Wisconsin tribes, disability rights groups raise ‘significant’ concerns about adoption bills

Proposals that aim to improve Wisconsin’s adoption process will likely be changed amid opposition from Wisconsin tribes, disability rights groups and the state’s Department of Children and Families.

“We are still listening to people that have concerns about the bills and inviting those people to make their recommendations and help us make this legislation better,” State Rep. Barbara Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc, said Tuesday at the state Capitol.

Dittrich chaired a task force that traveled around the state to hear from adoptive families, social workers and other stakeholders about how to improve Wisconsin’s adoption process. The panel had four mandates: to examine the termination of parental rights, identify ways to shorten the timeline for adoptions, reduce the costs of adoptions and increase adoption awareness and resources.

The state Assembly’s Committee on Family Law held a public hearing Tuesday on the eight adoption bills, many of which center around trying to terminate parental rights more quickly.

A committee hears from the public about the eight bills on adoption that came out of the Task Force on Adoption. Multiple of the proposals aim to help terminate parental rights more quickly, which was one of the task force’s goals. #news3now pic.twitter.com/meOhH4zD2g

— Rose Schmidt (@RoseSchmidtTV) October 29, 2019

Currently, there are 12 grounds in Wisconsin that would allow a court to terminate a biological parent’s rights. Some of them are felony against a child, homicide, abandonment, continuing need of protective services and continuing parental disability.

One of Dittrich’s bills creates new grounds to terminate parental rights if a child is exposed to drugs or alcohol while the mother is pregnant, unless the parent is enrolled in a treatment program within 90 days of the child’s birth. The bill also creates a new ground to terminate parental rights if a parent is incarcerated and likely to stay in prison for most of the years that the child is a minor.

The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families is opposed to seven of the eight adoption bills. A written testimony from the department says that, as a whole, the bill package runs against the ideas of supporting and strengthening birth parents.

“Our goal is to keep kids safe in their home, that removal of a child is not the first act but the last resort in order to maintain a child’s safety,” said Jeff Pertl, the department’s deputy secretary.

The adoption task force co-chair, state Rep. Lisa Subeck, told the committee that toward the end of the process, the bills had drawn a partisan divide.

Subeck, D-Madison, said Democrats were not shown the bills before they were introduced and she believes the process was rushed, leading to the now widespread opposition.

“We heard from our native tribes, we heard from disability rights organizations, we heard from social service organizations and we heard from attorneys that they had significant concerns with many pieces of many of these bills. I wish we could have gotten some of that ironed out before we got to this point,” Subeck told the committee.

The Ho-Chunk Nation opposes the adoption bills, saying in a news release that the proposals remove rights from the birth family and give more rights to adoptive families, thereby “reducing the probability that a child can remain with family.”

Subeck authored the only bill that the Department of Children and Families supports, Assembly Bill 564. It aims to ease the financial burden of certain kinds of adoptions by expanding eligibility for adoption assistance.

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