Last year, Georgia Legislators attempted to revise the adoption laws in our state. It got ugly. And the 2017 session ended with no solution to the ever-growing issues and complications related to fostering and adoption in the State of Georgia.
However, HB 159 passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. On January 18th, at 4:10PM, Governor Deal tweeted:
And roughly two hours later, Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert released the following statement:
The Senate passed its first bill of the session today – a comprehensive update of the state’s adoption law. The bill, House Bill 159, passed the House of Representatives on the 28th day of last year’s session after more than two years of development under the guidance of Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta).
The Senate received it with 12 legislative days left in the 2017 session and did not have time to fully vet the bill in time to bring it to the floor for a vote before the end of the session. Additional time over the summer has allowed the Senate to thoroughly review and vet the bill, and to make a few much-needed changes. Thorough review by both legislative chambers is the most prudent method of producing solid law – it also happens to be the constitutionally mandated means of governing. The bill now stands as a testament to Georgia’s goal of helping mothers choose life and of simplifying the adoption process.
However, the bill now contains another bill. HB 359 is back for another round as well and would allow parents to give temporary custody to a family member or friend (or pretty much anyone else) for up to a year for a myriad of reasons. And there is at least one person who is not a fan of that proposed idea. Governor Deal vetoed the same bill last year raising objections to
…creating a parallel system in which DFCS has no oversight runs contrary to the progress the state has made in strengthening our child welfare system.
Senator Cowsert had a response to Governor Deal’s veto remarks made last year as well:
…some have criticized the addition of a bill that the Governor previously vetoed will make it difficult to pass HB 159. The vetoed bill in question, HB 359, was passed by both the House and Senate in 2017. It states that a parent can allow a member of the community (such as a close friend or fellow church member) power-of-attorney over a child on a temporary basis, up to one year, if the parent is temporarily unable take care of the child. In circumstances such as a single-parent soldier being deployed overseas, financial distress, physical injury or disability, or a parent who voluntarily enters an alcohol or drug rehab program, this provision will help keep families together in the long term. Current state law would have the parent place the child in the state’s custody.
In the governor’s veto message, he stated that he was concerned about state oversight of the person with power of attorney. The Senate noted that the Division of Family and Children Services will always retain the right and ability to remove a child from an incompetent or neglectful parent or custodian of a child. We are optimistic that the changes in this bill will alleviate the Governor’s concerns and that he will sign this version.
Additionally, Senator Cowsert notes that language pertaining to religious freedoms and the rights of faith-based agencies has been removed and will be presented in a stand alone bill.
There are several pros to the Senate version of the bill that are worth noting.
The House version of the bill would have allowed unmarried 21 year olds to adopt. The Senate bill revises this to say that unmarried 21 year olds may adopt their siblings should the need arise. However, it will be not be permissible for those unmarried and under 25 to adopt non-siblings. Couples who are married and under 25 will be allowed to adopt.
Georgia has one of the longest waiting periods, 10 days, for a birth mother to change her mind. Under the House version of the bill, a birth mother could immediately waive the 10 day period, effectively relinquishing her rights. The Senate version revises it to read that after 72 hours, a birth mother can waive the 10 day waiting period.
The Senate version of the bill would make it a felony for illegal inducements to be paid by the adoptive parents to the birth parents. This includes paying for living expenses. The following explanation was offered by Sen. Cowsert:
Currently, medical expenses for prenatal care, hospital expenses, and living expenses for a birth mother in the adoption process can be paid only by a state-regulated adoption agency. There is a requirement that the agency submit a financial disclosure with the court listing all expenditures paid to or on behalf of the mother. These expenses must be approved by the judge handling the adoption to assure that they do not constitute an illegal inducement. Likewise, the adoption agencies are audited yearly to ensure the expenses are necessary and reasonable.
The Senate version of the adoption bill does not allow for living expenses to be paid in a private adoption where no agency is involved. However, it does allow for medical expenses and counseling expenses to be paid in private adoptions. The House version of the bill would have allowed for private adoptive parents to pay living expenses of the mother. Because private attorneys do not face the same restrictions and regulations as adoption agencies, the lawyers could facilitate payments of higher expenses for birth mothers than state-regulated adoption agencies can pay. This has the potential to lead to mothers negotiating for the highest bidder seeking to adopt.
The Senate version is more consistent with current Georgia law (Georgia Code 19-8-24) which makes it a felony to offer an illegal inducement to parents to part with their children. There should be very limited exceptions to this rule. Although the Senate wants to make the adoption process easier for families, it will not simplify the process in a way that promotes the possibility of bidding for babies. This is, obviously, contrary to the best interests of Georgians.
There are still great strides to be made in the revision of the foster and adoption system in our state. It is an overhaul that will take more than legislation. It will take budgetary measures that will allow for the growth of personnel with the Department of Family and Children Services. It will take additional training and investment in those employees, as well as a comprehensive audit of the policies, procedures, and core values of the department that shapes the futures of thousands of Georgia’s children.
There is only one way to eat an elephant and that is one bite at a time. The improvements being looked at this year are important and needed. However, the children of our state who are affected by the system as it stands now don’t have another legislative session. They don’t have years to wait for real change to occur. Birth mothers who need options to be available to them have nine months, sometimes less. We can laugh our way out of hard conversations with our standard “it’s for the children” line.
But for the 700 children who age out of the foster care system in Georgia every year, this isn’t funny. It’s the difference between a high school diploma and a GED. It’s the difference between a stable home environment and an abusive or neglectful one. It’s the difference in being taught life skills that will provide a successful life and being caught in the system. And for the unborn, it could literally be life or death.
It’s time for real reform with real results. We can go sappy. Yes, it’s for the kids. Georgia’s kids. We can go political. The future of the continued economic growth of our state depends on the well-being, education, and work-readiness of EVERY kid in our state.
Or we can go with what’s right. And advocating for our kids is right. Being a voice for the voiceless is right. Real reform in our foster and adoption system is right.