Posted in: Adoption
The basic legal process of adoption involves terminating the parental rights of the birth parents and giving new parental rights to the adoptive parents. There are many factors that can impact and complicate the process. Things like location, timing, and individual attitudes and characteristics of the parties involved can all have legal consequences. The most effective way to protect your rights in the adoption process is to seek the guidance of experienced legal counsel.
An adoption agency is a company that oversees and supervises portions of the adoption process. Agencies can be local or national, for profit or non-profit, and public or private. An agency will ordinarily locate prospective adoptees, match them with adoptive families, arrange for the necessary clearances to be obtained, and perform a home study, which is an ongoing evaluation of the characteristics of the adoptive parents’ household environment to determine if it will be suitable for the adoptee. In addition to these government adoption requirements, agencies may have their own requirements for adoptive families.
Private adoptions include adoptions through private agencies, adoptions by existing family members or step parents, and adoptions that have been arranged without the assistance of any agency. Adoption petitions with supporting paperwork must be filed in the appropriate court in order for any Pennsylvania adoption to become legal. In cases where the adoption is by a close relative or family member, there may be no need for a home study evaluation, but clearances are mandatory for the adoption of any child under the age of 18 in Pennsylvania.
Before a child can be placed in an adoptive home, the adoptive parents and any other household members over 18 years old in the adoptive home must allow an investigation into any records pertaining to their criminal background. In some PA counties, the age of household members subject to investigation may be even lower. Parties to an adoption must complete a Pennsylvania Child Abuse History Clearance form, a State Police Criminal Record Check form, and an FBI Criminal Background Check form, which is accompanied by fingerprinting.
Previous felony convictions, criminal convictions involving children, or recent convictions involving illegal drugs are all examples of clearance complications that may impede the adoption process. An attorney can help field any questions or concerns about the clearance process, including any issues that might delay or ultimately prevent an adoption. Additional information about the required PA clearance forms can be found at the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare website at the following link: http://www.dpw.state.pa.us/findaform/childabusehistoryclearanceforms/
Birth parents have automatic, natural parental rights upon having children, including physical and legal custody rights. Physical custody is the right to have the child in one’s care. Legal custody is the right to make important decisions on behalf of the child, such as decisions about health care, religious practices, and educational choices. The termination of these parental rights, whether voluntary or involuntary, is the first step in the legal process of adoption. In Pennsylvania, even when all parties are in agreement about an adoption, the rights of the birth parents can only be terminated by court action. When the termination of parental rights is voluntary, it may be referred to as “relinquishment.”
Once the court is satisfied that the birth parents’ custodial and legal rights to the child have been terminated or relinquished and that the adoptive parents are fit to take over, the court will issue a decree of adoption, which creates new legal rights and obligations for the adoptive parents that are identical to the rights and obligations that other birth parents have.
When the adoptive parent(s), the birth parents, and the adoptee are in Pennsylvania, it is an “intrastate” adoption, and only Pennsylvania laws will apply. If the parties are located in different states from each other, the adoption is considered to be “interstate.” Interstate adoptions require compliance with the adoption laws of both of the states, as well as compliance with the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, or ICPC. For more information about ICPC requirements, please see the following link: http://icpc.aphsa.org/Home/about.asp
Pennsylvania law allows for a choice of legal venues for adoptions. Adoption legal proceedings can be initiated in the Pennsylvania state court in any one of the following counties:
The court of common pleas of any county referenced above will have jurisdiction over voluntary termination of parental rights, involuntary termination of parental rights, and formalized adoptions. However, each county court may have slightly different procedural requirements for the preparation and filing of legal documents and the scheduling of legal proceedings.
If the parties are in agreement about the adoption, relinquishment of parental rights can be initiated by filing consent forms with the appropriate court. Birth mothers who are not yet 18 years old can consent to relinquish parental rights without permission from their own parents. A birth mother in Pennsylvania is required to wait 72 hours before signing the papers that will relinquish her parental rights. A birth father (or person who might be the father) may relinquish at any time after conception. In Pennsylvania, even after it is given, adoption consent may be revoked by a biological parent (with or without reason) within 30 days of the birth of the child or the signing of the consent forms, whichever is later.
Private adoptions are based on contractual agreements, and may be closed or open. In a closed adoption, which is more common, no personal information is exchanged between adoptive parent(s) and birth parent(s), beyond basic medical and general information. Open adoption agreements allow one or more of the parties to learn the identity of the other, so that they may maintain contact after the adoption process is finalized, according to the terms of the agreement. In 2011, Pennsylvania adoption law was amended to make open adoption contracts binding, provided that the proper notice is given and the agreement is filed in the proper court. Prior to this amendment, it was more difficult to enforce these kinds of agreements without giving up considerable time and expense.
A well-written adoption agreement is the most effective way to protect the rights of the parties. The terms of an adoption agreement can cover unanticipated situations before they arise, like what to do if the adoptee is born with birth defects, or whether some or all costs will be reimbursed if a birth parent changes his or her mind before signing the consent forms. Potential adoptive parents considering a private adoption agreement in Pennsylvania are strongly advised to seek the guidance of an experienced adoption attorney, whether the adoption will be intrastate or interstate.
Pennsylvania law limits the kinds of monetary reimbursements that can pass from the adoptive parents to the birth parents. Adoptive parents are not permitted to cover the attorney’s fees of the birth parents, and adoption attorneys are not permitted to represent the adoptive parents and the birth parents in the same adoption case. However, costs for prenatal medical care of the birth mother and any medical or hospital costs that are incident to the birth are permitted. Costs for the medical care of the child prior to the decree of adoption are permitted as well. Although it is not required by Pennsylvania law, counseling for the birth parents can also be paid for by the adoptive parents.
There are filing fees and court costs associated with the various stages of the legal process. Information about some these costs may be obtained by contacting the county court where the adoption proceedings will be held, or by visiting the website of the county court. For an example of some of the applicable adoption filing fees that may be involved, see the following link to the Philadelphia court’s adoption pamphlet: http://courts.phila.gov/pdf/brochures/adoption-branch-information-pamphlet.pdf
The clearance forms mentioned above also have nominal flat fees. And if a private adoption agency is involved, there may be administrative costs involved as well. Attorney’s fees will vary depending on the amount of time and legal work that is required to fully accomplish the process. Whether you are pursuing adoption through a private agency or a private arrangement, an experienced adoption attorney can make sure that your rights are protected, your needs are met, and your adoption costs are reasonable.