JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Senate on Tuesday gave first-round approval to a proposal changing adoption and child custody rules.
Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, sponsored legislation that would change the standards for child abandonment, add safeguards for children born to people with past parenting problems and remove the requirement for adoptive parents to pay for an attorney for birth parents.
Current law says birth parents should have legal representation when consenting to an adoption, a cost adoptive parents are normally required to cover.
But Koenig said hiring an attorney is expensive and adult birth parents who agree to an adoption don’t need a lawyer to understand what is happening.
Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said she had worked with Koenig to compromise on many parts of the proposal but hadn’t come to an agreement on that portion.
She sponsored an amendment to remove that part of the legislation and require adoptive parents or an adoption agency to pay attorney costs.
Schupp argued having an attorney could prevent birth parents from later returning to court to contest the adoption on the grounds they didn’t understand what it meant to permanently sign away their rights.
She said spending $750-$1,000 on an attorney was a relatively small and worthwhile expense compared with the about $40,000 it often costs to adopt through an agency.
Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, said that amount of money is significant for many families that struggle to afford to adopt.
“Adoption isn’t only a well-off person’s venue,” he said, also arguing adult birth parents are capable of understanding what is happening.
“I think we’re over-dumbing-down the birth parents in this situation,” he said.
Schupp’s amendment failed.
Koenig’s proposal would also change the rules for when a child is considered “abandoned” by a parent and court proceedings to take away child custody can begin.
Koenig and Schupp said they had reached a compromise that recognized the need for young children to reach a permanent situation more quickly, but also would give parents time to recover from temporary issues.
“It’s definitely a balancing act,” between parental rights and stability for children, Koenig said. “These kids need permanent homes and the faster you get kids permanent homes the better off they’re going to be.”
The proposal also duplicates some provisions already approved in the House with bipartisan support.
Those include tax credits for foster and adoptive parents and the creation of a “birth match” program.
Koenig, who has been a foster parent, said he has sometimes had to incur sudden expenses.
He was once unexpectedly asked to foster two infants. Because Koenig’s family travels with him between St. Louis and Jefferson City, they needed four cribs, he said.
The birth match program in the proposal would help hospitals know if a parent of a newly born child has lost custody of a child in the past because of abuse or neglect, or been convicted of certain crimes.
The parent would not automatically lose custody of the child, but rather would be contacted by the Children’s Division and offered services.
Koenig’s proposal is Senate Bill 327.