ADOPTIONS STILL OPEN TO ABUSE

Date: 1998-11-22

Post-Tribune (IN)
Author: Scheffie Sarver, Staff Writer

Twenty years after Indiana's adoption system delivered a 4-month-old baby girl to a Baptist minister and his wife who are now accused of abusing her, more laws and greater restrictions are in place for families who adopt children as well as agencies that approve matches.

But, as heavily screened as the process has become, similar cases can occur, according to adoption professionals.

Joseph Combs, former pastor of the now-defunct Emmanuel Baptist Church in Bristol, Tenn., and his wife, Evangeline, were indicted last week on charges of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated assault relating to the case. Joseph Combs also was charged with aggravated perjury, aggravated rape and seven counts of rape.

Both are in the Sullivan County Jail in lieu of a $250,000 bond.

Attorneys for the 21-year-old woman have filed a civil lawsuit against the couple and Baptist's Children's Home and Family Ministries in Valparaiso. Prosecutors say the couple took the child from the agency before the adoption was complete in 1978.

Baptist's Children's Home and Family Ministries is one of 70 private adoption agencies and a few publicly run children's homes in the state, according to Cathy Graham, deputy director of the state's Division of Families and Children.

In the 20 years since the Combses took the girl, laws and attitudes about the process have changed, Graham said.

"People just assumed everyone was a good person if you were trying to adopt," Graham said. "We didn't know that much about sexually abused children and families. It was a secret back then."

Ways to adopt

Today, there are three ways to adopt in Indiana.

One is through a private adoption agency licensed by the state.

There are also some attorneys specializing in adoption who are accountable to the state bar board.

The third way is to adopt a "special needs" child through the state. These include school-age children, those with physical or learning disabilities, those who have been abused, or ethnic minority children.

There are about 500 special needs children available for adoption in the state - 60 percent are from Northwest Indiana, said Bridgett Morales, program coordinator of Indiana's Adoption Initiative.

That number will grow to about 4,000 children next year, when the Indiana Family Act goes into effect, Morales said. The legislation speeds up the adoption process.

"Before, (the courts) used to give the birth-parents chance after chance after chance," Morales said. "(With the law), children won't be in limbo anymore."

Under the law, if a child is in foster care for 15 of 22 months, a plan is put together for adoption, she said.

State adoptions take six to nine months. Private adoptions can take longer.

Regardless of the mechanism by which an adoption takes place, most children are safeguarded by a system of checks and balances that differs from agency to agency.

Gayle Timmer-Podowski, family counselor at Sunny Ridge Family Center in Munster, said adoptive parents go through a multistep screening process before they're approved by her agency.

Adoptive parents apply and decide whether to adopt domestically or internationally. Then they attend seminars on adoption issues.

"We just feel families need to be informed of what adoption is," Timmer-Podowski said.

Depending on the adoption agency, anywhere from five to eight personal references are interviewed and checked.

Potential parents must take a comprehensive personality "inventory." Limited criminal background checks are run.

Screening process

Typically, a limited criminal background check is the same one provided to potential employers. It reports whether the person has been arrested and for what.

Depending on the agency, the Indiana Sex Offenders or Child Abuse Registries may be consulted.

Indiana's Sex Offenders registry was created in 1995. About 10,500 people are registered. A national registry does not exist, so Indiana lists convictions only in this state.

Most agencies demand screening of families, although the law does not require it, said Katrina Carlisle, spokeswoman for Coleman Adoption, a 104-year-old agency.

Most judges also demand it. Ultimately it is the court that approves adoption after a child has received a post-placement review - generally three to six months after the child is put in the home.

Some holes exist

Carlisle admits, even with the screening process, there are situations in which someone could slip through the system.

"It could still happen," she. "The laws regarding adoption mostly speak to the father's rights, the birth mother's rights.

"As long as adoption exists, there will be people who slip through the cracks. There are people privately doing things in the adoption world that are not licensed," she said.

But most caseworkers can smell a fake, Carlisle said.

"When families come in here, they're selling themselves. And we're aware of that," she said.

Jackie Barger, executive director of Shults-Lewis Child and Family Services in Valparaiso, points to adoption attorneys as a potential loophole.

"Sometimes the services get kind of left behind," Barger said.

He said some attorneys do the screening process. Others inadvertently sacrifice welfare of a child to seal a deal. "There are also attorneys looking to have a legal contract completed," Barger said.

Joel Kirsh, an adoption attorney in Indianapolis, said his role is to facilitate contact between birth mothers and adoptive families. His firm gives families pointers on how to locate birth mothers.

"We represent hundreds of families trying to adopt," he said.

Adoptive families pay a retainer, and his firm contracts with an adoption agency that runs a home study, provides counseling and runs a background check, he said.

"We do not believe because a couple cannot physically have a child of their own (they're) fit for adoption," Kirsh said.

The law says someone has to investigate the family, but it is not specific on who or when the investigation takes place.

Attorneys who don't specialize in adoption might not know the difference, Kirsh said.

"More often than not, you could possibly find an attorney who's not experienced in adoption who wouldn't know better," he said.

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