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Op-Ed: Isaac hadn't had a mom in 13 years. When I tried to adopt him, he was told it was too late

Posted on 04/04/2019

Originally published by AZ Central, April 4, 2019

Opinion: About 200 teens in Arizona have families waiting to adopt them, but most will age out of the system. That's why we need House Bill 2378. 

Too many teens age out of the foster care system without anyone to adopt them. Why make it tough for those who find families? (Photo: David Wallace/The Republic)

I met Isaac when he was moving into a new group home for teens in foster care. He was 16, and this house was his 42nd placement.

As his pro bono education lawyer, I planned on discussing his education plan, but school was the last thing on his mind.

More than anything, Isaac told me, he wanted to be adopted. He’d been a ward of the state since he was 4. He wanted a mom. And he knew what happened to kids who never got chosen. His friend, Mercedes, aged out of the system and was now a prostitute; James went to prison; Estella lived at the homeless shelter (not their real names).

As he turned 17, Isaac got his wish. A family wanted to adopt him. My family.

But instead of a celebration, Isaac was told it was too late. Why? The Department of Child Services would need more than a year to complete his adoption.

HB 2378 doesn't relax requirements

House Bill 2378 is the commonsense solution foster teens need.

Arizona currently has about 200 teens like Isaac who, against all the odds, have families waiting to adopt them. If the adoption process takes more than a year, most of them will age out of the system, even though a family is waiting in the wings.

Arizona law already permits an expedited adoption process in certain circumstances, such as when a child is battling a severe illness. Under HB 2378, Rep. Nancy Barto builds upon that history by streamlining the adoption process for foster children who are 16 years and older.

The current adoption checklist that ensures that children are adopted into safe homes remains untouched. The home is inspected, the family is interviewed and the eight-part social study is completed. The only change is that DCS is required to complete these steps expeditiously so the process, start to finish, takes place in six months.

Our problem? Complacency, bureaucracy

When I met Isaac, his plan for his future was prison. With only three high school credits at the time, he believed his best chance for regular meals and shelter would be incarceration.

Isaac was wrong. His best chance was a family. But when one stepped up, instead of moving heaven and earth like one would hope, he was met with unnecessary delays and complacency.

The barrier to Isaac's adoption wasn’t a concern about “fit.” As Isaac’s volunteer lawyer, I’d known him well for over a year. And the barrier to adoption wasn’t a concern about safety. Our home had a pool fence, the essential oils were locked up (yes, I’m being serious), and I already had a fingerprint clearance card.

The barrier to a timely adoption was a series of internal delays that, unfortunately, are symptomatic of a large bureaucracy. Most delays are simply annoying, and we take them in stride as part of life. But these unnecessary delays almost cost Isaac a family.

Give older teens a fighting chance

My son is not alone in this fact-pattern. Hundreds of teens in Arizona are similarly situated. HB 2378 puts kids first and makes sure a child’s dreams are not dashed by an inability to process paperwork in a timely fashion.

In the end, Isaac was lucky. His child welfare attorney had known him since he was a child. Passionate, knowledgeable and with his future as her motivation, she refused to take no for an answer. Thanks to her efforts and some behind-the-scenes help, Isaac legally became my son two months shy of his 18th birthday.

HB 2378 safely and smartly streamlines adoptions for older teens. Our hope is that “Isaac’s Law” will help thousands of teens celebrate in a timely fashion with their forever families.