February 20, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
There’s an adoption bill pending before the Missouri legislature that would be bad for mothers, particularly underage ones, bad for fathers and, predictably, a small gold mine for adoption agencies and adoption lawyers in the state. The bill is HB 546 and it looks to tread perilously close to infringing the most basic rights of young biological mothers. Put simply, many of its terms would make it easier for adoption agencies to take children, particularly newborns, from mothers and finalize adoptions, almost before the new mom knows what hit her.
Let’s take the issues one by one. (The changes sought by HB 546 are in bold-faced type.) As you read, pretend you’re a 16-year-old girl who’s become pregnant with her first child and is trying to figure out whether to keep the child or place it for adoption. You don’t have much money and are mostly ignorant of adoption procedures and your rights as a biological parent.
The last line on page one of the bill amends current law on the venue for filing an adoption petition. It allows the adoptive parent or adoption agency to file the petition for adoption anywhere in the state that the agency has an office. That means you, as a 16-year-old girl may well have to figure out how to battle adoption agency lawyers at a distance of, say, 300 miles or more. But that’s the easy part.
Page two of the bill would vest jurisdiction of all adoption cases in the juvenile courts of the state. What’s the problem with that? All records in juvenile court are confidential, i.e. judges there act in essentially complete secrecy. Does the public have a legitimate interest in knowing what’s being done in adoption proceedings? Few would seriously argue that it does not, but HB 546 says “Too bad” to the taxpayers of the state. Missouri may be the “Show Me” state, but HB 546 wants to ensure that no one is shown anything about who gets adopted, why or how.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; when governmental agencies cloak themselves in secrecy, mischief follows. Look no further than child protective agencies and you see that governmental secrecy leads to the most flagrant incompetence and worse. And, as we’ve seen too many times to count, when it comes to adoption, that means adoption agencies and their lawyers running roughshod over the rights of biological parents and the best interests of children. Adoption agencies usually don’t get paid if an adoption isn’t finalized. So they want to do everything they can to make sure that no birth parent is allowed to have second thoughts on the matter. HB 546 seeks to reduce the chances that a birth parent might have a real say in the adoption of his/her child.
Which leads us directly to page four, line 38, that allows an adoption agency lawyer to slap a consent to adopt form under the nose of a new mother just 24 hours after she gave birth. That of course would be the time when she’s still exhausted from labor and probably on a variety of drugs including pain medication that are well-known to dull the mental faculties. HB 546 wants us to believe that our 16-year-old is signing such a form of her own free will and with a full understanding of its consequences. Really.
But it gets worse. Page four, line 67 allows our underage first-time mother to have her interests “protected,” not by a guardian ad litem appointed by the court, but by any attorney. Now, on paper, representation by an attorney may seem like a perfectly sound way to ensure that she doesn’t do something against her interests. But what we see time and again in adoption cases are mothers who are represented, not by their own attorneys whom they can’t afford, but by the attorney for the adoption agency.
Isn’t that a conflict of interests on his part? It certainly could be, but, since the adoption agency’s legal interests (finalizing the adoption of the child) and those of the birth mother are the same, no conflict arises. How did her giving up her child become legally congruent with the agency’s taking her child? Through the magic of the consent form she signed 24 hours after giving birth. You remember, when she was on all those drugs.
Now, existing law allows her to ask for her own lawyer to represent her and, if she’s indigent, to have the attorney’s fees paid by the state. But nothing anywhere requires anyone to tell our high-school-age mother about her right to an attorney. So I strongly suspect that, as a practical matter, few mothers are aware of their right to a lawyer and so proceed without one.
Let’s be clear about what those three little words, “or by an attorney,” added to the law by HB 546 actually mean. They remove from an underage mother the right that every minor in the state has in every other legal proceeding — the right to advice and counsel by her own guardian ad litem. Is she injured in a car wreck for which she receives a monetary settlement? She’s entitled to the appointment of a guardian ad litem to ensure that the settlement is in her interests. As one friend of the National Parents Organization pointed out, in Missouri, she’s too young to purchase a cigarette, but not too young to give up her child for adoption with no one on her side. Amazing.
And finally, just in case we missed the point, HB 546 cuts the time for finalizing an adoption in half, from six to three months. So if Mom or Dad were to regret their decision, they’d have even less time to change their minds and try to figure out what their rights are.
HB 546 is another in a long line of bills whose sole goal is making life easier for adoption agencies and therefore keeping their income streams flowing. It’s an inevitable phenomenon, I suppose. The adoption industry has a lot of money with which to pay lawyers and lobbyists, so every session of the legislature, they can be there with their bills and lobbyists. Birth parents have no such well-funded organization that can assert the legitimate interests of children and the people who bring them into the world. Legislators all too readily see who has the power, money and influence, and so they’re strongly encouraged to do the agencies’ bidding. The unsurprising result is the steady erosion of the rights of birth parents. That’s particularly true of unmarried fathers, but, as HB 546 demonstrates, it applies to mothers as well.
When public policy reflects only the desires of special interests groups, it’s likely to be, to put it mildly, less than it should be. That’s nowhere more apparent than in the case of adoption. Sensible public policy would dictate that the only children adopted would be those who need adoption, i.e. those children without fit parents to care for them. In a country like ours, with over 400,000 children in foster care and only 75,000 stranger adoptions completed every year, it’s obvious that we need to use the scarce resource of qualified adoptive parents only on children who have no fit biological parents.
But laws like putative father registry acts whose sole purpose is to remove unmarried fathers from the adoption process do the exact opposite. They assist the adoption industry in finalizing ever more adoptions, but they do so by imposing adoptions on kids who don’t need it because they have a qualified father who’s ready willing and able to provide a loving home for his child.
HB 546 is more of the same. By further reducing the rights and remedies of birth parents, its inevitable result, if passed, will be to remove children from perfectly capable parents. That makes adoption lawyers smile, but it’s bad public policy. Missouri legislators should vote down HB 546.
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