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Legislation seeks tighter adoption laws

Prospects of passage in the Legislature are slim because of objections of a House leader and some adoption attorneys.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Christopher Vietri lost his son four years ago when his girlfriend put the boy up for adoption without his consent.

With Vietri in mind, lawmakers are trying again to tighten Florida's adoption laws. Proponents, who include the Florida Bar and the Children's Home Society, say the measures will prevent another "Baby Sam."

"They basically sold my son," said Vietri, 30, who lives in New Port Richey. "They should follow up on where the fathers are."

Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, has filed a bill aimed at doing just that. By making adoptions safer -- which means less vulnerable to challenges -- the measures would protect the birth parents, the adoptive parents and the children, proponents say.

"More and more people are looking out of the country" rather than adopt in Florida, said Patricia Chivers of the Florida Catholic Conference, which supports the changes.

"It's not safe now."

The Senate voted unanimously to approve the changes last year, but the measure died in the House.

The prospects remain slim again this year, mainly because of objections from Rep. Debby Sanderson, a Fort Lauderdale Republican with a leadership role in the House.

If the proposal does succeed, it would:

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

Establish a 48-hour waiting period before a birth mother can release the child for adoption. Florida is one of 14 states that does not require a waiting period.

Limit adoption agency fees to $3,000, unless a judge approves more. While not all agencies charge exorbitant fees, couples have paid as much as $40,000 to adopt a healthy Florida baby.

During the 1998-99 fiscal year, 1,400 Florida children were adopted, according to the state Department of Children and Families. Another 2,242 are waiting for adoptive parents.

Birth parents whose rights are protected on the front end will be less likely to mount a successful challenge to the adoption later, say proponents of Campbell's changes. And the bill prevents any challenges after two years, while current law allows a four-year window.

Campbell, who has two adopted children, said the changes are crucial "so we don't have screwed-up, failed adoptions in Florida."

As they have in the past, some adoption attorneys are protesting the changes, calling them unnecessary and unfair to adoptive parents and desperate birth mothers.

Campbell's bill is a well-intentioned attempt to fix problems that don't exist, or that only occur in a tiny percentage of adoptions, said Charlotte Danciu, a Boca Raton attorney who is lobbying against the measure.

"It certainly would result in increased abortions and would have a chilling effect on adoptions," Danciu said.

Jeanne Trudeau Tate, a Tampa attorney, calls Campbell's bill "horrific." She said its supporters are fooling themselves to think it would prevent another "Baby Sam."

In that case, Vietri and the baby's mother split up during the pregnancy. When the mother gave birth, she told Vietri the child had died.

Instead, she gave the boy to a Tampa adoption agency, Adoption by Choice, and said she didn't know who the father was.

"A diligent search is impossible when they don't have a name," Tate said.

Campbell's bill includes another change that may have helped Vietri, if it had been part of Florida law in 1998.

It says that a father who does not provide emotional support during pregnancy cannot be found guilty of abandoning the child on that basis alone.

In 1998, after Florida trial and appellate courts ruled in Vietri's favor for Baby Sam's return, an Alabama judge awarded parental rights to the Tuscaloosa couple who had raised the boy from birth.

The judge's ruling was based, in part, on the adoptive parents' argument that Vietri effectively abandoned his son by mistreating the child's mother. The judge also declared that remaining with his adoptive parents was in Baby Sam's best interests.

Vietri has appealed that ruling to the Alabama Supreme Court. Vietri, who installs communications cables, has a 3-year-old son with his wife, Erika.

He has never seen Baby Sam, who turned 4 last month, though he believes he eventually will.

"The waiting -- it does not get easier every day," Vietri said.

Campbell's bill has a House companion, sponsored by Rep. Arthur Argenio, R-Stuart.

It has yet to be heard in two committees, which must occur before a full vote in that chamber.

Until last week, Sanderson was sponsoring a competing bill, favored by the adoption attorneys who dislike Campbell's measure, that made less extensive changes to Florida's adoption law.

She said Wednesday she had withdrawn the bill from consideration but declined to say why.

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

- Information from Times files was used in this report.

0987$temp$ $STPT$

ID:+ Paper:+

Date: 4/08/00 Page: 1A+

Section: WORLD Byline: WES ALLISON+

Headline: Doctors discount estrogen studies

Notes:+

As soon as Dr. Elliot Cazes saw the latest study about estrogen therapy and heart disease in the news Wednesday, he knew he would spend much of this week answering calls from worried patients

Cazes, an obstetrician and gynecologist in north Tampa, said his phones also went wild earlier this year after a study suggested that taking estrogen with another hormone, progestin, might increase the risk of breast cancer in some women. Last month, preliminary findings of yet another study suggested that estrogen might not help the heart as much as scientists had thought.

In the past several months, he and other Tampa Bay gynecologists say they have repeatedly had to clear up muddy reports and assuage fears among menopausal women about hormone replacement therapy, one of America's most prescribed treatments.

"They all panic, and they all call up wanting to know if they should stop taking their medication," Cazes said Thursday. "I don't think any medication is without risk, but when we're talking about estrogen, I think the benefits far, far, far outweigh the risks."

Doctors say patients have become confused and concerned by recent reports, which questioned the benefits and safety of estrogen. One published last week was especially surprising: Although estrogen has long been thought to protect the heart, early results showed it may increase the risk of heart attacks in some women.

Meanwhile, another study is expected to be published in next week's Journal of the American Medical Association that says estrogen therapy does, in fact, seem to help the hearts of post-menopausal women.

"Everybody who is coming in for their annuals is saying, "There's been these little things in the paper, what do you think?"' said Dr. Beth Benson of Ob/Gyn Associates in St. Petersburg.

"I tell them when the time comes, at least if the same information is out there, I'm planning on using hormone replacement therapy myself."

Estrogen, taken alone or with progestin or androgen, replaces waning levels of hormones in menopausal or post-menopausal women.

Most women go through menopause about age 50. Estrogen can stop the disquieting effects, such as hot flashes, and it helps build bone mass to thwart osteoporosis, a common and dangerous condition for older women. It also is widely thought to protect the heart by slowing thickening of the arteries.

One of Benson's patients, Marilyn Shay of St. Petersburg, began taking estrogen three years ago after having a series of hot flashes that left her stunned. Shay and her husband have twin 5-year-old boys, so she does not have time for it, and she cannot afford to be kept awake by night sweats.

The estrogen has helped immensely, Shay said. And while she was aware of the recent reports questioning its effects, she talked to Benson about her treatment and has no plans to stop.

"You could read these articles, and then dwell on that, and in another year that's all blown away, and then we're on to something different," Shay, 51, said. "So I don't put a lot of faith in that stuff. It does well for me, and I just go with it."

Hormone replacement therapy has become wildly popular with women and their doctors since the 1970s. IMS Health, a drug-tracking service, says it has become the most prescribed treatment in the United States. Last year, doctors wrote 100.5-million prescriptions for estrogen or for estrogen plus other hormones.

Estrogen therapy does carry some risks, and a woman should decide to use it only after careful consideration and discussion with her doctor.

Post-menopausal women who have not had a hysterectomy usually get a combination of estrogen and progestin, to counter an increased risk of uterine cancer associated with estrogen alone. Millions of these women got a jolt in January when the Journal published a study that showed some who take both estrogen and progestin may be increasing their risk of breast cancer by 8 percent to 12 percent.

"Many of them wanted to quit it, and a lot of them just didn't want to start it," said Dr. Claire Godfrey, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

"If I could poll 100 women who are not on hormone therapy but have been offered it, their main reason would be the fear of breast cancer. But it's not a realistic fear."

Godfrey and other doctors said patients did not realize that the number of women in the study who developed breast cancer was very small, and coverage of the study failed to put the risk into perspective: Women typically have a 7 percent chance of getting breast cancer anyway, so a 10 percent increase in that risk would raise the chance to 7.7 percent.

"Even if I had a family history of breast cancer, I personaly would be on hormone replacement therapy," Godfrey said. "It's not just about the number of years that you live, but the quality of those years."

Doctors agree the issue deserves more study. But for now, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has issued a statement recommending that neither doctors nor their patients change therapies because of the report.

Doctors say patients and the media often miss the fine print. In last week's report about estrogen and heart disease, researchers told about 25,000 women enrolled in a federal study that hormone replacement therapy may have put them at a slightly higher risk of heart attacks and strokes.

But researchers also noted that the number of women in the study who suffered heart attacks was tiny and that the 10-year study was only 2 years old. They cautioned it is early to know if increased risk would hold up.

A March report on heart disease and estrogen, meanwhile, showed that it may not be that effective in preventing heart attacks and strokes in women who have cardiovascular disease. But doctors noted that it does seem to help women who do not already have heart disease, and most women do not have heart problems when they reach menopause.

Dr. Robert Yelverton, president of Tampa Bay Women's Care in Tampa, said patients are continuing to call with concerns, and many are sending his office articles based on the recent studies.

"What used to be a 15-minute discussion in the office has now turned into a 45-minute discussion," he said.

"And a woman's decision has been made harder by these articles, and the physician decision has been made harder as well. But it hasn't changed."

* * *

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