TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A bill that would allow judges to place the best interests of children in adoption cases above the biological parents' wishes is heading to Gov. Rick Scott.
The proposal (SB 590), spearheaded by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, unanimously passed the House on Wednesday. The Senate also unanimously approved the measure last month.
Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the Florida Guardian ad Litem program, said the bill would counter "unintended consequences" of the state's adoption laws.
Currently, a law requiring judges to rule based on "the best interests of the child" is in conflict with a law that allows private adoption agencies to intervene in open adoption cases where parents' rights have not yet been terminated. In such cases, adoption agencies typically name the people that biological parents prefer to adopt the children.
That means adoption agencies can ask courts to place children in homes that the biological parents prefer --- which can cause problems. Detert and Abramowitz say that even happened in the case of a man who murdered his wife.
"While he was in prison, and the child was with the maternal aunt, the father surrendered his rights to his biological mother … basically cutting off the (child's mother's) entire family and no actual recognition about what's best for this child," Abramowitz said.
"His parental rights were never taken away, so he still gets to decide where the children go," Detert said. "And he can decide to have them adopted by somebody --- maybe even somebody who's paying him. Or he can have them go with his mother when the parents of the dead wife would rather have those kids. And maybe that's more secure."
The bill would create an exception to part of current law that allows agencies and parents to influence who adopts children. The exception would apply in cases where petitions to terminate parents' rights have been filed and qualified adoptive parents have been identified.
Detert said current laws also permit parents who commit egregious acts against their children or who wish to punish foster parents to break up children's placement. That could change with the bill approved Thursday.
"So in blatant cases like that, the court would decide what's in the best interests of the child, not what's in the best interest of the legal parent," she said.
Abramowitz said there also have been cases where children would be with foster families for three or four years, but biological parents faced with the loss of their rights would surrender those rights "to a stranger" instead.
As legislative committees considered the bill, they heard tearful testimony from foster parents who had loved and cared for children for years, only to have them removed in a matter of hours.
"When the intervention happened, they'd move the child out of the house that day," Abramowitz said. "We made sure there is a transition period (in the bill), because we want that child not to be traumatized again."
Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll said the current laws were well-intentioned and can be helpful in cases where biological parents are able to successfully reunify with children.
But in other cases, Carroll said, children may have experienced trauma, been removed from homes, bonded with foster families and been on the road to adoption --- only to have biological parents make other arrangements.
"To me, that's all about them, and it's not about the child," he said.