Victory for adoptive parents

Court case makes it easier for relatives to adopt kin

Starbabe Harris turned 17 shortly after giving birth to her first child in 1994. A second child came two years later. At 19 and with two young girls, Starbabe couldn't handle the responsibilities of parenting, says her mother, Carol Harris. Aside from being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the young mother didn't want to stay home Friday nights to watch her babies. She wanted to be out with her friends. Carol Harris says she felt her granddaughters were in an ominous place and wanted to put a stop to it.

"Her situation wasn't stable and wasn't consistent," Harris says of her daughter. "The kids needed to have a stable home and be afforded the same opportunity my daughter received."

In October 2000, after returning to her Augusta home from being on military duty in Alaska, Harris made it a priority to get custody of her granddaughters, Naivasha and Acacia. After her daughter agreed that adoption would be best for the girls, the 45-year-old grandmother contacted Atlanta Legal Aid to get assistance in the adoption process. She says she wanted full parental custody because it provides a more permanent relationship than the easy-to-revoke legal guardian status.

The procedure went well — until Harris was denied the monthly Social Security benefits usually available to adoptive parents.

The state Office of Adoptions claimed that because the children were adopted from their biological mother rather than through the state Division of Family and Children Services, Harris would not be eligible for the benefits. Only if the children had been wards of the state would Harris have been eligible for the monthly check, the Office of Adoptions decided.

But Sherry Neal, Atlanta Legal Aid attorney and director of the agency's Grandparent/Relative Caregiver Project, says there's nothing in Georgia's adoption statute that should prevent adoptive parents from collecting federal benefits.

"It was frustrating," Harris says. "It seems the government wouldn't want more children in the state system, but without the benefits it would be hard to ... do things that are beneficial to their upbringing."

After appealing the Office of Adoptions' decision and being denied benefits by several lower courts, Harris' case reached U.S. District Court in Atlanta. On Aug. 17, Judge Jack Camp ruled that the portion of Georgia's adoption policy that denied Harris monthly benefits was invalid. In his decision, Camp wrote that the state policy conflicted with the Social Security Act's "plain meaning" and that Georgia's rule "cannot stand."

The Office of Adoptions has asked the court for reconsideration in the decision and likely will file an appeal, says Patrick Crosby, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Atlanta.

If the Harris decision stands, it could mean that a far larger number of adoptive parents — many of them relatives to the children they've adopted — will be able to collect Social Security benefits. Georgia ranks sixth among states with the highest number of children living with grandparents, and in Atlanta alone, more than 69,000 children live in their grandparents' home, according to Neal.

What's more, the Harris decision could be cited in challenges to other state's adoption policies, thereby setting a national precedent.

"In the narrowest sense, this decision only affected one plaintiff," says David Webster, lead attorney for the Harris case. "But since it's an interpretation of a federal statute, it does blaze a trail."

On Sept. 13, grandparents Moses and Ruth Gaskin became the first, post-Harris adoptive parents in Georgia to win a legal battle for Social Security funds. The Office of State Administrative Hearings ruled that the Gaskins are eligible for approximately $2,000 per month to help raise their five grandchildren.

Meanwhile, Harris, who moved in November from Augusta to Fort Monroe, Va., says the $820 she receives monthly will help her enroll 9-year-old Naivasha and 8-year-old Acacia in gymnastics and pay for Acacia to take voice lessons. Harris also says she's already started putting aside some of the money for the children's college education.

"I have two very smart little girls," Harris says. "They have a lot of expectations and I want to help them achieve their goals in any way possible. Having the benefits helps me immensely."