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Adoption Act: Proposed Revision -- Report of the Advisory Committee on Adoption Law

        This is the first report of the Joint State Government Commission Advisory Committee on Adoption Law. Senate Resolution No. 72 of 1995 (Pr.'s No. 1488) directed the Commission to establish a task force and advisory committee to undertake an ongoing study of adoption law and make recommendations to the General Assembly. The advisory committee, chaired by Nancy Marcus Newman of Montgomery County, consists of birth parents, adoptive parents, adult adoptees, child advocates, professionals in the adoption field, attorneys, judges, a court administrator, a professor and a representative from the Department of Public Welfare. The task force, chaired by Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf of Montgomery County, consists of four members of the Senate and four members of the House of Representatives. At its March 12, 2001 meeting, the task force authorized the transmittal of the advisory committee's report to the full General Assembly.

In order to accomplish its comprehensive review of present adoption law, the advisory committee was organized into the following four subcommittees: Placement and Costs (Craig B. Bluestein, Chair), Search and Information (Helen Blair Schuler, Chair), Special Needs (Martha L. Jones, Chair) and Terminations (James R. Adams, Chair). In addition to reviewing the present Adoption Act, the advisory committee considered the Federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, the Model State Adoption Act which was developed under the authority of the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment and Adoption Reform Act of 1978, the Uniform Adoption Act, case law, regulations, adoption literature and the statutes of other states.

The proposed Adoption Act contained in this report reflects the work of the four subcommittees. While the report represents the consensus of the advisory committee gained after numerous subcommittee meetings and twelve full advisory committee meetings, beginning in January 1998, it does not necessarily reflect unanimity on all points. A summary of the recommendations immediately follows this introduction. The following themes are evident throughout the proposed Adoption Act.

Providing for permanency and finality in adoptions
The proposed Adoption Act attempts to ensure that parents make an informed decision regarding the relinquishment of their parental rights and adoption of their child. This goal is advanced through a detailed framework for counseling (§ 2108), the use of a comprehensive voluntary relinquishment form (§ 2216), the establishment of a procedure for hearings on voluntary relinquishment to afford closure for a relinquishing parent (§ 2223), the distribution of a statutory notice explaining the rights and duties of birth parents (§ 2204) and the establishment of a procedure either to provide notice to a parent or legal guardian of an individual under 18 years of age who is relinquishing a child (§ 2221) or to require a hearing for the individual (§ 2222). The proposed Adoption Act also attempts to ensure that adoptive parents make an informed decision regarding the adoption of a child, by distributing a statutory notice explaining their rights and duties (§ 2204) and requiring the disclosure of background information regarding the child prior to the adoption (Subchapter E of Chapter 23).

Another component to providing permanency and finality in adoptions is the need to reduce the possibility of disrupting the placement of the child. The proposed Adoption Act establishes a procedure to provide a man who may be the birth father of the child notice and an opportunity to be heard regarding the termination of his parental rights (§§ 2202 and 2203), limits the period during which an individual may revoke a voluntary relinquishment (§ 2218) and limits the period during which an adoption decree may be challenged (§ 2535).

Protecting the legal rights and best interests of the child in the adoption process
The proposed Adoption Act addresses representation for the child in a contested involuntary termination proceeding or an appeal of a final decree of termination of parental rights by providing for the mandatory appointment of a guardian ad litem for the child and the discretionary appointment of an attorney to represent the child (§ 2109). By definition, the guardian ad litem must be an attorney (§ 2103). Independent representation for the child is advanced by directing the counties to pay the costs associated with the appointment of the attorney or guardian ad litem for the child, consequently relieving the adoptive parents of that financial obligation (§ 2109). The proposed Adoption Act also protects the legal rights of adopted children by preserving the duty to pay arrearages for child support (§ 2241) and maintaining vested rights and benefits (§ 2242). A statutory framework for agreements for continuing contact between children and their birth relatives (§ 2112) is also intended to advance the best interests of the child.

Expediting the process of termination of parental rights and adoption
The proposed Adoption Act establishes a procedure for the adoption of individuals who are 18 years of age or older (§ 2114), permits a voluntary relinquishment form to be notarized so that a final decree of termination of parental rights may be entered without the need for a hearing (§§ 2224 and 2216(c)), limits the period during which an individual may revoke a voluntary relinquishment (§ 2218), expands the grounds for involuntary termination (§ 2233) and provides that a petition for adoption initiates the adoption process, consequently eliminating the need for a report of intention to adopt and a report of an intermediary (Subchapter A of Chapter 25). In addition, the proposed Adoption Act permits the placement of a child in certain circumstances even when the home study process is not completed (§§ 2311 and 2312). The termination and adoption process may also be expedited by allowing a parent to designate an individual to adopt the child (§ 2213) and allowing any individual for good cause shown to file a petition for adoption if a parent whose parental rights have not been terminated consents to the adoption and the other parent's parental rights have been terminated (§ 2501).

Encouraging timely and permanent placements for children with families suitable to meet their individual needs
The proposed Adoption Act expands the class of individuals who may file a petition for involuntary termination (§ 2231), permits foster parents in certain circumstances to file a petition for adoption (§ 2501), establishes a detailed home study process and postplacement evaluation process (Subchapters A, C and D of Chapter 23) and establishes a judicial review process regarding home studies (§ 2325).

Encouraging the adoption of children who are in the custody of a county agency and available for adoption and facilitating the transition of these children into adoptive homes
The proposed Adoption Act seeks to reduce the barriers which prevent equal access to appropriate adoption services. This goal is advanced by requiring the Department of Public Welfare to provide and pay for preadoption services and postadoption services for certain children (Subchapters B and C of Chapter 27).

Providing adoption assistance on behalf of children who meet certain eligibility requirements
The proposed Adoption Act recognizes that parents may need adoption assistance to create and foster a stable and permanent adoptive home. Therefore, it establishes a statutory framework for the applicability and provision of maintenance payments, payments for nonrecurring adoption expenses, medical assistance and postadoption grants (Subchapters B and C of Chapter 28).

Providing for the filing, disclosure and retention of medical and social history information, while providing safeguards against the unauthorized disclosure of information
The proposed Adoption Act encourages and facilitates the exchange of medical and social history information (§ 2204, § 2215, Subchapter E of Chapter 23 and Subchapters C and D of Chapter 26). It establishes a registry for medical and social history information within the Department of Public Welfare (Subchapter C of Chapter 26) and requires that court and agency records be retained permanently (§ 2611). Certain individuals are permitted to file medical and social history information with the court (§ 2632) and to request that information from other individuals through the court (§ 2637). In addition, the proposed Adoption Act specifies who may request identifying information from a court or an agency and whose identifying information may be requested (§ 2641). A statutory framework is provided for the disclosure of identifying information (§ 2642) and for searches (Subchapter F of Chapter 26). With respect to the disclosure of identifying information, the proposed Adoption Act provides a structure concerning authorizations of disclosure and disclosure vetoes, depending on when the adoption was finalized (§ 2642). The Department of Health is required to disclose the information contained in an adoptee's original birth certificate upon the request of the adoptee, adoptive parent or legal guardian, depending on when the adoption was finalized (§ 2663).

Maintaining the integrity of the adoption process by regulating payments made in connection with placements and adoptions
The proposed Adoption Act provides a statutory framework governing prohibited and permissible payments (Chapter 24), consequently making Pennsylvania law more consistent with the laws of other states. It also addresses the issue of facilitators and directs that an individual or entity, other than an agency, may not receive, request or accept money or other valuable consideration for facilitating the placement of a child for adoption (§ 2401).

Providing for the effective administration of the proposed Adoption Act
The Department of Public Welfare is directed to establish a statewide data collection and reporting system for nonidentifying statistical information regarding adoptions (§ 2113), establish a registry regarding home studies (§ 2326), establish a registry for medical and social history information (Subchapter C of Chapter 26), reimburse county agencies for the cost of adoption assistance (§ 2803), submit reports (§§ 2113(c) and 2706), promulgate rules and regulations (§§ 2113(g), 2301(b), 2327, 2656, 2705 and 2804) and develop forms (§§ 2113(g), 2326(c), 2344 and 2623).

The proposed Adoption Act also provides that a decree of termination of parental rights terminates parental rights and duties (§ 2241) and the rights and duties of a child (§ 2243).

The proposed Adoption Act and the official comments of the advisory committee follow the Summary of Recommendations. Note that the proposed Adoption Act uses the modifier "birth" (as in the cases of birth mother and birth father, for example) instead of the modifier "natural." Implementing legislation will repeal present 23 Pa.C.S. Part III (the Adoption Act) in its entirety and sections 771-774 of the act of June 13, 1967 (P.L.31, No.21) (the Adoption Opportunities Act, located at 62 P.S. §§ 771-774). Following the proposed Adoption Act are conforming amendments, a sample voluntary relinquishment form with source notes, a detailed table of contents for the proposed Adoption Act, a list of duties of the Department of Public Welfare under the proposed Adoption Act, flow charts regarding voluntary relinquishments for birth mothers, birth fathers and putative fathers and flow charts regarding minimum time periods for voluntary relinquishments for birth mothers and birth fathers.

The official comments to the proposed Adoption Act may be used to determine the intent of the General Assembly. See 1 Pa.C.S. § 1939 and In re Martin's Estate, 365 Pa. 280, 74 A.2d 120 (1950).