Robert Stein said he didn't plan on raising his granddaughter.
But he and his wife, Debra, have been taking care of their 8-year-old granddaughter, Joelynn, all of her life except for about five months she lived with his daughter.
Stein, of Lawton, said his daughter, who lives in Kentucky, made what he called some bad choices and she didn't object when her parents became legal guardians of her daughter about three years ago.
Stein, 53, told members of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on Thursday he and his wife want to adopt Joelynn, but the steep cost of paying attorney fees, even in an uncontested adoption, were prohibitive. He said he's been told it could cost $15,000 in attorney fees, while a home study costs about $750 and background checks could run $500 to $800.
“I would like to see it made easier,” said Stein, a computer security expert.
His daughter isn't planning to contest the adoption and his granddaughter, who calls him “Papa,” seems to welcome the adoption.
“She loves living with us,” Stein said. “She likes the stability of living with us.”
Adjusting the laws
Lawyers specializing in adoptions told the committee little changes could be made in state adoption laws because parents have federal constitutional rights. But they suggested that legislators could lower or reduce the annual $100 fee legal guardians have to pay when filing required reports with local court officials.
Rep.-elect Jon Echols, an attorney whose firm handles mostly contested adoptions, encouraged committee members to find ways to help the increasing number of grandparents in the state who are raising their grandchildren.
“I have yet to meet a grandparent that planned on raising their grandchildren,” he said. “That was nobody's plan ... so when they do it, they're parents again.”
Echols, a Republican from Oklahoma City who was elected without opposition this year and will take his oath of office after next month's elections, complimented grandparents who stepped up to the challenge of taking care of their grandchildren.
“You're standing in the gap when others won't for these children,” he said. “Most of them are entitled to child support from the parents — well, good luck.
“These grandparents and these other guardians, not just grandparents, are saving the state huge amounts of money because they are taking care of these children that we would be taking care of,” he said. “They're the ones keeping these children out of jail.”
Steven Kerr, an Oklahoma City attorney specializing in adoptions, said he's noticed a steady increase in the number of grandparents adopting their grandchildren in the past several years.
Asked for a reason, he said, “Methamphetamine.”
State ranks high
Oklahoma is among the top states where grandparents are raising their grandchildren. Figures from the 2010 census show 79,580 children, or 8.6 percent of the children in the state, live in grandparent-headed households. That is up from 57,601, or 6.5 percent of children in the state, living with their grandparents, according to 2000 census information. The 2005 census estimate showed 71,850 Oklahoma grandparents were living with their grandchildren.
Kerr said adoption cases are among the most difficult for lawyers. A case may start out uncontested, but a parent or another grandparent could object after the case is started.
“There is no type of case that is more fraught with danger for an attorney than an adoption case because when things go wrong they go terribly wrong,” he said. “We're also at the mercy of the truthfulness of not only our clients, but perhaps the birth father, the grandparents, the adoptive parents, and we can get caught in the middle of the biggest mess you've ever seen.”
He said the high cost of adoption is partially because it involves terminating a parent's custodial rights, which is a lengthy and involved process. Guardianship cases cost about $2,000 and contested adoption cases can cost $30,000 or more.
Attorney David Echols, whose Oklahoma City practice specializes in family law, said adoption cases take time because they include careful due-process requirements and procedures. Those seeking adoptions should make sure the final order meets the technical requirements.
“You want that adoption decree to be as solid and as unattackable as possible,” said David Echols, Jon Echols' father. “Believe me, if it's not done right it can be attacked, and probably successfully.”
Rep. Ann Coody, R-Lawton, who requested Thursday's interim study, said lawmakers should consider finding ways to help grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. They are saving the state money because in some instances those children otherwise would be placed in state custody.
“Drugs and alcohol are the bane of our existence and are just causing so many problems with users becoming parents and not being able to take care of their children,” Coody said. “They're just not able and fortunately some of them have parents themselves who are able and who have enough love in their hearts that they're able to take care of those children.”