What Is Actually Considered Child Abandonment?
Any boy or girl younger than 18 years old is considered a child in the state of Utah.
How Does Utah Law Define Child Abandonment?
It’s important to note that Utah legislature, Utah appellate courts, the Utah court of appeals, and the Utah Supreme Court, have defined child abandonment. The appellate courts’ definition of child abandonment is not the same as the definition given by the legislature in the statutes. There is a significant overlap, but either set of definitions can be used in court. It is easiest to start with the statutory definition, because its language is the most clear, and then from there to explain the appellate courts’ definitions, which are somewhat broader in scope and in the statute.
In the Utah code annotated 78A-6-508, the legislature gives grounds for termination of parental rights, which includes child abandonment. The legislature states that in determining whether a parent has abandoned their child, evidence of abandonment is:
- If a parent has failed to communicate with a child by mail, telephone, or otherwise for 6 months;
- If a parent has surrendered physical custody of a child to somebody else for a period of 6 months and has not manifested intention to resume physical custody to the child or to the person who has physical custody or intention to take physical custody back; or
- If a parent has not made arrangements for the care of the child. This means that if you just give someone else the physical custody of your child and take off for six months without really talking about taking the child back, that is evidence of abandonment.
- If a parent fails to show a normal interest of a parent in a child without just cause.
The previous points are a broad definition of abandonment. I would like to note that this last ground, which is just the failure to show normal interest, covers a wide variety of parental behavior. This variety can include things such as failure to attend court when issues of a child are being discussed, failure to attend visits, failure to attend therapy under certain circumstances, and so on. There are also very specific definitions for abandoning an infant child after birth, and that statute is 78A-6-316.
The Utah appellate courts have a slightly different definition of abandonment. A 1977 case called Summers Children vs. Wolfenstein defines abandonment as “conduct on the part of the parent which implies a conscious disregard of the obligations owed by a parent to the child, leading to the destruction of the parent–child relationship.” Any conduct that essentially results in that unique parent–child relationship being destroyed, by a conscious disregard of parental dues, can constitute abandonment, even if it doesn’t fit within the statutory definition discussed earlier. For example, in 1978, there was a case called Beigeman, wherein the court indicated that the abandonment might be based solely on a parent’s lack of visitation and communication with a child.
In 1983, there was a case called J. Children, and in that case, the court indicated that if a parent fails to act with intent to enforce their parental rights, that can also constitute abandonment. In that case, there was evidence, including proof that the mother had visited the children in the custody of the father only four or five times over a long period of time. It was alleged in that case that the father was interfering with her parenting time, but the court found that she had the opportunity to go into court to enforce her visitation but failed to do so. Her efforts to have parenting time with her children were halfhearted and supported a finding that she had abandoned her children. This finding was because she didn’t show the normal interest that a parent would have in their children, as she failed to avail herself of the court remedies that were available to her.
In 1991 there was another case called Getty DM, Bingham vs. MacArthur. Among other things, the Utah Supreme Court vacated the rights of the parent, whose conduct evidenced a conscious disregard for the parent’s obligations. Therefore, the parent has destroyed a meaningful parent–child relationship and must give way to the principle that the best interests of the child are paramount in determining whether to terminate parental rights.