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House okays safeguards in adoption law

The Senate is expected to pass the bill as well. The goal is to avoid custody fights such as the "Baby Sam'' case.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- After eight years of controversy, a proposal to tighten the laws that regulate adoptions in Florida appears headed for passage by the Legislature.

The bill passed 104-8 Thursday in the House, where it had stalled in the past. The Senate, which passed the bill unanimously last year, is expected to approve it later this month.

The changes are needed, proponents say, to make adoptions less vulnerable to after-the-fact challenges from birth parents, as in the case of Christopher Vietri of New Port Richey and his biological son "Baby Sam" Johnson. The fight between Vietri and Sam's adoptive parents is now before the Alabama Supreme Court.

Proponents say the bill's safeguards would force attorneys to make the finality of the adoption, not money or speed, their first priority.

"We have been a state where people are afraid to adopt children," state Rep. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, said Thursday.

The bill is supported by the family law section of the Florida Bar and by Catholic Charities, a licensed child-placing agency. It is opposed primarily by private adoption attorneys, who say the changes will make adoptions more difficult and expensive and will drive more birth mothers to abort their babies instead of placing them for adoption.

"It puts the extreme onus on the mother -- nothing on the father. You know the old saying, "It takes two to tango'? Not in Florida," said Jeanne Tate, a Tampa adoption attorney.

Among other changes, the bill would:

Establish a 48-hour waiting period before a birth mother could release a child for adoption.

Force adoption agencies and attorneys to search more extensively for birth fathers to confirm consent. Current law requires a "diligent search" but doesn't specify what that must include.

Prevent attorneys from charging legal fees for "non-legal" paperwork, which proponents say would control costs for adoptive parents. Adoption attorneys say it is up to the Florida Bar, not the Legislature, to set fees.

In the past, adoption attorneys have had an important ally in former state Rep. Debby Sanderson, a Fort Lauderdale Republican who was powerful enough to block House passage of the bill. But Sanderson has moved to the Senate, where she is less likely to succeed at stalling the efforts of the bill's sponsor, Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale.

To fight the bill, attorneys have e-mailed lawmakers to say it would actually make adoptions less safe by expanding birth parents' rights to change their minds.

The risk of losing an adoptive child would be so great under the proposal, "people just aren't going to do it," said Charlotte Danciu, a Boca Raton adoption attorney.

But proponents say most of the criticisms are based on current law that the bill does nothing to change. They point to a letter from Christian Coalition executive director Terry Kemple to Lynn that notes several "reservations" brought to him by the bill's opponents. The Christian Coalition has not taken a position.

Kemple's reservations include a provision that would give birth fathers two years to challenge an adoption. That already is state law, approved last year as part of legislation that allows mothers to abandon newborns under certain conditions without facing criminal charges, and it applies only to birth fathers who claim fraud. Before last year, the challenge period was four years.

"They've been trying to cause confusion when really it is all very clear," said Pat Chivers, a lobbyist for Catholic Charities.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who has the power to veto any bill, has not taken a position.

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