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Bill takes step toward enforcement of open adoption agreements

Published February 14, 2013 7:39 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A step toward making open adoption agreements enforceable for children placed from state custody cleared a Senate committee Thursday, but not before getting mixed reviews from the adoption community.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said SB155 will allow children who are older and already have relationships with parents, grandparents and other relatives to continue those connections when agreed to by birth parent or parents and adoptive parents, and approved by the courts. Children who are 12 or older would have a say in the decision, too.

In the event of disagreement over contact, adoptive parents would have "ultimate power" and their decisions would by default be considered in the best interest of the child.

Jackie DeGaston, an attorney, endorsed the legislation after sharing her experiences trying to arrange stepparent adoptions to which a biological parent has agreed but wants ongoing contact protected. So did Laura Bunker of United Families Utah. Closed adoptions provide a "certain safety and security for all three parties and open adoptions can go any direction," she said, applauding Hillyard's efforts to "create safety parameters around this new thing of open adoption that is becoming more and more prevalent."

Hillyard modified the bill to apply only to children in state custody at the suggestion of private adoption attorneys who also are members of the Utah Adoption Council, an adoption advocacy group.

Kevin Broderick, president of the Utah Adoption Council, said Thursday the group continues to oppose the bill for varying reasons — some don't like that it focuses only on children in state custody and others oppose court-enforced post-placement contracts altogether.

The group is "not against openness in adoption," Broderick said. But he called enforceable contracts a "challenge" given the sensitivity and vulnerability of all parties at the time of a placement and that such agreements are best left to negotiation outside court oversight.

Cristina Miller, an adoptive mother and UAC member, also opposed the bill and urged the committee to study the issue longer. She said an enforceable agreement would have complicated the negotiated relationship her family developed with a birth mother.

Kimberly Nielsen, an adoptee and social worker, called it "heartbreaking" to work with birth parents who relied on promises of some contact but were cut off. Restricting enforceability to children in state care was misplaced, she said.

Wes Hutchins, an adoption attorney and president of the Utah Council for Ethical Adoption Practices, told the committee his group strongly favors enforceable adoption agreements — a statute on the books in 25 states, he said — but doesn't support limiting it only to children in foster care, who are most vulnerable because of strained family relationships. After the hearing, Hutchins said UCEAP members had been persuaded by testimony and comments to support the bill as a "good place to start" in making all voluntarily entered open agreements enforceable.