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February 01, 2016

Parental Rights Cases to Know

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

The U.S. Supreme Court and federal court rulings highlighted below recognize parents’ constitutional rights to the care, custody, and control of their children. See Guggenheim’s chapter for analysis of these and other cases, as well as an overview of child protection laws and how they affect parental rights. 

Right to raise children as parents choose

  • Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923). The Court held that a statute forbidding the teaching of the German language impermissibly encroached on the liberty parents possess. The Court explained that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects this liberty, incorporating “the right to marry, establish a home, and bring up children.”

  • Pierce v. Soc’y of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925). Relying on Meyer, the Court struck down an Oregon statute requiring children to attend public schools. This statute interfered with the right of parents to select private or parochial schools for their children and that it lacked a reasonable relation to any purpose within the competency of the state. 

Right to make decisions about children

  • Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972). The Court held that Wisconsin’s compulsory education law violated an Amish father’s rights to take his 15-year-old children out of school to complete their education in Amish ways at home. 

  • Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000). The Court declared unconstitutional a Washington statute that authorized judges to order parents to permit more visitation between children and their grandparents than the parents desired. 

Foundational cases for applying constitutional protections in child welfare cases

  • Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944). The Court held states may prosecute parents when they expose their children to serious hazards to their well-being.

  • Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645 (1972). The Court declared unconstitutional an Illinois dependency statute that deprived unmarried fathers of the care and custody of their children on the death of the mother without any showing of the father’s unfitness. 

Right to resist coercive state intervention in the family

  • Duchesne v. Sugarman, 566 F.2d 817, 825 (2d Cir. 1977). The Second Circuit held “[T]he right of the family to remain together without the coercive interference of the awesome power of the state . . .encompasses the reciprocal rights of both parent and child.” The court explained that children have the constitutional right to avoid dislocat[ion] from the emotional attachments that derive from the intimacy of daily association with the parent.”

Right of parents to procreate

  • Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535, 536 (1942). The Court held an Oklahoma law that allowed the state to sterilize persons “convicted two or more times for crimes amounting to felonies involving moral turpitude,” violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it infringed upon the fundamental “right to have offspring.”

  • Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965). The Court held unconstitutional a Connecticut law that barred the use and distribution of contraceptives, even for married persons. The Court ruled the Constitution protects various kinds of intimate privacy and the marriage relationship fell well within a zone of privacy that protected couples from virtually all governmental regulation. 

  • Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972). The Court reasoned that because the marital privacy recognized in Griswold protects two independent and distinct individuals, this protection should apply equally to a single person. Accordingly, the Court invalidated a Massachusetts statute that prohibited the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried persons.

  • Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), declaring for the first time that part of a woman’s constitutional right to privacy (including the fundamental right whether or not to beget a child) includes the choice to terminate an unwanted pregnancy (at least in the early stages of the pregnancy). In Roe, the Court restricted state power to forbid abortions, holding that a woman’s decision whether to bear a child is within the sphere of privacy “founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty.”

Right to counsel

  • Lassiter v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 452 U.S. 18 (1981). The Court held parents have a due process right to a fundamentally fair procedure that may require the appointment of counsel. 

Rights of unfit parents:

  • Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745 (1982). The Court declared unconstitutional a New York statute that authorized termination of parental rights based on a preponderance of the evidence. Santosky is the first Supreme Court case to hold that even after parents are found unfit in a contested court proceeding, they retain constitutionally protected parental rights.

Adapted from Guggenheim, Martin. “Chapter One: General Overview of Child Protection Laws in the United States.” In Representing Parents in Child Welfare Cases: Advice and Guidance for Family Defenders, 2015. © Copyright 2015, American Bar Association. Copies of the book are available from the ABA Store,