Nothing in my long years of law practice has been an important as representing people in adoption proceedings. Being handed a newborn infant by a mother who gave birth in the previous 48 hours and delivering the baby to adopting parents is a moving and emotional experience. Serving merely as a witness to the way adoption changes lives has been a privilege.
Adoption practice and rituals have changed dramatically over the last several decades and Georgia’s adoption laws need to be updated to reflect new openness and practices in relation to post-adoption agreements. Today, most of the physical transfers of newborns from a birth mother to adopting parents occurs in a room together with either agency representatives or adoption attorneys.
Some form of “open adoption” is now the norm in most adoptions, with the goal of maintaining and celebrating the adopted child’s connections with all the important people in his or her life.
I have pre-filed House Bill 21 in the House Clerk’s office of the General Assembly to allow and enforce agreements and plans that adopting parents and birth parents make to ensure a child’s life is supported by all who love him or her, and to minimize the child’s loss of relationships. Specifically, if adopting and birth parents voluntarily agree that the birth parent may continue to know the child, exchange information over time, visit and have an ongoing relationship with the child, then that agreement shall be authorized and may be enforced. Agreements would be decided by the parties themselves and details would vary—just as all adoptions are different and should be individualized.
Approximately 23 states have passed some form of legislation on post-adoption agreements. Although the statutes are very different, two principles are clear, and they are included in HB 21. First, agreements or disagreements about post-adoption visitation shall not serve to set aside any adoption order—the adoption is clearly permanent. And secondly, the visitation plan must be in the child’s best interest.
Some statutes have been passed to confirm that post-adoption agreements are not against public policy, as a court may have determined, and a handful of states still assert that post-adoption agreements may not be enforced and should not be executed. Georgia courts have not ruled on whether post-adoption agreements may be enforced as valid contracts.
During the upcoming session, the General Assembly may consider a variety of options in crafting open adoption legislation. Which relatives would be eligible to participate: only the biological parents, or also other blood relatives to the child, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and half-siblings? Should the child be entitled to the right to enforce a post-adoption agreement, or should the child’s consent be required as it is now in custody, guardianship and adoptions when the child has reached a certain age, usually 14 in Georgia? Should post-adoption agreements be authorized for foster-care parents who have a long relationship with the child?
Some 95 percent of private adoption agencies now support some form of “open adoption” and post-adoption agreements, a dramatic shift from the 36 percent of 1987. Openness provides access to a child’s own history, understanding the reasons for the adoption rather than the myths or secrecy, and information to aid in forming a truthful identity.
It is time for Georgia’s adoption laws to recognize these goals and values, and further assist in positive family building that adoption represents for so many people.