Idaho senator slams LDS adoption agency

Date: 2007-12-29

Deseret News, The (Salt Lake City, UT)
Author: Amy K. Stewart Deseret Morning News

AMERICAN FORK -- An Idaho state senator says an LDS adoption agency is solely to blame for the fiasco involving a set of adoptive parents in American Fork and a birth mother and birth father in Idaho.

"I think LDS Family Services bears the responsibility of this tragedy. It is their fault," said Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R- Hayden Lake, in an interview with the Deseret Morning News.

Jed and Cally Nielson have had 6-month-old Harvey since July. The birth father, Matt Tenneson, 20, of Coeur d'Alene, is suing for custody. An Idaho judge recently ruled Tenneson should have primary custody. The Nielsons are fighting the ruling.

The Idaho senator says he believes LDSFS should have made more of an effort to contact the birth father before going through with the adoption.

However, LDSFS acted according to Idaho and Utah law, agency officials say.

"LDSFS followed the statute and did everything they were required to do," said LDSFS attorney David McConkie.

But that is the whole problem, Jorgensen says. What is required isn't enough. And the law needs to be changed, he says.

Jorgenson plans to co-sponsor a bill that will "beef up" regulations for private adoption agencies.

Two other Idaho legislators are studying the Nielson case and may soon weigh in on Jorgensen's proposal.

Meanwhile, two Utah legislators are proposing adoption laws for the 2008 session. One bill would make it easier for adoptees to find their birth parents. The other aims to clarify adoption law details.

Utah and Idaho law requires a private adoption agency to check the putative father registry before placing a baby with adoptive parents.

A putative father is a man who may be the child's biological father but who is not married to the child's mother on or before the date of the child's birth and has not established his paternity through legal proceedings. This registry is the birth father's declaration stating that he is the father and that he wants paternal rights.

LDSFS checked the Idaho registry. Tenneson's name was not on the list, according to LDSFS officials.

However, the Nielsons' attorney, Larry Jenkins, with Wood Crapo LLC, of Salt Lake City, says LDSFS isn't to blame for the Nielsons' woes. "The law even says it's the father's responsibility to take action," Jenkins said. "It provides the father an opportunity."

Jorgenson says he believes simply checking the registry isn't enough. "I absolutely feel LDSFS should have done more," he said. "They should have contacted the birth father."

LDSFS officials say that requiring a private adoption agency to contact the birth father could open up a can of worms. For example, some women don't know who the father of their baby is. Sometimes the father is married to someone else. In other situations, the birth mother has no contact with the birth father due to abuse issues.

"There is a lot to consider," says Cally Nielson. "They (private adoption agencies) have to respect the privacy of the birth mother and birth father."

Idaho Reps. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, and Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, say they plan to examine the Nielson issue.

A point of controversy is Idaho Magistrate Robert Burton's initial ruling that said Tenneson has some parental rights -- despite the fact Tenneson didn't sign the putative family registry in the required time period.

McGeachin said, "Are there areas of Idaho law that need to be tightened?"

Shirley says he believes it's not an issue with the law but rather the judges interpreting the law. "It seems to me the problem lies with the interpretation of the courts -- not the Legislature," he said.

Meanwhile, two potential adoption laws are coming down the pipeline for the Utah Legislature.

Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, is creating a bill that would allow adoptees to actively seek their birth parents. Right now adoptees and birth parents can sign up with a registry if they wish to find each other. An agency matches them up.

Sumsion wants to allow the adoptee to petition the court, which would then assign an intermediary to search court records and find out if the birth parents are alive. If they are alive, the intermediary can contact them and ask if they would like to be contacted by their birth child.

The yet-to-be-filed bill states a birth child must be 30 or older to begin the court searching process, to ensure a maturity level.

Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, has a bill that she said came at the suggestion of the Utah Adoption Council. The council is a nonprofit group consisting of adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents, agencies and community groups supportive of adoption.

Allen's proposed legislation, HB46, Adoption and Termination of Parental Rights, clarifies wording and modifies the current law.

There are three highlights. First, the bill proposes aiding adoption agencies in gaining access to vital records, such as birth certificates. "It expedites it," she said.

Second, the bill states if a parent is incarcerated for more than one year for a felony, this fact can be considered in regards to whether a parent is unfit. Currently, the law applies only to children who are in state custody. The revised law would include children who are staying with relatives.

Third, the law puts further criteria on what an adoptive parent can give to a birth mother. It forbids gifts or payments above what is normal or reasonable, such as legal and medical expenses.

"We are trying to ensure selling a baby is not encouraged in any way," Allen said, adding it's not a widespread problem, but there is room for abuse.

Alluding to Idaho Magistrate Burton's ruling, Allen said she wants Utah law to be as close to "crystal clear" as possible so it would be "harder for a judge to misinterpret the statue."

Allen's bill has passed the Health and Human Services Standing Committee.
E-mail: astewart@desnews.com

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