Cooperative efforts increase adoptions

November 8, 2004

Adoptions of children in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Human Services have increased this year as a result of cooperative efforts by Chancery Court judges, the Department of Human Services, the office of the Attorney General, the Mississippi College School of Law, and the Mississippi Bar.

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. has declared Nov. 30 as Mississippi Adoption Day. November is National Adoption Month.

Chief Justice Smith hopes to bring attention to the need for more adoptive parents and foster parents, and to help bring about the placement of adoptable children into loving permanent homes.

The Department of Human Services reported 269 adoptions of children in its custody in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30. That compares to 175 for the same period the previous year, said Gail Young, Director of Placement for DHS.

Of the 351 children now in foster care and awaiting adoption, 177, or about half, live with families who want to adopt them. The Department of Human Services and the Attorney General’s office are working to get those cases finalized and make the placements permanent.

Special Assistant Attorney General Patti Marshall, who has been involved in child protection issues for many years, sought assistance from Mississippi College School of Law Dean Jim Rosenblatt and law professor Shirley Kennedy, director the law school’s Child Advocacy Program. More than four months ago, students at the Mississippi College School of Law began assisting with paperwork required to prepare uncontested adoptions for presentation to chancery judges. Volunteer lawyers were recruited to represent adoptive families who qualify for Department of Human Services assistance with the adoptions. Their efforts completed 36 adoptions within two months.

Department of Human Services Executive Director Don Taylor said, “We are particularly pleased with the Mississippi College School of Law. They have demonstrated a great deal of initiative in being willing to step up and help in this process.”

Chancery Judge Janace Harvey Goree said she is pleased with the students’ work in her court in Holmes and Yazoo counties. “It has worked very well.”

University of Mississippi School of Law students have also agreed to help. Students are waiting to be assigned cases, said Professor Debbie Bell.

The Young Lawyers Division of the Mississippi Bar put out a call for attorneys willing to donate their time in court to finalize the adoptions. More than 100 have signed up to help.

Families adopting children in Department of Human Services custody may seek their own attorney, or they may have the services of a volunteer lawyer through the Adoption Project. More than half are accepting the assistance of the pro bono attorneys.

Marshall, head of the Crime Prevention and Victim Services Division of the attorney general’s office, acts as a facilitator. She matches volunteer lawyers with cases awaiting finalization. The volunteer lawyer and the law student appear in court to finalize the adoption.

The students make the work easier and quicker for attorneys. Kennedy said, “The law students that work under my supervision contact prospective adoptive parents, get the Department of Human Services files, prepare the petitions for adoptions, prepare the final orders for adoptions, get all the exhibits from the Department of Human Services and file them in Chancery Court. Then they partner with a pro bono attorney who will be the attorney of record.”

Kennedy, an adoptive mother of two children, was delighted with the opportunity to help with other adoptions. “This is where my heart is,” she said.

Assistant Attorney General Jean Smith Vaughan, who was adopted at age 5 by her step-father, was eager to sign up as a pro bono attorney to represent adoptive parents in court. “I strongly feel that it’s a wonderful thing to do for a child,”said Vaughan, who works in the Criminal Division and the Children’s Division.

She still vividly remembers going to the Winston County Courthouse. Her adoption was the first legal business for her adoptive father’s cousin, who had just become a lawyer. “I knew that it was a significant change. I changed my name. It was also kind of a sense of completion, a sense of acceptance, a sense of family,” Vaughan said.

Vaughan’s biological father, an Air Force pilot, was killed in a plane crash in 1945, a few months before she was born.

Attorney General Jim Hood said, “An attorney can obtain no better feeling of accomplishment than to walk away from the courtroom and see a child leave with newly adopted parents.”

Hood and Marshall earlier this year asked chancery judges to expedite adoption hearings for children in DHS custody.

Hood said, “Patti Marshall and others in our Children’s Division saw the need for expediting these adoptions. The judges and the bar have been great about working with the law students at Mississippi College and the Department of Human Services.

Marshall said, “The judges have been absolutely fantastic because they have given us court dates on a moment’s notice, working these adoptions in wherever they could to accommodate the families and pro bono attorneys.”

The Mississippi College School of Law pays the fees for filing adoption papers, getting a birth certificate and other up-front expenses associated with adoptions. The Department of Human Services reimburses the law school for up to $600 for cases which qualify for federal adoption assistance. The law students receive $200 of that, which they may keep or treat as scholarship money. Most have chosen to use it as a scholarship, Kennedy said. The remainder of the money goes to the law school to help fund the Child Advocacy Center.

The program benefits law students by providing work experience, said Dean Rosenblatt. “It lets them do some real world work. It lets them go to court. It lets them meet judges. It lets them meet and interact with members of the bar. It’s a tremendously valuable experience for them.” Dean Rosenblatt said,“This program helps put children in permanent homes and provide the loving parents who can provide the support and nurturing and guidance to allow them to grow to maturity in a stable home, where they can then emerge as a contributing citizen to the greater community.”