Testimony and Update: Senate Weighs Best Interests of the Child In Adoptions

Before the Thanksgiving holiday, Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program Executive Director Alan Abramowitz wrote an update regarding an adoption bill, for which testimony was given to the Florida Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. He also shared a related article that ran in newspapers across Florida.

You can read Abramowitz's message and the article, both of which are reproduced below.

Senate Bill 590 Testimony and Update
by Alan Abramowitz

Friday, November 20, 2015

Yesterday was an important day for Florida's abused, neglected and abandoned children and those that care for, advocate and love these children. The Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee heard public comment regarding Senate Bill 590 which is being sponsored by Senator Nancy Detert and championed by the Guardian ad Litem Program. The committee passed the bill unanimously. As you may know, the legislation makes a change to the statute governing adoption intervention. The bill allows judges to make decisions regarding adoption intervention using the child's best interest standard as defined in Chapter 39. One senator even queried whether the law could be made retroactive after hearing the stories where children's best interest where not considered.

From Judge Dawson to foster mothers and fathers; those who appeared gave emotional testimony about the negative effects adoption intervention can have on a child who has bonded with a foster family. Stories of children who were placed with their foster parents for three or more years, separated from their "momma and dada," leaving behind friends, extended family, pets, schools and stability to be placed with someone they do not know. The stories told at today's hearing exemplified how important "The Child's Best Hope Act" is and how deeply impacted families are by the inability for judges to consider a child's best interests when making life changing decisions.

You can listen to these moving stories on the Florida Channel [website].

The House bill has been filed by Representative Janet Adkins. The house bill has the same ultimate goals but addresses these issues as additional factors for judges to consider at the time of intervention, including the nature of the offense bringing the child into care, and includes a presumption that child not be moved if a child has been in a placement for an extended time. We appreciate Senator Detert and Representative Adkins for leading this effort for children.

Thank to those who traveled to Tallahassee to advocate for children. The article below written by Margie Menzel appeared in many Florida newspapers this morning.

Senate weighs 'best interests of the child' in adoptions
by Margie Menzel

Thursday, November 19, 2015
The News Service of Florida

Tallahassee — Backed by the sometimes-tearful testimony of foster parents, a state Senate panel Thursday approved a bill that would allow judges to place the best interests of children in adoption cases above the wishes of their biological parents.

The Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee unanimously passed a measure by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, that she said would resolve a conflict between two laws dealing with children in dependency cases.

Currently, Detert said, a law requiring judges to rule based on "the best interests of the child" conflicts with a law that allows private adoption agencies to intervene in open adoption cases where parents' rights have not yet been terminated. In such cases, the adoption agency typically names the person that the biological parent prefers to adopt the child.

"This sounds like a good idea," Detert said. "But the current law also permits even a parent who has murdered a spouse, committed egregious acts against their children or who wishes to punish a foster parent that has provided a caring home for their child for a lengthy time to choose who their child should be placed with — without requiring the court to consider what is in the best interest of the child, as it would for any other dependency case."

The bill would create an exception to the part of current law that allows agencies and parents to influence who adopts children. The exception would apply in cases where petitions to terminate parents' rights have been filed and qualified adoptive parents have been identified.

The measure drew widespread support from foster parents and children's advocacy groups.

"Virtually all of the judges who are experienced dependency judges have indicated that this has become a serious problem in our courtrooms," said Judge Daniel Dawson, who handles juvenile cases in the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which includes Orange and Osceola counties.

Dawson said that in every such case he has encountered, "there has been spite on behalf of the parent wanting to remove the child from a relative or a foster parent," or in some cases, parents arranged for a person to adopt a child "that they knew was going to return the child to their custody."

The judge also said he has never seen such an intervention early in a dependency proceeding, when the child is typically placed in a foster home. Rather, he said, motions to intervene come when biological parents are about to lose their parental rights, even if a child has been in a stable foster home for years.

Several foster parents who had lost custody of children urged lawmakers to pass the bill.

Amy Wragg, from the Palm Beach County community of Tequesta, described the son she'd fostered for a year, from the day she picked him up at a neonatal intensive care unit where he'd been for two months, "going through drug withdrawal because of what his mother had done to him."

At that point, Wragg said, the biological mother was happy for the baby to be with her family. He'd bonded with Wragg, her husband and their four other children. "He called us mama and dadda," she said.

But the judge made his ruling based on the law allowing the biological mother to intervene. Wragg and her family were given ten days for the transition, which the baby could not begin to understand.

"He started banging his head on things," she said. "He stopped laughing. These are not children without feelings, just because they cannot verbally express what their desires are."

The current law, she said, allows parents to re-traumatize their children "on a whim."

Allen Walker, who with his wife Eve has been a South Florida foster parent for eight years, described losing a foster son the same way. The boy didn't get to say goodbye to his friends or his extended family when he was forced to leave, Walker said.

"What we've been trying to do as foster parents is heal them from the initial trauma of coming into care, because they lose everything," he said. "No matter what their home life is like, they're losing their families, their friends, their schools, their pets, their toys."

After four years with his family, Walker said, the boy had been healing, and then was placed with someone who'd shown no interest before.

Other speakers noted that the current laws allow biological parents with severe mental illness or substance abuse issues to make adoption decisions rather than judges.

"We want to protect parents' rights," Detert said. "But the Legislature and the courts and most of the people in the audience, our main focus is the protection of the children in the state of Florida and what's best for them, because they don't have anybody other than us."

The Senate bill faces two more committees. The House companion bill, sponsored by Representative Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, has not been heard.

Comments are closed after ninety days.