Thousands of foster child adoptions delayed by old state law
1935 statute puts all approvals in hands of 1 official
Catherine Jun / The Detroit News
The adoption of thousands of foster children in Michigan is delayed each year by a legal quirk that requires one official to sign off on new families.
The state's courts, along with the Michigan Department of Human Services, are pressing lawmakers to adopt bill packages to change that. Currently, the superintendent of the Michigan Children's Institute personally approves roughly 2,600 adoptions each year — adding up to two extra months to a process than can take years.
Even the man who holds the sole power supports the bill.
"It will permit us to exercise that option. Right now we can't," said William Johnson, who heads the Michigan Children's Institute. A 1935 state law established the superintendent as the one who must sign the consent form for adoptions from foster care.
Child advocates favor the change, but are quick to warn that the fix overlooks systemic problems on how adoptions are decided in Michigan — that is, behind closed doors.
"It's a good first step, but it doesn't improve the quality of the decision," said Vivek Sankaran, director of the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy.
In private adoptions, birth parents are the ones who give consent. In foster adoptions, the children are state wards, so the state must consent. In Michigan, that authority rests solely in the superintendent, the legal guardian to children whose parents have lost their parental rights in court.
In other states with similar arrangements, the superintendent adjudicates only the more complicated cases, such as when two families compete to adopt one child, said Michigan Supreme Court Justice Mary Beth Kelly, who testified at a state Senate committee hearing on behalf of the proposed change last month. Uncontested cases are often expedited through other channels, she added.
"The vast majority of adoptions are uncontested, and those are the ones we want to speed up," Kelly said.
Typically, the state approves 2,600 to 2,700 adoptions a year. A multicounty effort to speed adoptions pushed the number above 3,000 in 2009. More than 3,200 children are in line for adoption in Michigan.
In too many instances, the superintendent's consent has held up a pending adoption that has already involved multiple court hearings and filings by the prospective parents, including a criminal background clearance, proof of income and verification of good health, said Judge James Alexander, who spent nine years in the family division at Oakland County Circuit Court until December.
"I've got everything done, and the caseworker comes in and says, 'We're just waiting for the superintendent to approve it,'" Alexander said. "It happens enough to make it a concern."
In January, Wayne County had 902 children who were legally free for adoption, nearly a third of the state's total, according to DHS' most recent records.
"It can be years, or it can be as little as five months," said Karshibia Davidson, a director at the Children's Center of Wayne County, which offers foster care and adoption services. And depending on children's ages, the uncertainty can shake their confidence in where they belong, she said.
'There's doubt and stress'
Three weeks after Danica was born in May 2008 in Detroit, caseworkers turned her over to Bruce and Christy Bishop, foster parents in Livonia. The infant never met her birth mother, who lost her parental rights for all five of her children after the state found evidence of sexual abuse and neglect.
The Livonia couple fell in love with Danica and pursued adoption. Approval finally came in August 2009. The agonizing delay was in part because another foster mother — the one who had custody of Danica's four siblings — was also competing for the girl.
"There's doubt and stress," Bruce Bishop, 55, said. "And there's fear that it's not going to materialize."
Sankaran, a University of Michigan law professor, says the proposed change in the law would speed up adoptions. But he prefers to see a shift in the final decision-making to judges who have followed the child since removal from the birth home.
In places like Washington, D.C., the courts have final say on adoptions, Sankaran said, and as a result, all hearings and evidence are out in the open. Adoptive families, then, can witness every step and better understand the outcome, he added.
"For me, that type of decision-making process is better, because there's a lot more transparency," he said.
'Highest legislative priority'
The role of superintendent dates to 1935, when a law created the Michigan Children's Institute. Back then, the institute was a brick-and-mortar facility in Ann Arbor that housed state wards without legal parents. About 1,000 children were housed there at the time. The facility has since closed.
"There's a lot more children in the system," Johnson said. His office is in Lansing within the Human Services Department. There, Johnson and a three-person staff review files sent from state courts. In some cases, they conduct additional investigations.
Bill packages are moving through the state House and Senate that, if adopted, would allow the DHS to authorize designees who could consent to adoptions as well as guardianship of a child.
"We have identified this as our highest legislative priority," DHS Director Maura D. Corrigan said. "I'm very hopeful."
Last month, the Senate Families, Seniors and Human Services Committee referred the bills to the Senate floor. Both chambers are expected to resume session today. "The goal here is to get them in permanent families," said Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, who chairs the committee and introduced the bills. "Our goal is to make them safe … and give them a chance to grow."