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Adoptions Proceed in D.C. Despite COVID-19

D.C. Superior Court Magistrate Judge Tara J. Fentress says she loves the arrival of the holiday season. While serious business continues its daily pace in the District’s local courthouse, the holidays bring out a festive spirit.

The joyful spirit really grips Fentress when the Superior Court holds its D.C. Adoption Day ceremony in mid-November. The event usually takes place in the courthouse with speeches from judges, attorneys and parents who speak well of the adoption process. After the speeches and introduction of the parents who will be adopted their new children, the party starts.

Most years the event is observed with live music, refreshments, dancing and face-painting. It is a celebration with a purpose, Fentress said.

“We want people to celebrate their new families and we mean celebrate,” the judge said. “We wanted an atmosphere where people can feel comfortable and feel uplifted. Sometimes, I sing for the crowd just to keep things moving.”

However, this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the adoption ceremony became a virtual production. D.C. Superior Court staff decided to produce a ceremony for the new families on a video hosted by former WRC-TV (Channel 4) journalist Barbara Harrison. Fentress said the court staff didn’t want anyone to become infected with the coronavirus.

“We had a good time producing the Adoption Day video that is on the D.C. Superior Court’s YouTube Channel,” she said. “Just like adoptions in general here in D.C., despite the pandemic, people are adopting children. It is just a different process.”

According to the D.C. Department of Child and Family Services, report about 800 children and teenagers in the District are living outside of their birth homes under the care of the public child welfare system. The department reports in 2019, 100 adoptions took place and the latest statistics this year indicates that as of November, 99 adoptions have occurred.

Telethia Sparger, a social worker with the department, explained the adoption process.

“We look at the child’s family history and determine the best course of action whether it could be reunification with the biological family or to go the foster parent route,” Sparger said. “This usually takes 18 months and then the interested parents go to the court with an Intent to Adopt. They would need an attorney at this point to help them file a petition to adopt. It is at that time feedback from social workers like me, the court and the families takes place. Everyone has to consent in order for an adoption to take place. There are a lot of moving parts to this, but really, the process is easy.”

Sparger said barriers to adoption may be a history of child or sexual abuse on the part of the adopting parent. Prospective adopting parents also could be blocked by the absence of needed finances and a life structure judged to be inadequate to take on child-rearing responsibilities.

“Throughout the adoption process, the needs of the child are always paramount,” she said.

Sparger said the pandemic has affected the way she does her job but hasn’t prevented her from completing tasks.

“Normally, we would meet with the parents and the children in person and get to know them so we can figure out the best way we can help them through the process,” Sparger said. “But because of COVID-19 and the city shutting down in March, we have virtual visits with our clients. We talked to them twice a month to get a sense of how they are handling the process and these meetings take place primarily through Zoom. When we do go out to visit children, we make it a point to have PPE such as masks available for staffers and clients. Even though we are dealing with COVID-19, the work never stops.”

Fentress said the Superior Court has adjusted well since the onset of the pandemic.

“As judges, we hear cases virtually and we do our paperwork over the Internet and Zoom,” she said. “It is amazing how we have adjusted to the changes in procedures due to the pandemic. The pandemic came upon us overnight literally and we had to respond just as quickly.”

Fentress said there must be even more caution exercised when dealing with children and adults in the adoption process because of COVID-19. She said sometimes children may have the virus and not know it and may pass it on to unsuspecting parents during live visits.

Nevertheless, Fentress agreed with Sparger that the adoption process continues to occur despite the pandemic.

“COVID-19 hasn’t stopped the adoption process,” she said. “It hasn’t stopped the Family Court from operating. We continue to have hearings but it has been a challenge. We had to learn how to do things virtually quickly.”

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