Aiming to improve Wisconsin adoptions: Families, lawmakers look to legislation to improve process

Wisconsin families who face barriers in the adoption process could soon get help from state lawmakers, as a task force at the state Capitol prepares to recommend legislation.

“Our goal is to perhaps double the number of adoptions over the next five years in this state because there’s such a need,” said Rep. Barbara Dittrich, the chair of the Speaker’s Task Force on Adoption.

The lawmakers on the special bipartisan committee spent the summer traveling around Wisconsin holding public hearings listening to stakeholders and families. Dittrich said they’re still drafting bills centered around the ideas they heard but plan to introduce their recommendations within a week or two.

Neil and Katie Lubke, who live in Milton, have four biological sons and have fostered about 15 other children throughout the past six years. They ended up adopting one foster child, their now 7-year-old daughter Ellie.

“We often celebrate adoption, and you should. It’s wonderful. You’re bringing families together. But, I think people forget that any adoption … stems from an initial loss,” said Katie Lubke.

She said fostering and adoption has taught her biological children love and compassion, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. She described a lack of consistency from social worker to social worker and a difficult balancing act between parental and child’s rights.

“There’s such a focus on parent rights and there should be. Parent rights are really important, but it’s coming at the cost of child rights, too. And there has to be a balance. These kids deserve to have a balance,” she said.

Dittrich said that is a concern she heard echoed across the state.

“The pendulum has swung almost too far the other way towards adults over children, and we need to bring it back closer to center and really put these kids first,” Dittrich said.

The standout issue she said she heard at the hearings was the mounting issue with drug addiction in Wisconsin.

The task force’s legislation will focus on four goals: terminating parental rights in a timely manner, shorten the timeline for adoptions; reduce the costs of adoption and increase adoption awareness and resources. The bills will mostly focus on public adoptions, especially as private adoptions decrease in Wisconsin, Dittrich said.

She said finding ways to cut costs of adoptions has been the task force’s most difficult goal. They’re considering a proposal that would offer grants or create a cost-matching system to help parents bring down the costs.

Another bill would likely focus on strengthening the open adoption process in Wisconsin. Open adoption is legal in Wisconsin, but Dittrich said it is done in a way so that there is nothing legally enforceable if either party backs out. The legislation would aim to change that, by making the open adoption process “more of a contract and less of a handshake.”

During the public hearings, social workers expressed a need for more workers and more help, but Dittrich said it is a difficult problem to solve as Wisconsin already faces such a high employee shortage.

“Social workers have a very emotionally demanding job, and so the turnover rate is high,” Dittrich said.

As a result, the committee members are looking into a number of different ideas in adoption support.

The Lubkes said their daughter’s rough start in her early life has led them to seek support for Ellie and them.

“That early trauma has lifelong effects. It’s rewired her brain and so it’s very difficult to help her attach and find empathy for other people. It’s very challenging for her to control her emotions,” Katie Lubke said.

But ultimately, the mounting need for adoptive and foster families in Rock County called them to try and provide good homes for children who need them, even despite all the challenges in the system.

“It’s a difficult cycle at times, but the hope is that the kids who were in our care for any amount of time have felt loved and cared for and that they’re better off having been here,” Neil Lubke said.

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