Assembly adoption bills pass committee, despite criticism

Amendments mollify some; more changes are likely

Cooper Dandaneau holds hands with his mother, U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Julie Dandaneau, 633rd Surgical Operations Squadron surgical services flight chief, in Newport News, Va., Nov. 16, 2013. Dandaneau adopted Cooper, 2, when he was a week shy of his first birthday. (U.S. Air Force photo by Stephanie R. Plichta/Released)
Cooper Dandaneau holds hands with his mother, U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Julie Dandaneau, 633rd Surgical Operations Squadron surgical services flight chief, in Newport News, Va., Nov. 16, 2013. Dandaneau adopted Cooper, 2, when he was a week shy of his first birthday. (U.S. Air Force photo by Stephanie R. Plichta/Released)

Assembly lawmakers advanced eight measures Tuesday to change Wisconsin laws governing adoption and termination of parental rights, but only after rewriting them, in some cases making them substantially different from the  Senate versions.

Five of the eight bills approved Tuesday by the Assembly Committee on Family Law have already had a public hearing in the Senate Committee on Universities, Technical Colleges, Children and Families, but still await a vote in that committee. The other three bills the Assembly committee passed Tuesday don’t have Senate versions.

Because of amendments made in the Assembly committee, however, one or both houses will have to rewrite the five shared bills if they are to be enacted. With few floor sessions scheduled in the new year, the  time to do that is limited.

And despite their passage, the bills themselves got mixed to poor reviews in public hearings earlier this year. 

Several of the bills, both in the Assembly and the Senate, have prompted objections from legal experts and Native American tribes. They have also raised concerns among advocates who favor stronger efforts to help troubled families achieve more stable lives so they can be reunited and kept intact.

Tuesday’s bills included three that streamline involuntary termination of parental rights (TPR) in various ways. Two others would elevate the rights and roles of foster parents in decisions about child placement.

One would end the presumption that if children in the court’s jurisdiction cannot live with their parents, it is in their best interest to be placed with a relative. Another would create a legal framework for open adoption in which birth parents remain in contact with their children and with adoptive parents after an adoption, while still another would expand eligibility for financial assistance for families adopting children with special needs.

“This legislation is critical to helping children in out-of-home care in our state to reach permanence and stability,” state Rep. Patrick Snyder (R-Schofield) testified at an Oct. 29 public hearing before the Assembly committee, referring to AB-560, a bill to make it easier for the courts to involuntarily terminate parental rights in certain circumstances, and other bills in the group.

Colliding with federal law?

In testimony before the committee at the Oct. 29 hearing, a team representing the state Department of Children and Families observed that much of the legislation ran counter to the new federal child welfare law, the Family First Prevention Services Act. States are required to implement the law by October 2021.

According to that testimony, compiled by deputy secretary Jeff Pertl, policy initiatives advisor Fredj-Ellen Bove, and Adoptions and Interstate Services Section chief Danielle Karnoop, the new federal law guides child welfare authorities to emphasize prevention, including keeping children in their homes when possible; reunifying children with their birth families whenever it is safe; permanency, so that children who are in out-of-home care are either safely and quickly returned home or to another permanent home; and enlisting relatives who are “familiar, caring adults” for out-of-home placement “whenever possible.”

As a result, the DFS testimony stated that the department opposed all the bills except the one expanding disability aid eligibility.

“A lot of us were surprised at the hearings at the very strong opposition to a number of these bills,” said Rep. Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska), before urging colleagues to vote for all but one, which expanded foster parents’ legal rights in child placement proceedings.

Amendments passed Tuesday eased provisions in several bills that had drawn the sharpest criticism in public hearing testimony.

For example, the committee dropped language that would have allowed involuntary termination of parental rights  for failure to pay child support. “That is a positive change,” states an analysis of the bill issued Tuesday by Disability Rights Wisconsin, which specified that its comments on the bill were intended for information rather than lobbying for or against the legislation. “DRW was concerned that [the child support provision] could have a disproportionate impact on some parents, particularly fathers, with disabilities,” who may have trouble finding work.

Speeding up as disadvantage

“All along the way with these complicated processes, where the parent is needing to comply with numerous requirements, deadlines, and decisions, each of those points where things have to happen can be very difficult to track and meet requirements,” Lea Kitz, DRW executive director, told the Wisconsin Examiner. “Someone who doesn’t have a disability isn’t challenged as much to make those decisions or understand the implications of the decisions they’re making. So speeding up this process puts people with disabilities at a disadvantage.”

The State Public Defender’s Office opposed six of the eight Assembly bills, while acknowledging that amendments had made some minor improvements in the eyes of the agency. “The common thread is that overall, the bills reduce due process for birth parents and [would likely] increase the number of children in the foster care system,” Adam Plotkin, legislative liaison for the office, told the Wisconsin Examiner.

Another common thread among the bills was “the severe lack of capacity resource building,” Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee) said. “Because what really was needed was money to build capacity for getting people through the system quicker, processing quicker, lowering case loads. That’s a huge issue that we can effect very quickly. That could be fixed.”

Brostoff and Rep Jodi Emerson (D-La Crosse) voted against all the bills except two: expanding aid eligibility for disabled adoptees and providing greater information to foster families.

Assembly adoption bills summarized

AB-559 redefines grounds for court-imposed involuntary termination of parental rights (TPR) and eliminates the right to a jury trial during the fact-finding phase of a TPR proceeding.

The bill would subject parents to involuntary TPR if their children were found by a court to be “drug affected,” unless parents enroll in and comply with drug treatment within 90 days after the child’s birth. It would also authorize TPR for parents who have been sentenced to several years in prison if their children are declared in need of supervision or are otherwise placed outside the home.

Finally, the bill would require courts alone to conduct permanency plan reviews for children removed from their homes, instead of permitting those reviews be conducted by a court-appointed panel or by a child welfare agency — options available under the current law.

An amendment to the bill took out provisions that had drawn particularly strong opposition: one that would have classified a father’s failure to “care for or support the mother during pregnancy” or for a parent who failed to pay child support as grounds for involuntary TPR proceedings.

There is no companion Senate bill.

AB-560 would permit involuntary TPR for parents of children placed outside their home on a continuing CHIPS order for 15 months, eliminating a longer list of qualifications that the current law requires for such a finding. There is no companion Senate bill.

AB-561 would create a formal legal procedure for “open adoptions,” in which adoptive and birth parents agree to continued contact between children and birth parents after adoption. The Senate version is SB-534.

AB-562 would make foster parents who have had a child placed with them for six months or more a direct party in proceedings to change the child’s placement, including rights to legal representation with access to records and the power to seek an independent examination of the child. The Senate version is SB-532.

AB-563 would entitle foster parents to more information about a foster child, including medical, school, and placement history as well as permanence goals. Although originally a companion bill to SB-531, which would give foster parents copies of a child welfare agency’s permanency plan for the foster child and access to written comments about the child before the review and hearing on the plan, the assembly version was significantly rewritten before Wednesday’s vote.

AB-564 would expand the availability of adoption assistance payments for families adopting children with special needs. The Senate version is SB-533.

AB-565 eliminates a presumption in current law that it is in  a child’s best interest for a relative to have custody of a child in need of protective services (CHIPS) or one being removed from a foster home or other out-of-home placement. As rewritten and passed Tuesday, the Assembly bill omits a provision in the Senate version (SB-548), which would give relatives of a child ruled in need of protective services (CHIPS) a four-month deadline to take part in the care and placement of the child.

AB-566 would enable authorities to add a TPR petition to a continuing CHIPS case, rather than starting a new case as current law requires. There is no companion Senate bill.