Every parent in America has constitutional rights to parent his or her children. If a parent is under the age of eighteen, however, those rights are tenuous. There is no question that adolescent parents face difficulties while trying to juggle school, parental responsibilities, work, their social lives, and more. Add to that long list of challenges the legal infirmities all minors share, and a picture of impending disaster begins to appear for the adolescent parent and his or her child. Furthermore, once a minor parent enters the family court system— instead of getting the services, training, and supervision that may be needed to help him or her adjust to, and take responsibility for, the difficulties of parenthood—he or she may be at risk of losing his or her child.
The struggles adolescent parents encounter do not necessarily indicate they are bad parents. Of course, some adolescent parents, like some adult parents, are simply bad parents who should not retain their parental rights. Yet, the legal and life hurdles adolescent parents encounter should be considered by courts when an adolescent parent’s parental rights are being questioned. If courts were sensitive to the fact that the parent whose parenting is in question is an adolescent and that adolescent parents are legally and societally impeded from upholding their parental responsibilities, they would be less likely to invade adolescent parents’ fundamental rights to raise their children. One way to help courts be sensitive to the issues adolescent parents face would be for states to add a factor to their “best interests of the child” test encouraging courts to proceed with caution when considering the fitness and custodial rights of adolescent parents.
This article argues that the constitutional rights of parents to raise their children require that courts take extreme care during dependency hearings that involve adolescent parents to ensure that those constitutional rights are protected. First, adolescent parents are not as legally equipped to engage fully in their rights and responsibilities as adult parents. Second, adolescent parents often lack, for a number of reasons outside their control, the skills it takes to be a good parent, but they are not necessarily incapable of learning those skills once taught. Third, adolescent parents are not in a position of power that allows them to advocate effectively for themselves or their children during the dependency process. When a group of people is so vulnerable and when its rights are so important, states and courts should do all they can to ensure that it is treated fairly. This article not only points out the potential pitfalls for courts when handling dependency proceedings involving adolescent parents, it also endeavors to suggest solutions to those problems.