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Birth Parents Should Have Rights in Some Adoptions, Group Says

April 20, 1987

CHICAGO (AP) _ Unfit parents are more likely to surrender their children for adoption if they can maintain some contact, says a task force report urging Illinois lawmakers to give birth parents rights in some adoption cases.

″This is no crusade ... and it’s not as new as it sounds,″ Wedgie Schultz, president of Illinois Action for Children and one of a group of experts who helped draw up the recommendation, said Monday.

Contracts allowing birth parents rights ranging from awareness of their children’s whereabouts to regular visitation are ″already arranged between consenting groups of adoptive parents, birth parents and the children themselves, when they are old enough.″

″All we propose is that such (arrangements) be given legal standing,″ she said. Informal arrangements for visitation, unlike a legal contract, can be terminated if things don’t go well, without the birth parents’ having any recourse in the courts.

But William Pierce, president of the National Committee for Adoption, argued the proposal amounts to ″kind of plea-bargaining with abusive and neglectful parents ... by offering the carrot of continued contact.″

″The child would be told his parent is not fit to be a parent, but society and the court requires that this unfit parent have access to him,″ Pierce added.

The report containing the proposal for limited ″open adoption″ was prepared by the Illinois Task Force on Permanency Planning and distributed to state lawmakers beginning Monday.

The Illinois report is itself part of a three-year, $5.7 million federally funded study administered by the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Council spokesman Robert Praksti, director of the project, said while the council supports open-adoption arrangements in some cases, it would not endorse extending legal standing to such contracts.

He said that as far as he knows, Illinois would be the first state to enact such a law if the recommendations are followed.

″The operative part of the formula is to look at the best interests of the child. Common sense can tell you that in some cases, older children may want to find a parent, stay in touch with a parent or whatever, and it can work to everyone’s benefit,″ Praksti said in a telephone interview from the council’s Reno, Nev., headquarters.

″But the saying that applies here is, ’If something’s not broke, don’t fix it,‴ he added.

Studies indicate that parents who lapse into abuse or neglect of their children are more likely to give them up when some contact is guaranteed, said Pamela Elsner, who served on the task force. She is executive director of Illinois Action for Children, the private child-welfare advocacy group of which Ms. Schultz is president.

Many abused children now live in foster homes for years, while their parents fight any state attempt to strip them of their parental rights or to arrange permanent adoption, Ms. Elsner said.

Ms. Schultz argued that being able to offer birth parents varying degrees of contact could help remove children from homes where they may be subject to abuse or neglect.

″We’ve counseled parents for two and three years, and even when they reach the point of acknowledging they can’t parent, they won’t terminate parental rights because they can’t face the prospect of never seeing their children again,″ said Ms. Schultz.

″In some instances, an arrangement between the (birth and adoptive) parents helps us settle these questions. In some instances, that being law might help,″ she said.

″But this isn’t plea-bargaining. And our intent is not to allow abusive, neglectful parents to ruin a child’s life,″ she said.

The task force report also recommended that the state guarantee any abused child access to counseling or other aid, and that specially trained volunteers be appointed by the juvenile courts to serve as advocates for children in the court system.

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