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Adoptions delayed for months by coronavirus closings to get their day in court

Natalia and Randall Bergman, with daughter Jessica, have been the foster parents of twin girls since they were 3 months old.
Natalia and Randall Bergman, shown with daughter Jessica, have been the foster parents of twin girls since they were 3 months old. They were set to formally adopt the 2-year-olds in April, but court closures caused by the coronavirus delayed their adoption hearing until 2021.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Foster families whose adoption plans got derailed by court closures prompted by the coronavirus crisis are set to receive some relief, with the judicial system no longer requiring in-person hearings.

That means families whose hearings were delayed in some cases until 2021 may see their adoptions become legal in the next month or two.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t wait. I’m very hopeful at this point and I’m very excited about it,” said Natalia Bergman, who along with her husband, Randall, have been fostering twin girls for 2½ years.

Their adoption of the girls was set to be finalized in a Los Angeles County courtroom on April 7, then was delayed until April 25, and then put off until January 2021.

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“It’s such a long road, not just for foster parents but for these children,” she said.

The Bergmans are among thousands of foster families in California whose adoption plans were thrown into chaos with juvenile courts closed because of the coronavirus outbreak. Under state law, adoption finalization hearings are supposed to take place in person. So when juvenile courts around the state closed for nonessential matters, that left families such as the Bergmans in limbo.

Coronavirus-prompted court closures are making thousands of California families wait to adopt as their hearings are pushed farther and farther back.

In Los Angeles County, home to the nation’s largest child welfare and public adoption agency, there are about 20,000 foster children in the county. Roughly 3,200 of them cannot be reunited with their birth families and are in some stage of the adoption pipeline. Some 1,500 foster children are adopted in the county every year.

Juvenile courts in the county faced a lack of resources even before the pandemic. Then courts closed March 19 for nonessential matters, exponentially increasing the backlog.

Last week, Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile announced that the county’s juvenile courts and foster children’s advocates reached an agreement with the state Judicial Council that would allow such adoptions to take place without an in-person hearing.

Foster parents must sign and notarize documents and send them to the court, where they will be checked by court workers.

Once all the documents are complete, a judicial officer can sign the adoption paperwork in his or her chambers and then send the formal acceptance of the adoption back to the family.

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Brazile said families can opt to wait for an in-person hearing, but it would probably be months before any such court appearances could be scheduled.

Foster children have enormous challenges even in the best of times. The coronavirus pandemic threatens them with even greater turmoil.

“These happy in-person proceedings are cherished and celebrated by parents, children, Judicial Officers and court employees,” Brazile said in a statement. “But with the social distancing requirements in place in our courthouses to slow the spread of COVID-19, this easy, model process offers a convenient, safe alternative to coming to a courthouse.”

For Bergman, the expedited process is good enough. She recalled one of her foster daughters seeing balloons that Bergman planned to give her mother on Mother’s Day, the month after the adoption was supposed to be finalized. The little girl asked if they were for the party they planned to hold once the adoptions were finalized.

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“One daughter looked at me and said, ‘You, my mommy?’ She said, ‘Adoption party?’ She’s almost 3, she doesn’t understand fully,” Bergman said. “I said, ‘Yes, I’m your mommy. Yes, I’m going to adopt you.’ It warmed my heart, but at the same time it broke my heart that I hadn’t adopted them yet.”


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