Back in 2010, former Governor Ed Rendell signed into law Act 101, amending the adoption laws in Pennsylvania. As of April 2011, these amendments to the law are now in effect and adoption professionals around the state have been working together to learn the ins and outs of how these new requirements apply.

What’s changed? Well, there are a number of states that already have laws addressing the requirements and enforceability of open adoptions. Before Act 101,  Pennsylvania was not one of those states. Although open adoptions have certainly taken place in Pennsylvania, there are now provisions in place to help families, both adoptive and birth, work out an adoption plan together and have it approved by the court during the adoption finalization. In fact, it is now required that parties to an adoption be notified (whether by their attorney or agency) of the availability of these open adoption agreements. The agreements generally clarify the quality, quantity, and means of contact between birth family, adoptive family, and the child and whether it’s the initial agreement or a petition for modification or enforcement, a court will always consider what is in the best interest of the child. Almost any immediate biological family member (parent, grandparent, aunt/uncle, sibling) of the child can enter into this type of an agreement with the adoptive family and the agreement is submitted to the court for approval during finalization.

How can I enforce the agreement? Only the birth family or adopted child (if old enough) can petition the court to enforce the court-approved agreement. If the adoptive family doesn’t comply with the terms of the agreement, the birth family member or the adopted child can take the matter to court and a judge can require the adoptive family live up to the written agreement.

Can an agreement be modified after the court has approved it? Only the adoptive family can petition the court to modify an existing agreement. Adoptive families may want to modify an agreement if they’ve relocated, the previous agreement doesn’t accommodate the needs of either or both families, or if the terms of the original agreement are not met by the birth family. Furthermore, if a birth family member is non-compliant with the agreement, the  adoptive family can present that evidence to the court if the agreement has been challenged by the birth family. Adopted children 12 years of age and older must approve the arrangement and the court will always consider what’s in the best interest of the child.

Absent a provision in the agreement to the contrary, these new adoption agreements automatically terminate when the adopted child turns 18.

Furthermore, Act 101 also establishes the Pennsylvania Adoption Information Registry (PAIR). Prior to Act 101, Pennsylvania adoption records were sealed when the adoption was finalized. Now, however, parties to an adoption can request both identifiying and non-identifying information either by submitting a form directly to PAIR or, alternatively, through agencies and the courts. The registry is intended to make it easier for adoptive families and adopted children to obtain information about the child’s family, social, and medical histories.

The fact that Act 101 was passed and is now implemented in Pennsylvania is evidence of the changing attitudes and awareness surrounding adoption. With shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom on MTV, a large audience of youth are now accepting adoption as a realistic choice in light of an unplanned pregnancy and what was once
considered  “giving a child up for adoption” is now starting to look and sound more like “planning for and participating in a child’s future.” Expect laws like Act 101 to help birth parents understand and feel comfortable with an enforceable open adoption plan. Don’t be fooled, though. Because adoptions are so family-specific and the
change in law is so  new, there are likely to be plenty of ways these new provisions create complications along the way.

Regardless of whether you’re a birth parent or adoptive parent, if you’re thinking about creating one of these open adoption agreements, you should contact an Attorney to make sure you understand your rights, responsibilities, and terms of an adoption agreement.

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