May 11, 2009

At Least He's Raising Conversation...

Van Buren County judge has his own mandate for adoptive parents

Posted by Rosemary Parker | Kalamazoo Gazette May 10, 2009 14:00PM

MATTAWAN -- Gabe and Allison Shockley began to arrange the adoption of
their second child early in the birth mother's pregnancy. They
attended every prenatal doctor's appointment. They were present at the
baby's birth in Indiana.
The couple thought they had covered every detail.

But the Shockleys, of Mattawan, didn't know about Van Buren County
Probate Judge Frank Willis' "moral commitment."

Willis requires parents who adopt infants in his county to agree that
one of them will be home with the baby during the first year and won't
work full time during the baby's preschool years. Willis is perhaps
the only justice in Michigan to require such a pledge, which he
acknowledges is not legally binding and may be offensive and outdated
to some.

For the Shockleys, cutting in half their combined $70,000 income
wasn't an option.
"It wouldn't have been possible to pay our mortgage and bills with one
income," Allison Shockley said.

Allison works as a financial analyst at Welch Foods Inc. in Lawton,
and her husband is a technology specialist at the Kalamazoo
Educational Regional Service Agency. They both worked during the
infancy of their older son, Jordan, 4, who was adopted as an infant in
Kalamazoo County.

Without the Shockleys' signatures on the moral-commitment pledge,
though, Willis would not put his signature on their petition to adopt.

And without the signature of the judge in the county where they live,
the Shockleys' interstate adoption through a local agency was stalled.

Unwilling to agree to the judge's demand, the Shockleys moved in with
Allison's parents in Kalamazoo County, where their employment status
was not an issue in the adoption process. Even after the adoption
petition was signed and they brought the baby home to Michigan, the
family continued to live with her parents in Kalamazoo to allow for
follow-up visits by social workers as required by state law.

The adoption of Lucas was finalized in January when he was 6 months
old. It cost the Shockleys $19,000, and the family has since moved
back to Mattawan.

Now the Shockleys are crying foul at the judge's practice on behalf of
other two-income families seeking to adopt babies.

"I'd love to be with my boys all the time," Allison said. "But with
the economy, I just can't. And whether we can choose to or not choose
to (work outside the home) shouldn't make a difference.

"I don't think he's a bad judge. I think he has an outdated policy
that keeps good families who are approved to adopt from adopting a
child," she said. "Adoption is a wonderful option, and it shouldn't be
stopped by something like that. It's just not right."

Won't back off
Willis' wife has suggested he may be "old fashioned," and the judge
admits he's had lots of complaints about the moral-commitment pledge.
But he has no plans to change his stance.

"I have this awesome burden to speak for children," Willis said. "It
came with the job, and I am going to fulfill it as I see best so I can
look at myself in the mirror in the morning."

Willis, who earns $148,000 a year, has served as Van Buren County's
probate judge since 1976. He said he crafted the pledge in the 1980s,
based on his own experience as a father.

He and his wife, a stay-at-home mother, adopted a 3-month-old girl
from Korea, the family's fifth child. He'd go home for lunch to hold
the baby, Willis said, and hold her again after work. It took three
months for the child to meet his eyes with hers, he said.

"First, she was in her mother's womb ... then the baby is born and
never hears that voice or feels that nurturing touch again," Willis

"The child goes into a foster home, as most adopted children coming
out of agencies have done, and after hearing a new voice, receiving
very nurturing, loving care -- three months later that is jerked from

"Then she comes to my house, and I tell her she'll be mine forever.
She doesn't believe me. It was that personal experience that made me
realize the heavy burden I have."

Willis said he does not require the pledge from adoptive parents of
foster children, children with special needs or children from other
countries. He restricts the requirement to parents adopting babies
born in this country because "this is a babies' market; that's where
the waiting list is."

"If I thought this was an impediment to children being adopted, I
would do away with it," Willis said.

He estimates about 150 parents have signed the pledge, and he said he
has crafted compromise schedules for 10 or 15 of those couples. Aside
from the Shockleys, he can recall one other adoption that did not go
through because the parents would not agree to his moral-commitment
requirement. That baby, he said, was adopted by another family.

Willis said he does not generally interfere in adoptions arranged
between the birth mother and adoptive parents, but that the state
adoption code forbids him from discussing the Shockley adoption
without written permission.

Other judges, requirements
Confidentiality provisions make it hard to know whether other Michigan
judges add requirements to adoptions, as the process is shrouded in
secrecy. Adoption records are sealed and closed to public scrutiny, as
are court appeals involving adoption matters.

In Kalamazoo and St. Joseph counties, the only additional requirement
made of adoptive families, outside of state law, appears to be that
stepparents must be married a year before filing for adoption.

The Michigan Court Administrative Office declined to provide any
information about the frequency of requirements such as Willis' moral-
commitment pledge, to explain the scope of a judge's role in adoptive
proceedings, or to comment on whether a judge's role in such matters
has changed as birth mothers increasingly select the families to
receive their children.

Michigan Supreme Court and Court Administrative Office spokeswoman
Marcia McBrien declined to answer questions about the legality of
Willis' pledge requirement, in the event the matter might someday come
before the state's top court.

Pledge questioned
Monica Farris Linkner, a West Bloomfield adoption attorney and member
of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, said she has never had
a judge impose a requirement on parents such as Willis' moral-
commitment pledge.

"There's nothing in the Michigan Adoption Code that sets either of
these requirements, " said Farris Linkner, who estimates she has
handled 500 adoptions.

"My opinion, with all due respect to the judge, is that this is a
commitment the judge does not have the authority to request."

Willis' pledge is "archaic," said Linda Dove, a Western Michigan
University instructor for consumer and family sciences and an expert
in early childhood development.

"My guess is that was a standard put together before women were
working frequently in full-time careers," she said.

Willis said there are mixed findings on the effect of child care on
infants and young children. "This is not a judgment on working
mothers, it has nothing to do with that," he said.

"But if it was my own child and I had to give that baby up, what type
of environment would I want? What I would want is a parent who takes
it, loves it, nurtures it, cares for it full time."

Yet in the Shockley adoption, Allison said the birth mother chose them
in part because the couple has the stability of two incomes and
planned to share equally in parenting.

In fact, three in five Michigan children under 5 years old live in
families where the parents work, said Judy Putnam, communications
director of the Michigan League for Human Services.

"Requiring that one parent stay at home ... ignores the economic
reality that it takes two incomes today to pay the basic bills,"
Putnam said.

Babies only for the wealthy?
Linkner said Willis' moral-commitment pledge "treats the two classes
of adopted children differently, " separating the infants in high
demand from older children or those with special needs. The pledge,
she said, in effect limits those who could adopt healthy newborns to
two-parent families wealthy enough to live on one income.

For those less affluent, Dove said, "It puts them in the position
where they have to make a heart-wrenching decision: Do they maintain
their family finances or have a child?"

Even in today's economy, Willis said there are many people willing to
provide the level of commitment he demands.

"I will always keep my policy under consideration for change," he
said. "If I (come to) think it is not in the best interest of kids, I
will change it.

"Right now, I don't see that."

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