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Tighter adoption laws sought in bill

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.

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