The state Senate recently voted to keep those payments illegal as part of House Bill 159, pending legislation that would overhaul Georgia's adoption laws. The House version of the bill would make those payments legal.
Every state bordering Georgia — and most nationally — permit expense reimbursements to birth mothers in private adoptions. And even if payments were allowed, they’d still have to be itemized, submitted by an attorney and approved by a judge.
"That's not realistic and it's illogical" to ban living expenses for birth mothers, said Melissa Carter, the executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University. "If agencies can pay for living expenses for birth parents, why can't they happen for private adoptions? This isn't a blank check. They have to provide receipts."
Senators said during floor speeches earlier this month that it’s too risky to allow reimbursements to birth mothers unless they rely on child-placement agencies for adoptions.
Agency adoptions can cost $30,000 to $40,000, which is about three times as much as adoptions directly between the mother and the adopting family.
"This restriction is necessary to avoid increasing the cost of adoption and the risk of unlawful inducements — that is, the danger of creating a market for adopted babies," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro.
State Sen. David Shafer, who was adopted as an infant, said allowing living expenses would increase the cost of adoptions.
“If you think about this provision for more than a few seconds, you will realize that by creating the expectation that there should be a payment for every child, that it will drive up the cost of adoption for everyone,” said Shafer, a Republican from Duluth.
Shafer didn’t mention in his speech that requiring mothers to use agency adoptions to get reimbursements would also be more expensive.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert said banning expense payments would protect the children.
“You don’t want to put these young mothers in a position where they’re deciding where a child should be placed based upon what amount of living expenses can be paid on their behalf,” said Cowsert, a Republican from Athens.
Adoption advocates dismissed the senators’ arguments.
Birth mothers should be entitled to reimbursement of living expenses regardless of whether they're working with an adoption agency, said Justin Hester, the president-elect of the Georgia Council of Adoption Lawyers.
Agencies handle about half of adoptions from birth; the other half are done privately between the birth mother and the adopting family.
“This isn’t a situation where all of a sudden, private adoptions become more expensive because living expenses are being paid,” Hester said. “These are not situations where these young women are being paid extraordinary amounts. They correlate to their needs.”
Georgia’s laws allow reimbursement of medical expenses, counseling services and legal services in all adoptions.
Law enforcement agencies should watch out for illegal payments for biological parents to part with their children, said Frank Rotondo, the executive director for the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. But he hasn't encountered those payments in his experience.
“I have not seen it, and I’d been in the investigative unit for years” dealing with major crimes, Rotondo said, noting that he wasn’t commenting on the adoption legislation itself. “Any illegal payments would be wrong.”
The adoption bill is now pending in the state House, where it could be amended.
Gov. Nathan Deal opposes a provision added by senators that would allow parents to temporarily hand over power of attorney for their child in the event they're called to active military duty, enter drug rehab or fall on hard financial times. Deal vetoed a similar measure last year because it didn't provide for state oversight to ensure the child's safety.
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver said she hopes the bill is also changed to allow payment of living expenses to birth mothers in non-agency adoptions.
“To say this is going to provide opportunities for fraudulent behavior, they don’t have any facts for that,” said Oliver, a Democrat from Decatur. “They’re making an argument that isn’t valid.”
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