HARRISBURG — Adopting a child in Pennsylvania is too hard, according to lawmakers who say the state needs to streamline the process to get more of the 2,500 children awaiting adoption into loving homes as quickly as possible.
The state House used its one-day session ahead of Winter Storm Stella to pass six bills intended to streamline the adoption process in Pennsylvania.
The proposals include shortening the window in which biological parents can change their minds about giving their children up for adoption and new rules spelling out the steps counties must take to track down biological fathers.
If approved by the state Senate, the bills will be “tightening the screws on parents to benefit the child,” said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates. “It’s hard to argue with that.”
Under current law, biological parents have 30 days after revoking parental rights to change their minds. The new proposal would reduce that window to 14 days.
Cervone said he used to question the wisdom of narrowing the window out of the belief that biological moms should have “some deference.”
Birth moms can’t sign away their maternal rights until 72 hours after a baby is born.
He’s been swayed by the argument that the proposal makes the child’s needs paramount, Cervone said. “It elevates the child’s need for legal and emotional stability,” he said.
Pennsylvania’s current law gives biological parents more time to reconsider than parents in most other states, he said.
“This moves us closer to the national norm,” Cervone said.
The push for the change is largely driven by private adoption agencies, said Brian Bornman, executive director of Pennsylvania Children and Youth Administrators, the group representing the heads of the county agency on the front line of child protection.
Bornman said that at least 7 of 10 adoptions in Pennsylvania are cases where the children are placed in foster care by county agencies and then adopted by the foster parents or someone else. The rest of the adoptions are handled privately, with a relative taking custody of the child or involving an adoption agency. Private agencies are reluctant to place a child in an adopted family’s home until the biological parents’ opportunity to change their minds is over, Bornman said.
The House legislation also spells out the steps counties should take to try to find the dads. Under existing law, the county agency must demonstrate to a judge that caseworkers have made an effort to find the father. That includes publishing legal notices asking the father to come forward, he said.
Under the new proposal, the searches would need to include: checks of county records, along with contacting the state departments of Human Services, Transportation, Corrections and State Police. Federal agencies, including Homeland Security and the Department of State, would have to be approached as well.
The law would also require county officials to search the Internet to see if there’s any indication of the whereabouts of the presumed father.
Bornman said the legislation would require county employees to waste time making queries to agencies unlikely to help. It's unclear when the Senate will take up the bills. But Bornman said his group and others are seeking allies in the Senate to tweak the legislation when the measures are considered there.
Chris Chmielewski said that most counties do an adequate job conducting these types of searches. Chmielewski is a former foster child who now publishes a magazine for foster parents called Foster Focus.
He said the state would be better off passing legislation that compels counties to conduct thorough searches for any relative interested in helping a child.
Cervone said that kind of “family finding” is already required when a child is placed in foster care. But there’s no penalty for counties if they don’t put much effort into it.
While state lawmakers grapple with the issue, it's hard to say how much impact they can have on how the adoption process plays out, said Chris Yetter, of Middleburg, Snyder County. Yetter and his wife, Melissa, have adopted a 4-year-old girl, Abby, and they are in the process of adopting a second 9-year-old daughter. He declined to provide the second girl’s name because the adoption process isn’t finalized.
Yetter said that in his experience, how well the adoption process goes depends on how competent your caseworker is.
If the state wants to streamline the adoption process, he said, it should come up with a better way to determine whether biological parents are trying to get their lives in order.
“Parents are parents. If they are doing the right thing, they should get their children back,” he said. “But if the parents are thumbing their noses at the county and then say they want their kids back, that’s another thing.”
John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.