One of the most rewarding endeavors that we undertake as Pittsburgh child adoption lawyers is facilitating the adoption of children in desperate need of loving and caring parents. Seeing the smiles, and sometimes tears, on the faces of parents, children and judges on adoption day, the day when the decree is finalized, is truly a moving experience.
While the newly-forged parental bond is one that is quintessentially simple — being, as it is, perhaps the purest expression of the most noble elements of our human nature — the process leading up to Adoption Day, however, is not quite so simple. Because society has such a vested interest in ensuring that children are brought up in supportive, nurturing environments, the laws governing adoptions of children have been set forth in writing since 1700 B.C. In fact, adoption law accounts for a full 3% of The Code of Hammurabi. 3,700 years later, our own commonwealth has promulgated statutes and rules and developed a line of case law, which today controls the process of adoption in Pennsylvania. Overlaying these legal precepts are procedures that can vary widely from county to county.
What is the difference between adoption and guardianship or permanent legal custody?
Reduced to its essentials, an adoption is a permanent transfer of all legal rights and responsibilities incident to parenthood from a child’s natural parents to the adoptive parents. In order for an adoption to take place, the child’s natural parents must be deceased or their parental rights must have been terminated by a court in a dependency proceeding. Often, as in Allegheny County, for example, the termination of parental rights and adoption proceedings occur simultaneously. When a court has determined that a child cannot be returned to the care of the child’s natural parents by reason of abuse, neglect or abandonment, adoption is generally the preferred option.
Guardianship or permanent legal custody (PLC), is a transfer of the primary rights and obligations of parenthood — including physical custody, the right to make major decisions for the child and the right to seek child support from the child’s natural parents — to a relative or other caregiver. Although the term used is permanent legal custody, the parental rights of the child’s natural parents are not terminated. The natural parents may seek visitation when it does not affect the health and safety of the child, and the natural parents may later seek a change in the custody arrangement.
Broadly speaking, the benefits to pursuing an adoption over a guardianship are:
- The ability to make permanent, binding decisions on behalf of the child;
- The finality and permanency inherent in the adoption often reinforces the child’s sense of stability and security; and
- A natural parent whose rights have been terminated, even one who is a party to an Act 101 or open adoption agreement, cannot ever “undo” the adoption.
Conversely, considerations that might cause one to prefer a guardianship or PLC are:
- Legal guardianship may be preferable to relative caregivers where an outright termination of parental rights would run contrary to the family’s values or would cause unnecessary discord within the family;
- The child might not want the rights of the natural parent to be terminated, where maintaining parental contact with the child would be consistent with the child’s best interests;
- Oftentimes, it is easier for an adoption agency or the Department of Public Welfare to find a willing caregiver, especially a relative, for groups of siblings, special needs children or older children who might otherwise be more difficult to place for a standard adoption.
What is the procedure for adopting a child in Pittsburgh?
Anyone can file a petition to adopt any child; however, the courts generally prefer that the child’s present caregivers (i.e. foster parents) or relatives (i.e. aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.) be given priority. If the adoptive child is over the age of twelve, the adoption also requires the consent of the child.
Where the adoptive parents are not the child’s stepparents, grandparents or great-grandparents, the adoption terminates any custody rights that may have been previously granted to any individuals. Where the adoptive parents are the child’s stepparents, grandparents or great-grandparents, the adoption does not necessarily terminate any previously awarded custody rights to other individuals. Since 2012, adoptive parents who wish to maintain a degree of contact between the child and the natural parents may enter into an agreement, subject to court approval, that sets forth in detail the manner and frequency of such contact. You may hear this type of agreement referred to as an open adoption agreement or Act 101 agreement. Our experienced Pittsburgh child adoption attorneys can assist with this process.
Finally, adoptive parents may qualify for adoption subsidies, which include:
- Medical coverage;
- Respite care;
- Reimbursement for medical expenses;
- Services such as tutoring, physical therapy or family and individual counseling; and
- Reimbursement for legal fees incurred in the adoption process.