Cleanup of US Adoption Laws Irks Many Advocates for Children


A NEW proposal to reform adoption procedures in the United States ``shifts the focus of adoption law to the needs and interests of children,'' says law professor Joan Hollinger, the primary drafter of the model statute.

Not everyone agrees. The proposed Uniform Adoption Act ``is designed to provide children for parents who want babies, rather than to find homes for children who need them,'' says Janet Fenton, president of Concerned United Birthparents.

As these differing opinions indicate, adoption is the Bosnia of social issues. Factions are battling on many fronts, and they hold their views with an often searing passion.

The issue has gained national attention recently through two agonizing cases in which young children were caught between competing claims of birth parents and adoptive parents.

In both the Baby Jessica case in Iowa last year and the ongoing Baby Richard case in Illinois, courts awarded birth parents custody of children who had lived in adoptive homes for more than two years (Baby Richard remains with his adoptive parents pending an appeal to the US Supreme Court). Both cases involved the assertion of custody rights by fathers after the children's unmarried mothers gave them up for adoption.

Help future cases

It is unclear whether the Uniform Adoption Act, if it had been in effect, would have changed the complicated Baby Jessica and Baby Richard cases, experts say. But supporters of the act say that, by establishing uniform, clear-cut adoption practices throughout the country, it could help avert many future horror stories.

The 150-page act would, among other things:

* Allow a mother to revoke her adoption consent within eight days after birth; after that, the consent would be irrevocable.

* Establish procedures and time limits for biological fathers to assert custody rights to children put up for adoption.

* Authorize direct placement of adopted children through lawyers and other private intermediaries, as well as placement through adoption agencies; but the act would require pre-placement home visits by ``qualified'' evaluators in private as well as agency adoptions and impose other new regulations on private adoptions.

* Permit ``open adoption'' arrangements providing for continued contact between birth parents and adopted children, but with limits on the right of birth parents to enforce visitation agreements in court.

* Seal adoption records to protect privacy; but the act establishes a registry through which birth parents and adopted children who have reached adulthood could find each other with mutual consent.

The model statute is the fruit of more than four years of work by a committee of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL), an influential body of lawyers and judges that, in its 103-year history, has proposed some 200 laws for enactment by state legislatures. At their annual meeting last month, the NCCUSL commissioners overwhelmingly approved the committee's handiwork. NCCUSL and other adherents like the National Council for Adoption now will support enactment at the state level.

``While the act isn't perfect, we believe that it is very sound and thoughtful, and it adds some new protections to participants in the adoption process,'' says Mary Beth Style, a spokeswoman for the National Council for Adoption. ``It makes a positive contribution to adoption law in the United States.''

The uniform law has encountered sometimes virulent opposition, however. Critics include such major adoption and child-welfare organizations as the American Adoption Congress, Adoptive Families of America, Concerned United Birthparents, the Child Welfare League of America, and the National Association of Social Workers.

Beyond challenging specific provisions of the model act, some critics contend that its drafters had an agenda, variously described as protecting the interests of adoption lawyers; facilitating a private market for babies; assisting infertile couples who want a child (especially a white child) at any price; or impeding the ability of birth parents and the children they give up to maintain or, in later years, to develop a relationship.

`Firestorm of controversy'

``The act focuses on the right of adults to adopt,'' says Ann Sullivan, adoption-program director at the Child Welfare League of America, an association of adoption and child-welfare agencies. ``It should focus on getting quality homes for children.''

``The law tries to make adoption quicker and easier for adoptive parents,'' says Kenneth Watson, assistant director of the Chicago Child Care Society and a member of the board of the American Adoption Congress, who adds that it ``is very exploitative of birth parents.''

Professor Hollinger, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, Law School, seems taken aback by the ``firestorm of controversy over the act.'' The model law, she says, is the result of a lengthy and open process in which the NCCUSL committee carefully weighed extensive oral and written comments on successive drafts of the act. Hollinger and other supporters of the act charge that opponents are deliberately misrepresenting it in furtherance of their own agendas.

Hollinger seems especially stung by accusations that the act slights the best interests of children. ``One of the greatest needs of adopted children, and one which this act promotes, is reaching finality in adoption proceedings as expeditiously as possible consistent with due process,'' she says.

``I've become something of a missionary for children as a result of this experience,'' says Hollinger. ``I've seen too many horror stories resulting from the failure of courts to act promptly in protecting the rights of adopted children.''

Noting that it has taken a decade or more for some of NCCUSL's model laws to become widely enacted, Hollinger anticipates that the Uniform Adoption Act will be debated in state legislatures for years to come. Michigan has already adopted most of the act, and in other states lawmakers are studying it closely. But Hollinger says that, unlike such model laws as the Uniform Commercial Code, the emotionally fraught adoption act may never be enacted in all the states.

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