As a family law attorney, Thomas Tebeau certainly has the expertise to take care of a divorce -- contested or not -- or set up a will for your estate. But that's not his true passion.
Instead, the Columbus resident's heart lies in connecting people who -- for various reasons -- can't have a biological child of their own. That's why he chooses to handle as many adoptions as he can, estimating that about a third of his practice now comprises that area of law.
The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute cites statistics that estimate the number of children in the foster care system nationwide is approaching 400,000. Of those, it says, nearly 102,000 are eligible for adoption, but roughly a third can expect to wait more than three years for that to happen.
U.S. State Department figures show more than 7,000 children were adopted across the country in 2012, with the adoptees from both America and foreign countries. That indicates a major disparity between those needing to be adopted and the lucky ones who ultimately make it through the process.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Tebeau recently at his office in The Joseph House on Broadway to discuss his job in the adoption field, the process itself, and the emotional moments that come with it. This interview has been edited a bit for length and clarity, with an expanded version at www.ledger-enquirer.com.
Describe your law practice?
Family law is the best way to encompass it. But a lot of my practice is devoted in one way or another to representing the rights of children in the legal system, not just within family law adoptions, but in probate court we're doing guardianships up there. Then I get guardian ad litem appointments here and there to represent children. And I work in juvenile court a good bit and, of course, that involves kids.
That's the court well known for the late and honorable Judge Aaron Cohn?
It is. I tell people that I think juvenile court is the hardest court that I practice in because of the subject matter and what's at stake down there. It's hard a lot of times.
Do you handle the most adoptions in the city?
I do. I have to be careful about making that claim because I'm not sure what we can say about it with advertising and all of that. Adoption files are sealed, so it's not like a report comes out. But I know how many I do and I know how many are done every year overall, and from that I think that over the last few years I've done probably more than anybody.
How many would that be?
I would estimate between 80 and 100 adoptions are done in our six-county circuit every year, which I kind of thought that number might be a little higher. In some larger areas, you can have a practice built entirely on adoptions. But you can't here unless you're going to get all 80 of them and nobody's going to do that. But I think probably a good third of my practice is adoptions.
At any given time how many adoptions are you handling?
Right now I've got probably more than I've ever had at one time and we're handling about 20. That's kind of a high water mark for us.
Walk us through the process of adoptions?
Sure. The best thing probably is to talk about the different kinds of adoptions. A lot of them originate through juvenile court, where kids have been taken into state custody and, for whatever reason, they're not able to be reunited with their parents. I don't have a good number on those, but we do anywhere from 10 to 15 a year.
I want to put a plug in, too, for the need for folks who are interested in adopting who might want to adopt a kid from out of the state system. This morning I was asking the juvenile court clerk ... I think there's 380, give or take a few, kids in state custody in this county alone right now. Of those, more than half of those kids are in foster care with non-relatives.
So we've got a huge shortage of families that are willing to be foster parents, and then we're always looking for people who would be willing to adopt. Of those 380 kids, many of them will make it back to their mothers and fathers; they'll be returned. And then some of them will end up being with relatives. But a certain population of them will end up needing to be adopted.
What ages are we talking about?
From babies all of the way up to kids over the age of 14. When they get a little closer to 18 you don't see as many. But I can think of one we did last year for a 16 year old, and every now and then we do those who are older.
Why do we not have enough folks wanting to adopt or be foster parents?
Part of me thinks there's just not enough awareness of the need, and I think there are a lot of families out there who know about it or might peripherally know about it, but not know about how to go about volunteering for it or becoming certified and getting in touch with the right folks at (the Department of Family and Children's Services).
Those that come out of DFACS are great stories because those are kids who, for whatever reason, couldn't be reunited with their parents, and they're getting some permanency and stability with an adoptive family. Those are all heartwarming because they often involve kids that have been through a lot, and for them to make it to the final step of being adopted is a big deal to them.
It sounds like it can get emotional at times for everybody?
Absolutely, obviously for the families involved, but for me, the court staff. I've even seen some judges from time to time choke up when we tell a story.
There was a little boy ... I know this family wouldn't mind me telling you this ... he had been abused and taken away from his parents and he ended up with his grandparents, and they adopted him. He was probably 8 or 9 when he went into care. I can't remember what his given name was, but he just renamed himself Daniel. He had everybody just start calling him Daniel and he said, 'I chose that because that was the bravest person that I knew in the Bible.' So he had given himself a name that kind of represented bravery and courage, and he would not answer to anything but Daniel.
We told that story at every step of the process and we told it again at the adoption, and it was real emotional to just know that this little kid had been tough enough to make it through all of that and to get to the finish line.
Are older kids not always wanted as much as babies and toddlers for adoption?
I think that's the case sometimes, and there may be a stigma related to the kids that have gone into care in state custody, that maybe these are kids that have problems and may be difficult. And some folks, in their ideal world, may want to start out with a baby that they can raise from scratch. In my experience, some of the sweetest kids and some of the best stories come out of those kids that have been through it, and there's really, in my mind, no comparison to them.
Do you handle any adoptions of overseas babies or children?
We do; that's another kind of subset of them. But they're not as many if you have a legal adoption from a country that grants full adoptions, and most will ... Some countries will only do as much as a guardianship; they won't do a full adoption.
But you can do what's called domesticating it. Some folks call that re-adoption. You're domesticating it (legally) in America and the benefit is that you get an English language birth certificate, so you don't have to carry around all of these foreign papers and translations in languages that people can't read. It also gives you some certainty if there was political turmoil or some sort of unrest in the country that you came from, that once you get the American adoption decree, it can't be challenged. You can't be sent back. That's an important thing for some children who weren't adopted in a country, they just had a guardianship, and they need to have their citizenship status cemented here to make sure that they don't get deported when they're 18; that's another trap that you can kind of fall into.
So I recommend that folks who adopt in another country do become domesticated, because it completely protects you from everything.
How often do you work on cases with children from other countries?
We had maybe five last year. We've done two already this year.
I read online that adoptions through agencies can cost between $15,000 to $40,000, a wide range. Does the cost of an adoption keep some people from doing so?
To adopt kids out of state custody with DFACS, that's a lot cheaper (than a commercial agency). In fact, it doesn't cost you anything, really. DFACS in most cases pays the attorney fees for adoptions. So for a lot of these folks it's free and there are adoption assistance benefits available from the government for these children who have been in the system. That's sometimes a financial incentive, not that anybody's going to adopt for the finances. But the government will pay a monthly stipend for kids that have been in state care. I think that's to encourage folks to do it.
I think, too, and I don't know why this is, that a lot of the folks that adopt DFACS kids are from mid- to lower socioeconomic classes that I guess couldn't pony up the money to go to an adoption agency and get a kid that way.
Is an adoption typically a family bringing a first child into a family or into a home that already has multiple kids?
I wouldn't say there's one more than the other. But you do see a lot of folks who adopt that are willing to adopt sibling groups, and that's something that's available through a DFACS adoption that you don't see through a private adoption with an agency or with a foreign adoption. The law really favors keeping sibling groups together, for obvious reasons.
But that doesn't always happen?
It doesn't always work out that way. But you do see folks that have a heart for adopting these kids who are very open to adopting the rest of them, if there are more. We just this past week finished an adoption for a couple that adopted two siblings last year that had been in DFACS care, and the same father and mother had another baby and DFACS was ready to come get it because they had not corrected the problems that led to them losing the other two.
This couple that adopted the first two had moved out west, but flew home and the parents agreed to surrender the child to them. You have to go through the interstate process of approval so that children can leave the state and go to another. We just got word yesterday that they were approved to leave here and go back home. So they've left Georgia to go home with the third child. They were really excited, and I think the birth parents were excited that their kids could stay together.
Do you have to deal with frustration and anger at times from some parents as the adoption process unfolds?
Most of the time, with the adoptions we do, the child has been surrendered by the birth parents or the legal parents. But there are times when if we don't have the consent to surrender, then we've got to ask the court to terminate that parents' rights against their will. We call those contested. But there aren't that many contested out of the whole number of them. Those can get really tough if you're talking about unwillingly adopting a child.
Can it get emotional for you? Have you shed a tear at times?
I have. I did when I told that family going out west goodbye. It got kind of emotional. You see folks fight so hard because, in many cases, they're realizing a dream that they've always had to have a family and they didn't know if it would ever come true. Just to see them go through the journey of the uncertainty and finally getting a child and waiting the process out until it could actually be finalized, it can get very emotional.
When you have a child that's surrendered by a biological parent, they have 10 days in Georgia to change their mind. So that can often be just an excruciating period for the adoptive parents. They always say it's the longest 10 days of their lives.
But it's 100 percent final after those 10 days?
If they don't change their mind in 10 days, they can't go back on it. A couple of weeks ago, we had a couple that we met at the hospital and the birth parents surrendered the child. The adoptive parents walked out of the hospital with a child and we filed the adoption and had to wait 10 days on those surrenders to make sure they didn't revoke them. Once they didn't, we're home free on it. That was neat.
Does that happen occasionally, with parents changing their mind and revoking the surrender?
I don't want to jinx myself. I've never seen it, but I do know it has happened. But it's never happened to me yet. Most of the time, folks have come to grips with the fact that they're going to need to do that. But it's an emotional time for the birth parents, too, and it's hard to make a decision of that magnitude after you've just given birth and all of the emotions that come with that.
Is there lots of paperwork involved with an adoption?
Adoption is a very technical part of the law. We joke, like when you go into a real-estate closing and have to sign 20 pieces of paper, there could be anywhere from 15 to 25 exhibits or attachments or certain documents that have to be included with an adoption. So from that standpoint, it's a technical area of the law, but I like that part. I'm sort of geeky that way. I like areas of the law that have checklists where you can go through it and you know what all needs to be done.
From start to finish, how long does an adoption take?
DFACS adoptions, by the time they've come to me, everything's been done. The parents' rights either have been terminated by juvenile court or these folks have surrendered. So by the time I get them there is nothing left to be done except file for the adoption. Those can be done just as fast as the judge will hear them. I've had those done within a week before.
We had a kid last year that wanted to be adopted by Christmas and Judge Art Smith was kind enough to accommodate that and we got it all filed and done and scheduled and got this kid adopted for Christmas. She was already with her adoptive family. They had been foster parents. But she just had it in her mind that she wanted it done by Christmas. So the judge made it happen.
Is that the basic route in state cases, foster parents eventually adopting?
A lot of the folks that are going to adopt are 'foster to adopt,' I think that's what they call that program. I think you have to go through the same certification and training to become approved for DFACS and then they've got a list of folks that they have. I do not know how you move up and down their list.
On the long side of an adoption, if it were contested and a parent was not in agreement, that could take a few months. But generally the law is written in a way that has fast time frames, because they want to promote stability and permanency for children. So the adoption code's written to move pretty fast. Once somebody's ready to file, it usually doesn't take too much longer after that.
What's the most challenging aspect of your job?
I think the hardest part is knowing what's at stake for the adoptive parents and the child and just making sure that it comes to fruition. These folks have prayed and hoped and wished and dreamed of having a family and have got this potential child. We've got it in the works, but it may not happen. The parents may decide not to surrender or sometimes with DFACS a relative will step in at the last minute and then the child ends up not being available for adoption.
So you go into it setting expectations appropriately?
Oh, you do. You definitely do.
You lay things out and say this might not happen?
You do and there are documents that folks sign at the beginning acknowledging that all adoptions are at risk until they're final. But even though it's a job, you still are human and you kind of carry the burden that you don't want these people's dreams to crash in front of you. Fortunately, it works out most of the time.
What's the most rewarding part of your job?
It's seeing new families being created, or in many cases, families that were already in place but we're legalizing it. There are a lot of grandparents that have grandchildren that they end up wanting to adopt. Or a family member ended up caring for a child. So in many of those cases, the child already thinks of that family member as their parent, and we're just kind of giving a legal name to it.
But that's the most rewarding part, seeing all of these parents that have dreamed of having a family or, out of the goodness of their heart, are expanding the family. That's cool to see.
And then from the kid's standpoint, seeing them achieve permanency and stability or going to a family where they're going to have a better chance. That's by far the best part of my job. I would do adoptions exclusively if there were enough to go around.
Are there any types of adoptions we haven't discussed?
There are step-parent adoptions, which are pretty common around here, everywhere really. It's not uncommon at all to see a stepdad or a stepmom adopt their spouse's child. We see a lot of those and they're pretty straightforward and easy. In many cases those kids already think of that step-parent as their parent or else we wouldn't be thinking about doing the adoption. Those are good.
And then you have those sort of wild cards, I call them, the third-party independent adoptions where they didn't go through a state agency. They're not related to them. It's just, 'I found this child that I want to adopt,' either just through private networking or through a domestic agency where they're trying to find them a baby in America and bring them back home. Those are really cool, too, because the timing of them is just so uncertain. You'll have folks who started the process two years ago and they're just waiting on the call that there's a baby in Wyoming or there's a baby in Louisiana, and you gotta go.
And every once in a while we'll get some cases where you just see how God's worked in these folks' lives. One of my favorites was a lady who was eating with a friend at Waffle House and they were talking about how she couldn't have children and they wanted to adopt. And the waitress said, 'I need somebody to adopt my child. Would you be interested in my child?' She was pregnant and wasn't going to be able to keep it. They called me and I said: There's no way. That's just too good to be true. It's just not the way it works (laughs).
But we vetted it and worked it out and it turned out the young lady couldn't keep her baby and had just been sort of afraid to do anything. She overheard the ladies talking at Waffle House and struck up a friendship and we did that adoption. She gave birth to the baby, surrendered to that family she had met, and I still get Christmas cards from them.
Name: Thomas Tebeau III
Hometown: Adel, Ga.
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1990 graduate of Cook High School in Adel; earned bachelor of arts degree from the University of Georgia in 1995; earned Juris Doctor degree from UGA School of Law in 1998
Previous jobs: Associate attorney at Troutman Sanders in Atlanta; project manager with W.C. Bradley Real Estate Division; adjunct professor at Columbus State University's D. Abbott Turner College of Business; and trust officer with Synovus Trust Company's Family Asset Management Division
Family: Wife, Dee Dee, and children William, 16, Springer, 11, Clara, 7, and Kate, 5
Leisure time: Attends whatever game or practice taking place in the various sports his children are playing; enjoys fishing and playing tennis
Of note: Serves on the Advisory Board for the Chattahoochee Court Appointed Special Advocates and was recently admitted as a Fellow to the Georgia Council of Adoption Attorneys; interned with Supreme Court of Georgia Justice P. Harris Hines; attends St. Paul United Methodist Church