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Adoption dilemma

Biological parents failing to sign over rights to foster families

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, January 06, 2014    

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HUNDREDS of children will never lose the label 'wards of the State' because their biological parents are failing to sign over their rights to have them adopted by families who have been fostering them for years.

Now, some families who have answered the call to become foster parents are second-guessing this decision as they try unsuccessfully to adopt their young charges, despite being the only parents many of these children will ever know.

Although there are 900 children in foster care, only eight were adopted between April and August 2013, the most recent figures available from the Child Development Agency (CDA) revealed. Between April 2012 and August 2013 only 48 wards of the State were adopted.

In its 2007/2008 annual report, the CDA listed one of its challenges as "finding parents and securing their co-operation and consent in releasing children in care for adoption".

One foster mother, whose name is not being revealed to protect the identity of her five-year-old foster child, is just one of several persons who try, unsuccessfully, each year to adopt a child, but is prevented from doing so because the biological parents, who have never established any contact with these children, fail to sign over their rights.

"Right now I am the only mother my daughter has ever known, and I am trying to delay telling her for as long as possible that she is a foster child... I don't even know how I am going to tell her," the despondent woman told the Jamaica Observer.

According to the 36-year-old, she is frustrated beyond words at the hurdles experienced in the attempt to adopt the child she has had in her care since she was a mere six months old.

According to the foster mom, she first decided to adopt the child after hearing of a pregnant teen, herself a ward of the state, who needed to give up the baby.

She said she initially had reservations upon hearing that the mother was a problem teen but agreed to take the child after speaking with the teen's mother and hearing that she was among the girls injured in the 2009 Armadale fire which left five girls dead and 13 others injured.

The young professional said she would drive from Spanish Town to St Elizabeth twice per month to visit the pregnant teen after she was transferred to another girl's home in that parish.

"Once she had the baby, she... call and say I must come for the baby but when I showed up with everything in tow the staff said I couldn't take the baby like that, and so the baby was left in that institution for six months. When I finally got her, the face was covered with bumps all over," the foster mom said.

However, more than a year after the mother turned 18 and was released from State care, the foster mom said she is yet to be able to regularise her foster child's status as the teen has not come forward to sign over her rights.

She said what is even more frustrating is that the biological mother has never made any effort to establish a relationship with the child.

"She is not at that age to understand, but to think that she will be a ward of the State until she is 18 because I am not able to legally adopt her," the foster mom lamented.

She said not being able to legally adopt her 'daughter' is preventing her from doing many things she wanted to do.

"For me, it is the flexibility for me and her, because even a simple thing as taking out a passport I can't do it and it is these simple things that are so hard," she told the Observer.

"I had to get a letter from CDA for her birth certificate and it was so generic, standard and cold, referring to his/her; I didn't even want to give it to the principal at school," she said.

The foster mom said she has to inform school officials that she is a ward of the State and is afraid of the stigma this will cause her 'daughter' later on in life.

"When she goes to primary school everyone will know then that she is a ward of the State and I am afraid of the emotional scar that this will cause her," she said.

"Even now at the school she is attending, a Ministry of Education officer asked a teacher if she knew there was a ward of the State in the school and that is how the teacher found out, and so I just know that when she reaches high school it is going to leak and people will think that she is a ward of the State because she is a bad child," the woman lamented.

In outlining the sequence of events, the foster mom said she was first informed that she would have been able to adopt the baby immediately after birth as the teen would not be able to keep her in the correctional facility for any extended period of time.

"The CDA told me that all I had to do was go to the institution where she was staying and get the baby," she said.

According to the foster mom, she bought everything in preparation for taking home the baby but did not get her for another six months.

Now, she worries that if anything should happen to her, the child will be placed in a State institution.

"As a foster parent I am no more than her guardian as everything I need to do for her has to be done through the CDA, and the situation is so frustrating," she said, adding that she is losing hope that the child will ever be hers as she has been trying, since October 2012, to make contact with the mother without success.

"When I told the CDA I can't get in touch with her, the social worker say she can't get in touch with her either and they would have to run an ad for six weeks and if there is no response from her, then I would get to adopt her," the foster mom explained.

But she is still waiting for what she is doubtful will ever happen.

"The last time I called the CDA I was told the case was passed to an adoption officer, but when I made contact with that department I was told they can't do anything about the adoption, since I had not heard from the mother," the foster mom said.

She said she is not trying to take away the rights of the biological mother, but the child should be allowed to be adopted into a family who cares for her.

"If the mother is physically able to care for the child or can come to look for her and she doesn't, then I should be allowed to legally adopt her," she argued.

She said this should be the case, given that she has heard rumours that the mother is now living with a man who has prevented her from visiting the child since she has to work in a bar he recently opened.

"She is not putting any interest in the child, yet, I as a foster parent have no rights," she argued.

She said a social worker informed her that there are many other persons going through a similar situation.

Another foster mother, who asked not to be identified for fear that she will no longer have access to her foster child, also told the Observer that she, too, has been trying unsuccessfully for years to adopt her foster son who is mute.

"I have been through so much trying to do it that I just give up now and am contented with being a foster parent, but I can tell you that is not good for these kids who need the stability of a family," she said.

Meanwhile, the foster mom of the five-year-old girl said she started her foster child at pre-school at age two because she has great plans for her educational future, despite the reality that she could be taken from her any day.

"She is so bright, and so I am already planning and saving for her high school and university because I can't afford to sit down in limbo," she said.

She said the $8,000 she receives from the CDA every two months is a mere drop in the bucket compared to what she spends to care for the little girl.

"Her school fee alone is $10,000 per term, but I don't sit and work out all the money I have spent on her because I see her like my own baby, and so it is just something you do as a mother, yet her biological mother is out there being carefree -- don't care how she eat or go to school yet I don't have any rights to her," she said in frustration.

While not speaking specifically to the two outlined cases, the CDA's Public Relations Manager Prudence Barnes, in responding to questions submitted by the Observer, said "foster parents who have bonded with the children in their care are given the first option to adopt, once the child is available for adoption".

Barnes explained that a Business Process Review is also under way to improve the efficiency of the adoption system.

She noted that the major challenges faced by the CDA are the expectations of adoptive parents.

According to the CDA, 155 Adoption Orders were made through the Jamaican Courts in 2008; 172 in 2009; 152 in 2010; 162 in 2011; s and 144 in 2012. A number of licences were also issued for children to leave Jamaica for the finalisation of adoption in scheduled countries.

The Adoption Board supervises the process that enables the transfer of parental rights from biological parents for children between six weeks and 18 years of age.

She further explained that under the existing law, an adoption should not be completed before three months to allow for investigation and verification and for necessary background checks.

"The time it takes to complete an adoption varies, some have been completed in three months, six months, and a year," she explained.

Completion, she said, is often dependent on the time it takes applicants to submit documents required to carry out the process.

The timeline for finalisation of adoption also varies depending on the jurisdiction of the adoptive parents. The completion for Adoption Orders for local residents ranges from six to nine months and nine to 12 months for overseas residents, while licence cases with already identified children take nine to 12 months. Licences are issued for children to leave Jamaica for the finalisation of adoption in scheduled countries.

According to the CDA, the average age of the children adopted over the last five years is nine years old.

In the 2007/2008 annual report the CDA stated that a total of 136 adoption orders and 21 licences were made or granted during the year.

The total number of adoption orders went up by six or five per cent over the previous year, whereas the adoption licences issued fell by 31 or 60 per cent.

According to the CDA, "the operations of the agency were not without its challenges and while proactive steps were taken by designing strategies to overcome some of these challenges, there were areas where performance fell below targets".

Among the steps the agency claimed to have taken to resolve the challenges is the reassignment of personnel to support the investigation and other field work associated with the adoption process.

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