It was hard going for Sen. Luz Robles, D-SLC, in proposing a bill to get tough on fraudulent adoption agencies. One lawmaker questioned Robles’ witness so intensely that Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, had to warn against “badgering” witnesses. At another point, Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, challenged Robles’ understanding of the bill saying, “This doesn’t require legal skills, it requires an understanding of the English language.”
The bill was designed to combat Utah adoption agencies that goad mothers into fraudulent behavior when putting children up for adoption. Currently, Utah has a reputation of being perhaps the toughest state on “putative fathers” or unmarried fathers looking to stop an adoption and assert their claim to raise their child. At this time, mothers from out of state need only mention to the biological father that they will be in Utah without mentioning adoption, and fathers will then only have 20 days to secure their rights in the state.
The law has lead to situations like one reported on in Salt Lake City Weekly’s 2010 piece “Some Call it Kidnapping,” where one mother simply texted the father that she was visiting family in Arizona “and will stay on in Utah for a while,” giving the father the only warning required by Utah law that he would soon lose his right to be a father to his child.
Robles’ bill didn’t specifically address that aspect of Utah law but hoped to provide more tools for state regulators to sanction and take away the licenses of agencies that help mothers commit fraud in deceiving biological fathers. The bill would also allow for parties in an adoption case to claim attorney’s fees if they prevailed in a case where the other party or an adoption agency was found by a court to have engaged in fraud.
Wes Hutchings, a former president of the Utah Adoption Council, covertly tape-recorded phone conversations with staff at Utah adoption agencies discussing how to deceive fathers. The recordings were included in a Colorado news station’s broadcast and played for the committee, where agency staffers offered women cash bonuses to come to Utah and advised them how to best deceive fathers. One woman suggested telling a father that she had been in a car wreck and miscarried so he would not inquire about the baby.
Robles’ Senate Bill 183 provoked immediate criticism from Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who also works as a family-law attorney. Weiler questioned the sponsor and her witness, Hutchings, like he was cross-examining witnesses at a trial. Weiler challenged that the fraud penalties could expand to birth mothers and could add undue legal burdens to all adoption proceedings.
“You want to add to the potential litigation costs [of adoptions] if a year or two or three years later someone says a lie was told by the birth mother?” Weiler asked. Robles tried to explain that the bill was not rewriting adoption laws and would not affect most adoption cases. Urquhart, however, said that’s exactly what the bill would do and that it should cause all “adoptive parents to beware.”
He pointed out language in the bill that says that when a court has found clear and convincing evidence of fraud against a party, that that indvidual's due-process rights would take precedence in determining custody, even over the best interest of the child.
“We’re gonna go to court and petition to undo this entire thing and now the best interest of the child takes a back seat to the rights of the father?” Urquhart said.
While the intent of the bill’s language was a matter of intense debate, the bill may also have faltered for not providing adoption-agency regulators with tools they did not already have.
Ken Stettler, director of the Office of Licensing for the Utah Department of Human Services, told the committee they already had the power to take action and possibly revoke the licenses of adoption agencies committing fraud. He said that in the past 11 years, that maybe six agencies have faced administrative hearings for irregular adoption practices. Though he also added that of the 36 adoption agencies in Utah, roughly one-quarter of them had in that same period faced administrative actions from his office for minor violations.
Kent Broderick, the current president of the Utah Adoption Council, said his organization had voted Tuesday against supporting the bill, also arguing that there were existing protections and safeguards in place against adoption-agency fraud.
The bill looked doomed for dismissal, but Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, moved that the bill not be voted on during committee so the sponsor could take more time to work with it before proposing it again.
To read Senate Bill 183, click here. To contact Sen. Robles about her bill, click here. To find out who your legislator is to contact them about this bill or issue, click here. For more updates from the Hill, follow @EricSPeterson on Twitter.