ATLANTA - With less than two weeks until the start of the legislative session, the leader of the Georgia House of Representatives has his sights set on fixing the state's outdated adoption laws.
"It was a priority last session and it's even more of a priority for not just me, but for the House of Representatives, this session," said House Speaker David Ralston, R - Blue Ridge. "I think it's important that we do everything we can to streamline the adoption process in Georgia to give children that are now in foster care the opportunity to be adopted into permanent, loving, stable homes."
State Representative Bert Reeves, R - Marietta, originally filed legislation to overhaul the adoption code in 2016. The more than 100-page bill is designed to make the process more efficient for families, no matter what type of adoption they are trying to complete.
"We've gone through the entire thing with the expertise of adoption lawyers, of superior court judges, of the adoption agencies, with the help of [the Division of Family and Children Services] and the state, put everybody at the table and kind of started from scratch," explained Rep. Reeves. "While we're doing it, let's do it right. So, we've gone through a major overhaul. This stands to benefit every single family whether you're going through a private adoption, an out of state adoption, an international adoption, a DFCS adoption, a relative adoption, a step parent adoption."
It's an overhaul that many believe is long overdue; lawmakers have not updated the Georgia adoption code since the early 1990s.
The bill, Reeves said, cleans up a lot of small flaws in the code, but also addresses several major issues, including one that keeps pushing Georgia families to adopt elsewhere.
"We didn't even really look in Georgia, which we think is kind of sad because there are so many kids here that, you know, need good adoptive parents and there's wonderful people here that are going out of state. We can name at least three or four just sitting here--that we know--who just, Georgia wasn't even on their radar to even adopt," explained Chip Barber, a Marietta father.
Barber and his wife Tricia, started working with an adoption consultant in March 2016 and traveled to Iowa to adopt their daughter Madison in January 2017.
"She's just a huge blessing. I mean, we prayed for so long to have a baby and she answered all of our prayers," said Tricia Barber.
The reason the Barbers and many other families leave the state is because Georgia has an exceptionally long revocation period, meaning a birth mother has 10 full days after the birth of a baby to change her mind about whether to keep the baby, even after an adoption has been arranged.
"You're on pins and needles the whole time because you know, you never know if the birth mom is going to change their mind," Mrs. Barber explained.
Rep. Reeves's legislation strikes a balance for both parties.
"The majority of states have some kind of waiver where a birth mother can decide at the moment that she knows what she's going to do is final, she's made that decision, and she can execute what's called a waiver that will relinquish her ability to change her mind in those next ten days. That makes those next ten days a lot different and a lot better for the adoptive parents," said Rep. Reeves.
According to Reeves, the bill also expands jurisdictional options for adoptions, creates a pathway for the State of Georgia to recognize international adoptions and lowers the age at which adopted children can access the reunion registry from 21 to 18.
"There also have been a lot of trends that we have seen other states move--movement in adoption law trends across the country and even significantly across the southeast and frankly, we have fallen far behind in some of those trends," said Rep. Reeves.
House Bill 159 got some traction during the 2017 session, but stalled in the Senate after some members added language to the bill which many believed would allow discrimination against same-sex couples trying to adopt. Despite last minute maneuvering, the legislation never made it to the Senate floor for a vote.
"It was the most disappointing final night of a session that I have had since I have been the Speaker," recalled Ralston. "I think that we're going to be judged as a state on how we treat the least among us and that's why I think it's important that we get it done and we get it done soon."
Speaker Ralston said the ball is now in the Senate's court, but he plans to be vocal about his support for the update.
"I've talked about it a lot since we ended. I'm going to continue to talk about it," said Speaker Ralston. "This is not a partisan issue. It's not a political issue. This is an issue about children in Georgia and I think that we're going to be judged as a state on how we treat the least among us and that's why I think it's important that we get it done and we get it done soon."
The legislative session begins January 8.