Why it’s more difficult to adopt children in Georgia

Before Lisa Wiggins could adopt her newborn son, she had to endure Georgia’s 10-day waiting period during which the birth mother could change her mind and decide to keep her baby.

“It was absolutely nerve-racking,” said Wiggins, who lives in Waynesboro. “A lot of birth mothers wrestle with this decision. Those 10 days felt like 10 years.”

After the 10 days, the birth mother followed through with the adoption. Today, Lisa Wiggins’ son, Jace, is a talkative 2-year-old who likes to paint and help clean the house.

The adoption waiting period is one reason it’s more difficult in Georgia to create new families than in many other states. Parents often travel outside of Georgia to adopt rather than deal with the state’s outdated laws, adoption advocates say.

An overhaul of Georgia law designed to make adoptions easier and safer is in doubt for a second straight year amid political disagreements at the statehouse.

The House unanimously approved the latest version of the bill Thursday, but state senators declined to take a vote as they review the legislation.

Potential families, children and adoption agencies are left hoping for a compromise.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s adoption rate lags behind the national average, and the number of children in foster care has nearly doubled to 14,000 over the past four years.

"We're simply behind other states," said Ruth Claiborne, an Atlanta adoption attorney. "We need to make our laws as friendly as possible to encourage birth mothers to place their children up for adoption in Georgia rather than go to other states."

The 108-page adoption legislation, House Bill 159, would make many changes to Georgia's laws: shortening the time allowed for a birth mother to change her mind about giving up her child for adoption, from 10 days to four days; making it legal for birth mothers to seek reimbursement of living expenses from adoptive parents in private adoptions; banning middlemen who profit from arranging adoptions; simplifying out-of-state adoptions and more.

If the bill passes, families will be more likely to adopt in Georgia, without the expense and hassle of traveling to another state with less burdensome adoption laws, said state Rep. Bert Reeves, the sponsor of the legislation.

“We want Georgians to be able to take part in expanding their families — and stay in their own state to be able to do it,” said Reeves, a Marietta Republican. “If we fail to get this done this year, then we have failed every single one of those persons for another year. We should be judged harshly on our ability to get this done this year because Georgia needs it.”

In most other states that allow a birth mother to reclaim her child, the mother can decide to finalize the adoption much sooner than the 10-day period required in Georgia, Reeves said. About 20 states don’t give the birth mother the right to change her mind after surrendering a baby for adoption.

The waiting period is important because it gives a birth mother the right to think through her decision, said Stephen Story, the executive director for Covenant Care Adoptions, a Christian agency based in Macon. But he acknowledged that 10 days might be too long, creating unnecessary anxiety when a birth mother is committed to the adoption.

“We want the child to be in a permanent situation as quickly as possible,” Story said. “Shortening it would be good in many cases and would help a child get home quicker. It would be good for everyone involved.”

For Chris Brown, who adopted his daughter, Piper, through Covenant Care in May 2016, the wait after she was born caused a lot of stress for his wife and him.

“Thankfully, we found out right after that period was over. We knew that it was very possible for the birth mother to change her mind,” said Brown, who lives in Locust Grove. “A time limit is OK, but shortening it would definitely be better.”

Adoptions in Georgia are also different from most of the rest of the nation because state law prohibits adoptive parents from reimbursing many birth mothers for basic living expenses incurred during pregnancy.

The state permits reimbursement for expenses such as rent, groceries and maternity clothes only in adoptions handled by child-placement agencies. Expense payments are currently illegal for private, non-agency adoptions.

Every state bordering Georgia allows expense reimbursements to birth mothers in private adoptions, said Justin Hester, the president-elect of the Georgia Council of Adoption Lawyers. Adoptions through agencies can cost $30,000 to $40,000, which is about three times more expensive than adoptions directly between the mother and the adopting family.

“Folks are looking elsewhere to adopt instead of in Georgia,” Hester said. Allowing payment of living expenses in Georgia “would be a major improvement and allow more access for more families of moderate means to adopt.”

There were 3,371 adoptions in Georgia in 2012, the last year of data compiled in a 2016 report by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a service of the Children's Bureau in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Georgia had 45 adoptions per 100,000 adults, below the national average of 49 per 100,000 adults.

Georgia's adoption legislation wasn't controversial when it was introduced last year, but it stalled when senators amended it to add a "religious liberty" provision that would have allowed faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples. The Senate agreed to remove the religious language from the adoption bill.

The bill is now on hold because several senators say they’re concerned that allowing reimbursement of living expenses will drive up the costs of adoptions. It’s unclear whether the Senate will take a final vote to pass the bill or seek to amend it.

Georgia's adoption laws, which haven't been updated since 1990, need to be made less cumbersome and more aligned with the rest of the United States, said Melissa Carter, the executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University.

“Prospective adoptive parents will look to adopt children in other states where the laws are more friendly,” Carter said. “This bill is a necessary and overdue modernization of our adoption laws.”

Proposed adoption changes in Georgia

  • Shortens the time allowed for a birth mother to reverse her decision to give her child up for adoption, from 10 days to four days after signing adoption documents.
  • Permits adoptions at age 21 instead of age 25 for relatives to adopt someone in their family, as in the case where both of a child's parents die.
  • Bans advertisements and adoption payments from "facilitators," who are middlemen that arrange adoptions.
  • Allows out-of-state parents to finalize adoptions of Georgia children in state courts.
  • Reduces the age to participate in Georgia's reunion registry from 21 to 18.

Source: House Bill 159

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