Delaware Attorneys Tackle Complex Adoption Laws – Delaware Today | Wonder Mind Kids

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While adoption is considered the best option in many situations, the complex process can quickly become an uphill legal and emotional struggle.

Many who supported the fall of Roe v. Wade promoted adoption as an alternative to abortion. How the recent US Supreme Court ruling will affect adoption in Delaware remains to be seen, but local attorneys are warning that the process will be difficult. Here they weigh adoption law in the First State and how prospective parents can prepare.

Adoption — long the best hope for many people looking to start or extend their families — has received increased attention in the months since the United States Supreme Court repealed it Roe v. Calf. The court’s decision has sparked speculation that women who cannot legally terminate their pregnancy will turn to adoption. It’s an alternative that those opposed to abortion rights have been touting for years before this summer’s landmark ruling. (Abortion remains legal in Delaware because the state legislature has enshrined that protection in law here.)

With the abortion battle raging nationally and in states outside of Delaware, it’s too early to know if, or by how much, the number of children available for adoption will increase. Regardless, experts warn that adoption, whether of an infant or an older child, will continue to be a complicated and stressful process. The right legal representation can make all the difference. From ensuring paperwork is filed correctly, to advising all parties on the details of surrendering parental rights, to helping hopeful individuals determine if they are eligible for adoption under the law, attorneys guide their clients through a situation that is simultaneously legal, emotional and extremely personal.

“It’s very scary because the state can take away the child for any reason or no reason.”
-Thomas Shellenberger, Delaware family law attorney and adoptive parent

The ultimate goal of an attorney is to show prospective parents “how to limit their legal, financial, and emotional risk and help bring permanence to the child,” explains Deborah Spivack, a leading adoption attorney with offices in Delaware. Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

In Delaware, individuals wishing to adopt a child to whom they are not related have two options: go through the foster care system or work with an agency that cares for birth parents to match children with a new home, often before the baby is born becomes. In some states birth and adoptive parents can contact them directly with the help of an attorney. These arrangements, known as “independent” adoptions, are not allowed in Delaware. This ban is just one example of how adoption laws vary from state to state.

Another example: Regulations for the biological parents to voluntarily renounce their parental rights. In Delaware, a birth mother must wait until the child is born to relinquish her parental rights, but she can do so immediately after birth. Birth fathers in Delaware can relinquish their parental rights at any time. Many other states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, require birth mothers to wait at least 72 hours after the birth to sign their parental rights.

Revoking parental rights for a newborn can be relatively easy if both biological parents agree. “What often happens is that a birth parent doesn’t sign the paperwork,” says Spivack. “An attorney can advance it by pursuing causes of involuntary termination of rights.” Usually, the birth mother has contacted an adoption agency to start the process and the father does not cooperate.

While the signing of these documents is an important milestone, these signatures do not yet mean that adoptive parents can breathe easy. In Delaware, a birth mother has 14 days to change her mind. Again, the time window for revoking surrender varies widely from state to state.

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The process can be significantly more complex when the child is in foster care and the parents are involuntarily deprived of parental rights. Delaware law permits adoption by both individuals and couples, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status, as long as they are at least 21 years of age. Foster parents who wish to make the child they are caring for a permanent member of the family can apply for adoption. The effort includes an investigation by a state-licensed child agency to determine both whether there are grounds for ending the birth parents’ rights and the suitability of the prospective parents. It can be a lengthy process with no guarantee that the petitioner will ultimately be able to adopt the child.

Delaware family law attorney Thomas Shellenberger has represented many clients hoping for adoption, and he and his wife have adopted two children from the foster system. He knows firsthand what it feels like to be in that borderline state between beginning the court adoption process and becoming the child’s permanent parents.

“It’s very scary because the state can take the child away for any reason or no reason,” says Shellenberger. Years later, he vividly recalls a time when his then foster daughter fell and injured her face. “I think, ‘They’re going to take our daughter away from us.’ Thankfully, they were more understanding of that. But it was terrifying.”

This mix of professional and personal experience helps Shellenberger empathize with customers and guide them as they first navigate the system. This includes having an open conversation with clients to find out if they have anything in their past or present that would affect their ability to adopt.

“I’m not judging them in terms of, ‘Do I feel comfortable if they adopt?'” says Shellenberger. “I ask questions because I want to know what the pitfalls will be and tell them what we need to overcome.”

If a prospective parent has something in their past that would legally disqualify them from adoption, an attorney can save them the expense and disappointment of starting the process. Delaware law prohibits adoption by anyone who has ever been convicted of a felony involving child abuse or spousal abuse, or serious violent crimes against anyone. But some crimes, including drug-related offenses committed more than five years ago, cannot dashed a person’s hopes of adoption.

When it comes to choosing an attorney, experts say clients should look for someone who is experienced in family law — and knows the ins and outs of their state’s adoption laws. However, given the high emotional stakes, there is something less tangible to consider.

“Their personalities have to mesh,” says Shellenberger. “It’s like choosing a family doctor. It’s not about where they went to school – who do you feel comfortable with?”

See also: Delaware Becomes a Safe Haven for Reproductive Rights

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