Children caught in the limbo of foster care could move closer to finding permanent homes if the General Assembly approves a bill that would speed up the adoption process in Maryland's courts.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee yesterday approved a bill that would require judges to schedule the first hearing on adoption petitions within six months -- less than half the average wait foster children now face for hearings in Maryland.
Child-welfare advocates maintain that each month a child spends in foster care puts the child at greater risk of not finding a permanent home. The uncertainty is said to be emotionally devastating for children who, by the time state workers file petitions to free them for adoption, have spent up to two years in foster care.
"We don't care where the problem is," said Charlie Cooper, administrator for the state Foster Care Review Board. "This law says: Kids are a priority, these innocent kids get priority, too. It's almost like a child is dying and parents are withholding treatment."
The bill, already passed by the House of Delegates, now goes to the full Senate.
This was the second year child-welfare advocates tried to push the measure through. Last year, it failed, 5-4, in the same Senate committee.
The wait for a hearing is the one part of the adoption process that has lengthened over the past five years. In 1986, a child who was adopted out of the foster-care system spent an average of 69 months in foster care before being assured of a permanent home, according to the state Foster Care Review Board.
As of last year, that had been reduced to exactly four years. But the wait for a hearing on adoption petitions, which had been seven months in 1986, had grown to 13 months statewide.
"We've got cases that take 30 and 40 months -- I don't know what explains that," said Cooper.
There are about 5,000 children in foster care on any given day in Maryland. Every year, about 3,500 children enter the system, while 3,000 leave. The majority of those who leave -- 69 percent -- return home or are placed with relatives.
However, in the remaining 31 percent of the cases, the Department of Social Services decides against reuniting families and moves for permanent custody, so the child can become available for adoption. This process -- known as termination of parental rights -- is contested by birth parents or guardians in about 75 percent of the 300 petitions filed every year.
Children whose petitions are contested -- some 225-250 a year -- would be the chief beneficiaries of the bill to speed up the process, said Cooper.
The bill is supported by the Department of Human Resources, the Governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families, the Maryland Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, child advocacy groups and foster parents from throughout the state.
The only testimony against the bill was a letter filed by the Maryland Judicial Conference, which said it seeks to correct the problem "at the wrong juncture." The state's judges blamed the delay behind many hearings on paperwork not being received on time from social service agencies.
The average wait for hearings in some jurisdictions is even longer than the 13-month state average. In Baltimore City, which has the heaviest caseload with more than 70 cases last year, the average wait for a hearing is 16 months.
In Harford County, which had four such adoption cases in 1990, the wait was 15 1/2 months, while Montgomery County's nine cases had an average wait of 16.9 months last year, according to the Foster Care Review Board.
"In the best big county, Prince George's, with 43 cases, it took nine months," said Cooper.