Everyone knows that foster care, and specifically foster care adoption, is rife with uncertainty and challenges. As a foster parent of five-plus years, I knew all of this firsthand. Yet, despite the warning signs, I somehow found myself standing before a judge signing a legally binding post-adoption agreement that I had never read.
Here’s how it happened …
The foster agency introduced me to Clementine’s parents when they were still pregnant. At that time, they were working on regaining custody of their other children, who were in foster care, and had chosen adoption for the new baby on the way.
It was clear at our first meeting that Clementine’s parents were easy to get along with. I suggested future openness that could include visits, phone calls, pictures, etc. but they refused. They did not want their children, nor their parents, to know about this pregnancy. I respected their wishes. The plan was for Clementine to be placed with me at birth as a foster child with the same caseworker so that the adoption could occur soon after.
I knew that parents change their minds, so I gave the situation a 50/50 chance. However, Clementine’s parents stayed in touch with me weekly, and one Sunday morning, they excitedly called and said, “Congratulations, you have a girl!”
I went to the hospital, met Clementine, took pictures, and visited with her first parents. They told me they were going to put my last name on the birth certificate.
The next day, social services went to the hospital and took Clementine to another foster home. (Insert a lot of drama and bureaucracy here, which I’ll skip for another day.) Fast-forward several weeks, and Clementine’s parents’ other children found out about the baby, along with the grandparents. Nonetheless, Clementine’s parents attended an early morning court hearing and told the judge they wished for Clementine to be placed with me and subsequently adopted. The judge ordered Clementine to my home on the spot.
Needless to say, Clementine’s parents and I were pretty shaken up by the social service snafu. Nothing was as planned. Clementine was now required to attend sibling and family visits at the foster agency against her parents’ request. I was scared to ask the foster agency about the adoption timeline given all that had just happened. I also wondered if Clementine’s parents were going to change their minds. I eventually spoke to them and told them that it was okay if they wanted to keep Clementine, and that I’d more than understand. They said they hadn’t changed their minds — but no one seemed to know how to move the adoption forward.
A few weeks later, the caseworker called me and said I must be at the courthouse by 8 AM the next morning. He explained that Clementine’s parents were going to surrender their parental rights before the judge with the condition that I am to be the adoptive parent. Oh, and by the way, how do “monthly visits and holidays sound” for the post-adoption agreement? When I hesitated, the caseworker assured me that this is the agreement that is held “only until the adoption happens.” At that point, I would have an attorney — and another, more formal, post-adoption agreement would be decided for the adoption. Cool, I was in.
The next morning, I have to admit that I was surprised Clementine’s first parents made it to court by 8 AM. Heck, I was surprised that I made it there by 8 AM. The surrender lasted over an hour as the judge asked Clementine’s parents, one by one, a series of questions to ensure they were fully informed, capable, and ready to surrender their parental rights. I held my breath through it as the judge asked them, “Are you sure? Are you really, really sure?” a hundred different ways.
Eventually, I was acknowledged and asked if I was willing to adopt Clementine. Yes? If so, sign here. I signed six copies of a booklet, one for everyone — except me, apparently. I assumed I wasn’t allowed to look at it. As with most documents in foster care, I’ve been told, it’s a HIPAA violation against the parents (not true, but the excuse is always used).
However, in the booklet was the one and only post-adoption agreement that, in the state of New York, is legally binding until Clementine turns 18. I didn’t even get a copy until months later when I had an adoption attorney.
Luckily, there was a genuinely happy ending to all of this. Monthly visits are considered quite a lot for an open adoption, but it’s worked out well for Clementine, her first parents, and me. On Mother’s Day, I took Clementine’s first parents (and mom’s boyfriend, and grandpa) to lunch and they brought me a rose. It was such a simple gesture that meant a lot to me.
Nowadays, we sometimes get together even more often than once a month. Grandpa comes to African dance class with us, and we even have sleepovers with Clementine’s biological siblings. Clementine is almost 5 years old, and so far, scheduling and communication have been easy peasy. I count myself as lucky, along with being extremely grateful.
But back to the fact that I, Rebecca with a Ph.D., signed a document, before a judge, that I’d never seen: I understand that the focus is on ensuring Clementine’s parents’ rights and the enormity of surrendering their parental rights. However, that doesn’t negate the legal contract that I, too, as an adoptive parent, entered into. I still don’t think I would have been allowed to have an attorney present in court — but that’s just one of the laws and policies I plan to work on getting changed in my state.
Do you know the laws and policies in your state? Who’s with me?