Those riding a roller coaster at an amusement park may want the ride to continue for as long as possible. But those going on the emotional roller coaster ride of an adoptive placement pray for the ride to end quickly. Finalization of the adoption is the end goal for them, and the faster they get there, the better. Adoptive parents desire for the adoptee to legally, finally, and completely be a member of their family; therefore, they want the fat lady to sing as soon as possible.
So when does the relief of finality occur? The answer is not as simple as one might think. A good starting point is the humorous quote by baseball player Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Various points in the adoptive process may seem to be the end, but legally, they are not.
Prospective adoptive parents are thrilled when they are matched with an expectant mother. Of course, a match is just the beginning of the process and is nowhere need the end of it. The emotional roller coaster ride of an adoption begins in earnest at the match point.
While it is a huge step forward to have a child identified to adopt, a match is no guarantee that a placement will actually be made. Typically, a birth mother has to execute a consent to the adoption in order for an adoption to proceed. Unless and until that document is executed, the birth mother is free to change her mind about a placement. Therefore, matches are deemed “at risk.” The risk is that the birth mother will not carry through on her plan to place the baby and sign a consent at the legally permissible time for doing so. Thus, a mere match cannot be the end of the adoption process.
What if a birth mother signs a consent to the adoption? Does her signature on the dotted line mean that the adoption process is now complete? Absolutely not. There may still be an element of risk even if the birth mother has executed a consent form. The adoption law in some states gives the birth mother a specified period of time to change her mind. This window of opportunity, legally known as a “revocation period,” varies in length depending on the law of the particular state. No matter how short the revocation period actually is, the time frame will seem interminable to the adoptive parent waiting for it to run.
If the adopting parents survive any applicable revocation period, the end has still not been reached. Adoption is a legal process. Court proceedings are required in order for the rights of the birth parents to be terminated and for the prospective adoptive parents to be made the legal parents of the child. Court dates are not instantaneously available. Judicial dockets are crowded, so hearing time might be farther down the road timewise than the adopting couple would like.
Before any child can be adopted, the rights of his biological parents must be severed. A child cannot have two sets of parents, so any legal ties he has to the biological parents are cut in order for the prospective adoptive parents to be substituted for and to become the legal parents of the child. A huge sigh of relief is in order when the judge enters a TPR (termination of parental rights) judgment. This judgment terminates any legal connection which the biological parents have to the child being adopted. Whew! It’s the end, right? Wrong.
Simply because the biological parents’ rights have been terminated does not mean that the child is now officially the child of the adoptive couple. No, yet another court hearing is required for the judge to approve the adoptive couple as the child’s new legal parents. An adoption final hearing must be scheduled on that crowded court docket.
State law controls the timing for finalizing an adoption. Specifically, it may set a period of time for the child to be in the adoptive home before finalization is permitted. In Florida, for example, at least 90 days (approximately three months) must elapse after the child’s placement in the adoptive home before a final hearing can be held. Longer times are imposed by the adoption law in other states.
Hallelujah! The adoption final hearing is held. Now, the adoption is over, right? Yes and no. The adoption is recognized as being legal and official once a final judgment of adoption is entered; however, as a practical matter work still needs to be done before the adoption is completely finished. While the judgment establishes that the child is the legal child of the adoptive parents, the new parents need documentation to this effect.
Often certified copies of the final judgment of adoption are procured from the clerk of courts’ office of the adoptive parents’ records; it may take several days for these copies to be obtained. The new parents will also need to acquire an amended birth certificate for the child showing the child’s name as a result of the adoption and listing him or her as the child’s parents. Such certificates are issued by a state office, the Office of Vital Statistics (or some similar name), and may take several weeks or even months to be produced. Once certified copies of the final judgment and the new birth certificate are in hand, the adoption has legally been completed and the adoptive parents have documentation to prove they are the child’s legal parents.
At last, it’s the end! Well, it’s the end of the adoption process. The adoptive parents’ job as the parents of their newest family member is just beginning, and it is a role that will never end. They are finally a forever family.