Senate okays adoption changes
By SHELBY OPPEL
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- The Senate on Thursday sent Gov. Jeb Bush a sweeping, complex rewrite of Florida adoption law, the first major bill completed in the Legislature's 2001 session.
Proponents, including the family law section of the Florida Bar and Catholic Charities, say they hope the measure would bring an end to the wrenching image of toddlers torn from their adoptive parents after a wronged birth parent makes a claim to get the child back.
"This adoption bill is a bill that will bring finality to the adoption process . . . and will make sure that adoptions don't go wrong," said Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac, an adoptive father and the bill's sponsor.
Last year in the Senate, Campbell's bill passed unanimously. But in a reshaped Senate, which includes former House members who voted against the measure over the past eight years, the debate was more emotional and ended in a 30-8 tally.
"This bill is not perfect, Sen. Campbell," said Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, a Brooksville Republican who spoke quietly of her red-haired daughter, adopted at age 11.
But Brown-Waite reasoned that prospective parents might be more willing to adopt a child if they know there is a law to ensure the process will go more smoothly. Brown-Waite said if the adoption laws had been tighter when her daughter was a baby the girl may not have spent five years in an abusive home and another five years in a children's home, waiting to be adopted.
Her daughter, now 21, is a successful, married mother of two, Brown-Waite said.
"For the sake of children who might languish but for this bill . . . I've decided I'm going to support" it, she said.
The measure is not without its detractors, namely private adoption lawyers. Lawmakers received hundreds of letters and e-mails from lawyers who say the new requirements are unnecessary, overly restrictive and favor birth fathers over birth mothers, adoptive parents and children.
"Should that not make you pause and wonder? These are the people actually doing these adoptions," said Sen. Debby Sanderson, a Fort Lauderdale Republican who voted against the bill.
Of the more than 50,000 adoptions in Florida in the past decade, few were contested and even fewer become fodder for scary newspaper headlines, Sanderson said. Then she read a letter from Charlotte Danciu, a Boca Raton adoption lawyer.
"This is not a bill that protects the best interests of the child," said Sanderson, quoting Danciu.
In the end, seven senators agreed with Sanderson, including Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, and Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge.
"I just truly and in my heart think we're going in the wrong direction," Posey said.
The House approved the bill two weeks ago. While Bush has not taken a position, "the governor supports any attempt to provide loving homes and families to, unfortunately, the many unwanted or abandoned babies in the state," spokeswoman Katie Baur said.
Bush has seven days to sign or veto the bill or let it become law without his signature.
Among the most dramatic changes, the bill would:
Establish a 48-hour waiting period before a birth mother could release a child for adoption. No waiting period currently exists.
Give a birth mother three days, or at any time before the child is placed in an adoptive home allow her, to revoke her consent to the adoption of a child who is not an infant.
Force adoption agencies and lawyers to search more extensively for birth fathers to confirm consent. Current law requires a "diligent search" but doesn't specify what that must include.
Make adoption lawyers and agencies liable for the expenses of prospective adoptive parents if a court finds that the lawyer or agency fraudulently obtained a birth parent's consent. It also would allow a court to award attorney's fees to a birth parent who prevails in setting aside an adoption.
Prevent lawyers from charging legal fees for "non-legal" paperwork, which proponents say would control costs for adoptive parents. Adoption lawyers say it is up to the Florida Bar, not the Legislature, to set fees.
Prevent a court from finding that a birth father abandoned his child -- grounds for termination of parental rights -- solely because he did not provide emotional support to the birth mother during pregnancy.
Reaffirm current state law, passed last year, that gives birth fathers who claim fraud two years to challenge an adoption. Before last year, the challenge period was four years.
Adoption bill highlights
The adoption bill sent to Gov. Jeb Bush 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.
Prevent attorneys from charging legal fees for "non-legal" paperwork, which proponents say would control costs for adoptive parents.
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From the Times state desk
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