Monday, July 19, 2010

A Tale of Adoption and Woe

Adoptions are difficult. Things that make adoptions difficult: the possibility of birth parents getting their act together, ex-spouses that are angry, not speaking English very well, being deemed unsuitable, being poor.
I generally consider that we are in the last category, but a quick look at poverty statistics and last year's 1040 says otherwise. So I do not think we are any of those things. And YET. Here we are.
The easiest kind of adoption is an uncontested step-parent adoption, based on my current knowledge, which is somewhere between the knowledge of a hobo on the street and a family law attorney that specializes in adoptions. There are no angry ex-spouses, the child has resided with the adopter for some time, the step-parent and birth parent have been married for a few years, no one does crack or tries to kill each other... and yet.
My husband has always intended on adopting my our daughter. Her biological father died before she was born and, due to an extremely tempestuous relationship with both him and his family at the time, was never even on the birth certificate. My husband and I have been married for 4 out of her 5 years and she has never known a life without him. She currently has my maiden name, which we wanted to get changed before she started public school. Four years ago, it seemed like we had plenty of time to get the money together, plenty of time to deal with the paperwork... and now it's 2010 and she's starting school in a month. 
But, come on, how hard can it be? It seems like this should be pretty straightforward and possibly the simplest adoption EVER. So I found my initial forms online (Petition for Termination and Adoption, Affidavit and Interstate Compact), filled them out, got them notarized, and went to the Family Law office in our local courthouse on Friday. So far so good. Based on several adoption forums, I expected to pay $150-200 to do this. It was $273. My wallet's empty, but at least I was finally getting it done. Person #1, a nice lady who helped me file the papers, said I should go downstairs to the law library, get a copy of the Order for Termination and Adoption and fill it out. It was pretty self-explanatory, but there was a reference attorney there who could help me for free if I needed it. I should get a copy of the death certificate from Vital Statistics just in case, and show up at Family Law court at 1:30 with Order, Certificate of Adoption (which I had already printed and filled out), and death certificate in hand, and I could have my kid adopted by the end of the day. YES! Wildest dreams come true. Amazing.
So I went to the law library. Person #2, the lovely law librarian, helped me make copies of the Order (all 30 pages of it). She informed me that I should go through it with a pen and fill in the appropriate blanks and scratch out the remarks that did not apply to my situation. Then she would e-mail a copy to me and I could transcribe my changes, then print it out. This seemed a little more difficult than Person #1 had suggested, but surely I could manage. Then we discovered that there were no options for having one biological parent alive on the Order. And that there was no "Termination" with my Adoption, so maybe I paid $273 to file the wrong petition? And, by the way, the reference attorney doesn't do child adoptions, so he can't help you. At this point, Person #2 turns to Person #3, an attorney looking up something on a computer in the law library, and asks if she's ever heard of a case like mine. She looks puzzled and shakes her head. Awesome. Person #2 hands me a flier for Lawyer Referral Services and suggests I ask for "Limited Scope Representation" (i.e., I don't need an attorney to represent me, I just need some advice). She informs me they don't require a retainer (which I eventually figured out was a non-refundable deposit. I know grown-up words!). And that just "showing up at court" with my papers didn't sound quite right to her. Clearly, this was not a one-day event.
So I called Lawyer Referral Services. Great news, Person #4 tells me, the first 20 minutes is only $20! And it's $200/hour after that, which.. we might.. be able to handle.. and they all require a $2000 retainer. So much for that. But Person #4 says maybe I can get some help at the free legal aid clinics held around town twice a week. 
At this point, I'm in tears, so I call my husband and barrage him with the usual (emotions and garbled jargon). He reminds me that my school offers free Legal Services for Students! I check their website and they don't offer representation for Family Law! EXTREMELY SURPRISING. But I schedule an appointment online anyway, explaining that I don't want representation, I want advice. So this morning I went to my appointment with Person #5. He was a very nice attorney, but a very nice attorney that doesn't do Family Law. He does inform me, though, that I may consider filing an amended Petition that doesn't mention Termination, or even the birth father, at all. He mentions this is probably free. I decide that "free" is the dumbest word ever invented, EVER. "Free" is the spoken incarnation of a relaxing vacation with your kids, or making your own donuts. It will not be as good as you are imagining. He also suggests that I should not even mention that I filed the wrong Petition if the judge looks particularly sleepy. This inspires great confidence in the integrity of the legal system. Person #5 also is not sure which Order it would be safer to file, as an Adoption Order is more correct, but would not match my Petition, unless I amend it, in which case it might just get confusing and the judge would say FAIL on account of being obnoxious. Person #5 also gives me a phone number and name for an attorney that may not require a retainer, but he's waiting to hear back from him as to whether or not he does adoptions. Outlook is not good.
When I get back to work, I have a message waiting from Domestic Relations. They have received my petition and would like to speak with me about the next step. Person #6 says he will be e-mailing me a list of social workers that can perform my Home Study. Their fees vary, from around, oh $500-800. This is when my brain shorts out and Person #6 wonders what that BZZT noise was. I ask him my questions regarding the amended petition (apparently it is not free to file an amendment, SURPRISINGLY, but does not cost much) and the possible petition-order mismatch. He sees the latter as a potential problem and informs me that I can schedule a "pre-trial" with the judge, in which I get to ask questions before my real court date, and I should call the District Clerk to set this up. I learn new meanings for words like "docket" and "calling" and stare at my schedule, hoping a pre-trial on a Tuesday at 1:30 will work for me because THAT IS THE ONLY TIME THEY MEET. As an aside, Person #6, person of vast adoption and family court knowledge, mentions that he went through an adoption and HE got an attorney because pro se (without an attorney) was such a pain. He said this as sympathetically as possible, and not douchey at all, but OMGZ why is this so HARD?
I decide my next best step, while my husband and I are listing our organs on Craigslist, is to schedule the pre-trial. I call the District Clerk (not the right office), whose secretary (Person #7) transfers me to the Civil Court Administrative Office, whose automaton voice prompts me for my Case #, which I have of course left at home. I quit for the day. 
I do not think this is happening before the kid starts school. I ask my husband if he can just stick a flag in her head and claim her.

1 comment:

  1. I was adopted in a similar manner when I was about 12. My biological father was alive, but was never involved in my life - his choice. My parents (Mom and man who earned the title Dad) didn't have a lot of money at the time either. I don't remember a lot about the process, but my Mom says they hired an attorney, which they paid a couple thousand dollars for. They met with him for about a half hour and he showed up on the court date.