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In a landmark decision that could significantly change New York’s new adoption law, a Brooklyn Family Court judge decided last week that a criminal record shouldn’t necessarily prohibit someone from becoming a adoptive parent. The decision doesn’t mean that just any old drug dealer, axe murderer or Wall Street embezzler can easily adopt a kid–but it may ultimately give judges a lot more discretion in allowing some felons to become adoptive parents.

In the case, Matter of Jonee, a 53-year-old foster mother who had been convicted of manslaughter was trying to formally adopt her four nieces. The woman, whose name was withheld from court documents, was convicted of killing her abusive boyfriend 21 years ago after he had attacked her in a drunken stupor. She was sentenced to three years probation and has since lived a stable life. By 1991, she was caring for her four nieces, who had been taken away from their drug-addicted mother.

But even though both the children’s lawyers and placement agency ultimately responsible for the kids both gave her a glowing recommendation, New York State’s strict interpretation of of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) blocked the woman from adopting the girls.

Last week, Judge Philip C. Segal held that the state law was unconstitutional because it denied the woman a fair hearing.

His decision may not have a major impact on similar cases, explained Lynn Vogelstein, one of the Brooklyn Legal Services attorneys who worked on the case. For one thing, Family Court decisions aren’t binding. Furthermore, the state’s Attorney General is legally bound to appeal the decision. But if higher judges agree with Segal, that part of New York’s new adoption law could be overturned.

In any case, children’s advocates welcomed the decision. “A law that does not allow the court the discretion to analyze each situation individually can be harmful to children,” said Monica Drinane, head of the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society, which represented the kids.

When it was passed in 1997, the federal ASFA handed down to the states a set of mandates to change the way adoption and child welfare systems are run. The federal reform also included new money to put these provisions into practice-and gave the states a few options, like allowing them to decide whether or not to allow guardians with a criminal record to become official adoptive parents.

Some states, like Illinois and Pennsylvania, now permit foster parents with an old criminal conviction–more than 10 years in the past–to adopt children. But New York’s legislature, in drafting the state version of the federal law, flatly prohibited felons from becoming adoptive parents. And of the $3.5 million that New York State got from the feds to put the law in place, legislators allocated the bulk of it to pay for fingerprinting potential adoptive parents.

— This news brief from Child Welfare Watch was written by research director Shalini Ahuja. To get on the distribution list of the Child Welfare Watch News Briefs, e-mail Shalini@nycfuture.org