From the Chattanooga Times Free Press: Foster and adoptive parents gathered around Gov. Bill Lee at a Chattanooga church Monday as he signed a bill into law aimed at making foster and adoption processes easier and faster for both biological and adoptive parents.
The law, which came from the Republican governor’s office, was written after Tennessee’s abortion ban went into effect last year in hopes an easier adoption process would encourage people to choose adoption rather than abortion, Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, told lawmakers when carrying Senate Bill 270.
The state has not seen an increase in adoption or foster cases as a result of the abortion ban, Margie Quin, commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services, said after Monday’s bill signing.
“This ‘Forever Homes Act’ serves moms, children, foster families, adoptive families. It creates a stronger family environment throughout this state,” Lee said before signing the bill.
Lee said his wife, Maria Lee, grew up in a family that fostered children.
The new law shortens wait times for adoption decisions and increases the time a biological mother can be compensated for pregnancy – and adoption-related costs.
With approval, adoptions can be finalized in three months, rather than six, under the new law. Biological mothers, who previously could only be paid either 90 days before or 45 days after birth, are now able to receive payments for the duration of their pregnancy and 90 days after birth or surrendering the child. Biological mothers can also receive paid counseling for up to two years instead of one.
Most of those payments are made by nonprofit organizations or the adoptive parents, Valerie Yancey, a legislative liaison with Lee’s office, told lawmakers in a March hearing.
The law also allows a judge to see the actual transfer of the child take place over a video call, instead of in a courtroom. Haile told lawmakers that’s meant to make it easier for the birth mother.
The new policies will require the department to hire at least 10 new positions, according to a fiscal memo.
The law comes after an audit, released in December, found that the Department of Children’s Services was severely understaffed partly due to a high turnover rate among employees. Children, particularly those with behavioral health needs, were struggling to be placed with families and were at times housed in offices and temporary shelters.
Since then, the department has hired hundreds of caseworkers and added transitional housing to avoid housing children in offices, Quin told lawmakers last week.
Foster parents Wendell and Carol Johnson attended the bill signing Monday and said while there’s room for improvement in the foster care system, the Department of Children’s Services has been open to progress and change.
The Johnsons began fostering in 2019, filling a need for homes for older boys after their own children grew up and left home. Right now, they have a nearly 17-year-old and an 18-year-old they say remind them of their sons.
“We sit back and wonder, ‘Why are these kids in foster care?'” Wendell Johnson said before the bill signing. “They’re good kids.”
Ridgedale Baptist Church, where the bill signing was held, last year was named one of Lee’s “champion churches” for foster and adoption care, senior pastor Doug Plumlee said by phone Monday. The church began its foster care ministry two years ago and works closely with Children’s Services to place children in homes, connect foster parents with a support system and distribute essentials like diapers or car seats.