on social services.

For children in foster care, it is even more difficult, she said, because no good mechanism exists to move kids from foster care to independence. Once they are out on their own, Seely said, they don't have mom and dad to fall back on when they encounter problems.

"For teen parents, they have every strike against them," she said.

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