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Georgia leaders want to streamline adoption process

Georgia lawmakers head to work under the Gold Dome in Atlanta on Monday.
Georgia lawmakers head to work under the Gold Dome in Atlanta on Monday.

The state House and Senate have staked out different positions in a months-old battle over something they both want to do: streamline Georgia’s adoption process.

Georgia lawmakers broadly agree that it’s time to update adoption laws so that Georgia children can get into permanent, loving homes faster.

But in a 40-13 vote on Thursday, state senators approved a version of the so-called “adoption bill” that’s different from what the House sent them last year. And Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has serious concerns about the Senate bill.

“This bill is a clean bill focused solely on child welfare while respecting our state agencies like DFCS,” the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, said its Senate sponsor, Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro.

Indeed, much of House Bill 159 involves small or technical changes in a section of the law that hasn’t been updated in a generation. Most things haven’t attracted much controversy: rewording legal forms, laying out where adoption petitions can be filed, fleshing out the rules on foreign adoptions.

But the Senate version contains an amendment that would set up a way for people to transfer their child to someone else’s care for up to a year using power of attorney.

It’s meant for parents who can’t take care of their children temporarily for reasons that might include deployment or going to a drug rehabilitation program.

Deal vetoed a separate bill proposing that last year.

Just after senators voted to revive the idea, Deal tweeted that he commends the Senate for taking action on the bill.

“However, I have serious concerns regarding their version of the bill and am hopeful they will be addressed through the legislative process,” he wrote.

Last year in his veto message, Deal wrote that the bill was well-intentioned, but it unintentionally put children at risk by allowing parents to go around child welfare processes that include state oversight.

State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, voted against the bill. She said she knows changes need to be made to adoption law. But she said she fears that key Senate amendment would have the same effect: a gubernatorial veto.

“That would be so unfair to the families and kids in our foster care and adoption systems,” she said.

House members, notably Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, have expressed disappointment with the Senate since the tense last day of the last session in March, which ended hours after midnight without an adoption bill going to the governor’s desk.

Ralston's office said it would take some time to review the state Senate version of the bill.

The state House, Senate and governor have until roughly late March or early April to come to a consensus if they are to pass a bill this year.

The original House Bill 159 had unanimous House approval last year.

But the bill never advanced after a Senate committee added language that critics said could end in discrimination against same-sex couples, by allowing faith-based adoption agencies that receive state money to decline clients.

The DFCS director at the time said it might endanger federal funds by running afoul of nondiscrimination laws.

Senators dropped that amendment from the bill passed on Thursday, but several of them plan to return to it in a separate bill.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, spoke up for some kind of protection for faith-based agencies.

I “agree with the policy of making sure children are adopted in a more streamlined fashion,” McKoon said. "But I think we should be very alarmed about some of the comments made to suggest that because people have a certain religious faith … that it is OK for the government to punish those people.”