Laura Tarantino would love to adopt a child. But under Virginia law, she cannot try for now.
In 2009, when she was 21, Tarantino was arrested a second time for possession of heroin and went to prison for 15 months.
The felony prevents her from adopting for a decade after her conviction under a law that imposes a ban that is twice as long as similar federal standards on adoptions, which the District and Maryland use.
Now 28, Tarantino is mounting a challenge to a law she says is unfair, antiquated and desperately needs to be changed. “It is like someone driving their car through the new home I am trying to build,” Tarantino said. “It hurts every bone in my body.”
Adopted herself as a child, Tarantino wants to expand the family she has in Alexandria with her husband, Frederick, and their 5-year-old son, Tyler.
Tarantino, who said she has written hundreds of letters to lawmakers in Richmond, hopes to persuade legislators to shorten the time period or begin case-by-case considerations, as already happens in nearby Delaware.
Her challenge to the adoption restriction occurs amid a larger national conversation about the long-term effect of nonviolent felony drug convictions and mandatory sentencing.
“A lot of people aren’t forthcoming about this topic,” said Tarantino, who has mailed about 500 letters since 2014 seeking support. “To be honest, I was fearful when we started talking about adoption, just because I had a feeling this was something we would face because of my background. As difficult as it is, it’s time to put our foot forward.”
Supporters of the Virginia limit say the full 10-year span triggered by convictions for felony possession of drugs and by felony possession of drugs with intent to distribute ensure that prospective parents do not slide back into trouble.
Other convictions prompt even longer waits. Virginia has a 25-year wait period for people who want to become foster parents who have been convicted of statutory burglary for breaking and entering involving a dwelling, home or other structure with intent to commit larceny. And every state, the District and Puerto Rico permanently disqualify anyone from adopting who has been convicted of a crime that poses a risk to the safety and well-being of a child.
If Tarantino is “in a better place, that’s great, we’re all happy for her, but the paramount concern for adoption is to make sure that we find the safest and best placement for these children,” said Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle), who has run twice for Virginia attorney general. Some children up for adoption “come from difficult backgrounds, especially if they’re coming out of foster care, and we want to make absolutely certain we get a safe and good place for them to land,” he said.
Bell said he does not think a decade-wait is too long in drug cases, because the time period ensures “the person who was convicted of the crime is obviously not just in a short-term better place but actually on an entirely new path.”
But Tarantino said Virginia’s law, which doubles the federal wait time for convictions such as hers, is harsh.
“People can turn their lives around and Virginia doesn’t have to be so hard on crime,” Tarantino said recently while her son played nearby. “We understand the point behind it, but we need to acknowledge the fact that people can and do change, and when they do it should be recognized, not suppressed.”
President Barack Obama had granted clemency to more 1,700 people, including 330 commutations for nonviolent drug offenders on his last day in office. Many courts have stepped up efforts to sentence nonviolent drug offenders to treatment programs rather than jail. And numerous studies in recent years have charted the changing attitudes among Americans toward illegal drugs and how to punish those who use them.
But for Tarantino and her husband of four years, the issue of adoptions by drug offenders is one ripe for widespread re-examination.
“Before I met Laura, I was oblivious to this,” said 31-year-old Frederick Tarantino, who is an Air Force reservist and a contractor in the intelligence community. “But now to me it’s personal, and, honestly, it brings us closer together.”
The Tarantinos acknowledge they could move to the District or Maryland, where she already would have passed beyond the time barrier. But, they said, “Virginia is where we have settled and what we call home, and we’d like to remain here.”
“We both consider this [state] as home. Our roots are here,” she added.
Laura Tarantino was adopted from Peru in 1988 at 3-weeks-old. Raised in Northern Virginia by a single mom, Tarantino dreamed of one day growing her family by adoption.
“It’s upsetting that the law is the way it is,” said Tarantino’s mom, 68-year-old Barbara Marshall, who lives in Fairfax County. “And while I understand the concept, 10 years is an awfully long time. I know that she is a good mother, I know that she will be a good mother, and I know they want to bring a child into their home who needs a family and I really believe they should be able to do it.”
In 2007 at age 19 and again in 2009, Laura Tarantino was arrested for possession of heroin and went to prison following the second offense. She was sentenced to 18 months and released early in 2010 for good behavior.
In the years that followed, Tarantino worked odd jobs, got an apartment and became a volunteer with RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), a nonprofit organization. Tarantino applied six times to be a volunteer and was rejected five of those times. She said that people saying no to her drives her forward.
“A random person hears the word ‘felon’ and believes we deserve what we got,” she said. “It always comes back to that red mark on my record — that’s what shines brightest, and it shouldn’t be that way. I got out and I made differences and I want to shed light on that.”
She and Frederick Tarantino were roommates five years ago and married a year after meeting. She now describes herself as wife, mother and full-time college student.
Colleen Quinn, president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, said there’s no large-scale movement to challenge and modify the list of crimes that are barriers to adoption in Virginia or throughout the nation, where laws vary by state.
“Most people that look toward adoption learn early on if a barrier crime is going to prevent them from adopting and they just don’t go down that path,” said Quinn, who founded a law firm in Richmond.
One person cheering on Tarantino from the sidelines is Michael Jervey. Convicted of first-degree murder in the death of a high school classmate in 1992, Jervey, now 45, was released from prison a decade ago and is a life leader at his hometown church in Franklin Va.
When he and his wife found out a baby girl needed a home, he said, they jumped into action — but quickly discovered that he could never be cleared to adopt because of the murder conviction.
“You need to take a look at all types of criminal activity, but you also need to be able to understand when there’s time to give grace and look into things more deeply,” said Jervey, who with his wife, Betania, has legal custody of the baby but can’t adopt her. “Why can’t that person having done their time, not only be a productive member of society but also adopt a child that’s in desperate need. Why not be able to take a look individually so you can really examine what’s going down?”
Tarantino said that even if she can adopt in a few years, she and her husband plan to continue their battle to shorten the ban: “We’re just going to keep moving.”
“Make it a challenge; make it difficult,” she wrote in one of the many letters she has sent about the state law. “But make it so families like mine can have a chance at adopting without waiting arbitrarily.”
Marshall said she remembers holding Tarantino for the first time in Peru and looking into the “most beautiful face she had ever seen.”
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of her, because if I was in her shoes I would have said, ‘Oh, well, I’ll wait until the 10 years are up,’ ” she said. “All of this has taught her a great deal — it’s taught her how powerful she is. Whatever comes of this. Whether she can change a law or not, it has helped raise her above what happened to her.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.