Legislators to air bill that could speed adoptions

It would limit ruling that lets child object to cutting parental ties

March 22, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A month after the state's top court established a child's right to object in legal proceedings to sever parental ties, state legislators will air a proposal tomorrow that could undo much of that ruling.

The measure has the potential to speed adoptions by limiting the Court of Appeals ruling and by restricting objections to children who are at least 10 years old, the same age as required for consent to adoption.

Del. Ann Marie Doory of Baltimore, one of the bill's sponsors, said Department of Human Resources officials "were in a panic" when they sought the legislation. She said DHR officials feared the recent court ruling would lead children's attorneys to object to cutting parent-child ties, thus causing adoptions to lag and leaving more children to languish in foster care.

"With the clogged courts in the city, our kids are at more of a disadvantage," said Doory.

The proposal has upset attorneys who represent children in termination of parental rights cases. They say children and their natural parents need the safeguards of the Court of Appeals ruling.

Maryland's highest court ruled last month that children who object to cutting ties with their parents -- even if their parents have not objected -- have a right to say so in court to a judge who makes the decision.

Legal Aid Bureau lawyers, who represent many such children, said the bill would shift the burden of showing what arrangements are best for the child away from the state and onto the child.

The lawyers said they are worried there will be a rush to terminate parental rights when no adoptive home is waiting. They also said that a child's objection may be the only way for some parents to keep their children, because the parents did not understand the need to file their own objections by a specified date.

Legal Aid lawyer Daniel Hatcher, one of the attorneys who made the successful arguments to the Court of Appeals, said the bill's requirements for allowing a child to object were circular.

"It would be like comparing it to a criminal defendant who had to prove he was innocent in order to show he was not guilty," Hatcher said.

But Department of Human Resources officials said that it can take nine to 12 months to get and complete the appeal hearing, a wait that can kill an adoption. Before a child can be adopted, the rights of the natural parents must be terminated.

"The bill was designed to help more children along a little faster to adoptive homes," said Erlene Wilson, DHR spokeswoman.

The Court of Appeals ruling and efforts to limit it come while Baltimore is under a 1988 federal consent order to improve its child welfare and foster care system and as the federal government pushes states to increase and speed adoptions.

Del. Kenneth C. Montague of Baltimore, the bill's other sponsor, said he expects to ask Legal Aid to testify about the bill before the House Judiciary Committee tomorrow.

The nonprofit cannot lobby, and its attorneys must be invited to present their views.

The bill's chances of passage are doubtful, because many legislators are unfamiliar with the measure, which was introduced so late in the session.

How many children would be affected is unclear, in part because nobody knows how many more children's attorneys would file objections to cutting their young client's parental ties under a court ruling that is taking effect this week.

Baltimore City Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch, who presides over almost all of these cases in the city, said only about one of the 40 or more cases he hears each month involves a child who objects. Baltimore has more children in temporary care than any other jurisdiction in the state.

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