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Governor backs bill that would speed up adoptions STATE HOUSE REPORT


Gov. William Donald Schaefer made a plea yesterday for proposed legislation that would speed up the adoption process in Maryland.

The faster that children find permanent homes, the better their chance for happy lives, the governor told the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis.

"None of you have seen the children bounced around, dumped out on the street, and the state has to pick them up," Mr. Schaefer said. "If you stabilize the family, maybe the problems we have in the streets won't happen."

Each year, about 3,200 children are placed in foster care in Maryland.

Most eventually are returned to their parents. But some 20 percent end up being adopted through a four-step legal process that takes just over four years.

That's down from nearly six years when the governor took office in 1987, largely because the Department of Human Resources has streamlined its part in the process. But the courts are moving more slowly when it comes to the key step of terminating parental rights.

In an adoption system where there are virtually no true orphans, a judge must formally sever the legal bond between children and their parents.

Five years ago, it took nearly eight months for Maryland judges to hear these cases. Now it's 14 months.

Crowded dockets, with criminal cases receiving priority over adoption hearings, are part of the problem. But local jurisdictions also spend months trying to find missing or unknown parents, said Sakina Thompson, an aide to the governor.

House Bill 1585 would create a standard for such searches, allowing the cases to move forward one month after social workers satisfied the court that they had checked certain records and attempted to interview all relatives.

"This would attack one of the problems," Ms. Thompson said. "Yes, we would like a family court, but this would help."

A separate family court -- to hear cases ranging from divorces to juvenile matters -- is another administration proposal.

The state Senate yesterday gave tentative approval to a weaker version of this measure, creating a separate division within the Circuit Court system.

The state does have financial and legal incentives for speeding up adoptions.

Foster care is expensive -- more than $5,000 a year in an average case.

And a federal consent decree, part of a lawsuit against the state over children abused in foster care, mandates that children be placed for adoption as quickly as possible.

But the governor said he just wants the state to focus on the best interests of children, rather than the rights of parents.

"A parent says, 'I'm just not going to let go.' . . . A parent who drinks, one who's on drugs -- there's a point I'm ready to say, 'You're out of luck,' " Mr. Schaefer said.

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