Unregulated

In 1994, a made for TV movie titled Baby Brokers tells the story of Debbie (how ironic being as how that is my name !!), an LA doctor (played by Cybill Shepherd) wanting to adopt who feels exploited by a couple who had at first seemed willing to sell their child to her but are actually scam artists, exploiting many women. If one didn’t know it is based on a true story, it would seem both strange and strangely perverse.  In my all things adoption group, such stories pop up consistently over time. According to the one critic who reviewed this movie – it is “not a terrible movie and to be honest is quite interesting but the impact of it comes from knowing that it is based on a true story and it is then when it comes to life.”

In this week’s Time Magazine (June 7/June 14 issue), there is an article by the same title – The Baby Brokers. The digital version subtitle is “Inside America’s Murky Private-Adoption Industry.” The cover photo of Shyanne Klupp includes these words – “I will never forget the way my heart sank. You have to buy your own baby back almost.” The article notes that the photo was taken on Nov 21 2020, and notes that she regrets placing her child for adoption a little over a decade ago, back in 2010. I see this all the time from birth mothers in my adoption group. The regret. And that is why this group works diligently to support expectant mothers by encouraging them to keep and raise their babies.

Shyanne Klupp was 20 years old and homeless when she met her boyfriend in 2009. Within weeks, the two had married, and within months, she was pregnant. “I was so excited,” says Klupp. Soon, however, she learned that her new husband was facing serious jail time. Poverty and such life circumstances as entanglements with the legal system do cause a significant number of adoptions.

Shyanne reluctantly agreed to start looking into how to place their expected child for adoption. The couple called one of the first results that Google spat out: Adoption Network Law Center (ANLC). Klupp says her initial conversations with ANLC went well; the adoption counselor seemed kind and caring and made her and her husband feel comfortable choosing adoption. ANLC quickly sent them packets of paperwork to fill out, which included questions ranging from personal-health and substance-abuse history to how much money the couple would need for expenses during the pregnancy.

The Time Magazine article notes – In the U.S., an expectant mother has the right to change her mind anytime before birth, and after for a period that varies state by state. While a 2019 bill proposing an explicit federal ban the sale of children failed in Congress, many states have such statutes and the practice is generally considered unlawful throughout the country.

Klupp says she had recurring doubts about her decision. But when she called her ANLC counselor to ask whether keeping the child was an option, she says, “they made me feel like, if I backed out, then the adoptive parents were going to come after me for all the money that they had spent.” That would have been thousands of dollars. She ended up placing her son, and hasn’t seen him since he left the hospital 11 years ago.

At any given time, an estimated 1 million U.S. families are looking to adopt and many of them want an infant. Those who want a baby far exceed the number of available babies available for adoption in the US. Some hopeful parents turn to international adoption. However many countries now limit the number of children they are willing to send out of their country. There’s always an option to adopt from foster care. Usually it is an older child, not an infant. For those with some financial wealth, there is private domestic adoption. That is the route my sister took to find a couple to adopt her baby.

ANLC is a largely unregulated, private-adoption organization located here in the US. The truth is – baby brokering a lucrative business. The problems with private domestic adoption appear to be widespread. The issues range from commission schemes and illegal gag clauses to Craigs List like ads for babies and discount rates for parents willing to adopt babies of another race (known as trans-racial adoption). There is no entity tracking the private adoption rate in the US. A best estimate developed by the Donaldson Adoption Institute in 2006 and a later one created by the National Council for Adoption in 2014 estimate the number of annual nonrelative infant adoptions at roughly 13,000 in 2006 to 18,000 in 2014. Public agencies are involved in only approximately 1,000 of these adoptions. The vast majority of domestic infant adoptions involve the private sector and money drives that exchange.

“It’s a fundamental problem of supply and demand,” says Celeste Liversidge, an adoption attorney in California who would like to see reforms to the current system. The scarcity of available infants, combined with the emotions of desperate adoptive parents and the advent of the Internet, has helped enable for-profit middlemen – from agencies and lawyers to consultants and facilitators – and these charge fees that frequently stretch into the tens of thousands of dollars per case.

“The money’s the problem,” says Adam Pertman, author of Adoption Nation and president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency. “Anytime you put dollar signs and human beings in the same sentence, you have a recipe for disaster.”

Even though federal tax credits can subsidize private adoptions (as much as $14,300 per child for the adopting parents), there is no federal regulation of the industry. Relevant laws that govern everything from allowable financial support to how birth parents give their consent to an adoption are made at the state level and these vary widely. Some state statutes, for example, cap birth-mother expenses, while others don’t even address the issue. Mississippi allows birth mothers six months to change their mind; in Tennessee, it’s just three days. After the revocation period is over, it’s “too bad, so sad,” says Renee Gelin, president of Saving Our Sisters, an organization aimed at helping expectant parents preserve their families. “The mother has little recourse.”

In 2006, the Orange County California district attorney filed a scathing complaint against ANLC that the organization had committed 11 violations, including operating as a law firm without an attorney on staff and falsely advertising the co-founder Carol Gindis as having nursing degrees. While admitting to no wrongdoing, the firm agreed to pay a $100,000 fine. In 2010, former employees filed a discrimination and unlawful business practices lawsuit against ANLC. The company denied the allegations but the parties settled for an amount that plaintiffs are not allowed to reveal. Former ANLC employees also allege the company would encourage pregnant women to relocate to states where the adoption laws were more favorable and finalizations more likely. 

Expectant mothers considering adoption should know that being pressured to go through with an adoption could be grounds for invalidating their consent and potentially overturning the adoption. It is a question of whether the parents placed their children under duress. 

Stories of enticement and pressure tactics in the private-adoption industry abound. Mother Goose Adoptions, a middle-man organization in Arizona, has pitched a “laptop for life” program and accommodations in “warm, sunny Arizona.” A Is 4 Adoption, a facilitator in California, made a payment of roughly $12,000 to a woman after she gave birth, says an attorney involved in the adoption case. While the company says it “adheres to the adoption laws that are governed by the state of California,” the lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous because they still work on adoptions in the region, says they told A Is 4 Adoption’s owner, “You should not be paying lump sums. It looks like you’re buying a baby.”

Expectant mothers routinely face expense-repayment pressures when they consider backing out. Some states, such as California and Nevada, explicitly consider birth-parent expense payments as an “act of charity” that birth parents don’t have to pay back. In other states however, nothing prohibits adoption entities from trying to obligate birth parents to repay expenses when a match fails. Conditioning support on a promise to repay or later demanding repayment if there is no placement is at very least unethical.

In 2007, Dorene and Kevin Whisler were set to adopt through the Florida-based agency Adoption Advocates. When the agency told the Whislers the baby was born with disabilities, the couple decided not to proceed with the adoption—but they later found out that the baby was healthy and had been placed with a different couple, for another fee. After news coverage of the case, Adoption Advocates found itself under investigation. In a 2008 letter to Adoption Advocates, the Florida department of children and families (DCF) wrote that it had found “expenses that are filed with the courts from your agency do not accurately reflect the expenses that are being paid to the natural mothers in many instances.”

In 2018, the Utah department of human services (DHS) revoked the license of an agency called Heart and Soul Adoptions, citing violations ranging from not properly searching for putative fathers (a requirement in Utah) to insufficient tracking of birth-mother expenses. Rules prohibit anyone whose license is revoked from being associated with another licensed entity for five years. But a year later Heart and Soul owner Denise Garza was found to be working with Brighter Adoptions. 

Jennifer Ryan (who sometimes goes by “Jennalee Ryan” or “Jennifer Potter”) is a facilitator to adoption middle-men and operates the websites – Chosen Parents and Forever After Adoptions. Both include a section that lists babies for adoption, sort of like a Craigslist ad. One example from last August: “AVAILABLE Indian (as in Southeast Asia India) Baby to be born in the state of California in 2021…Estimated cost of this adoption is $35000.”

Reforms to private adoption practices could include mandatory independent legal representation for birth parents, better tracking of adoption data and the reining in of excessive fees. In 2013, the Illinois attorney general filed a complaint against ANLC. It contended they were breaking the law by offering and advertising adoption services in the state without proper licensing or approval. ANLC retained a high-profile Chicago law firm, and within months, the parties had reached a settlement. ANLC agreed that it would not work directly with Illinois-based birth parents but it did not admit any wrongdoing and called the resolution fair and reasonable.

The few reforms that have been made in adoption law are generally aimed at making the process easier for adoptive parents, who have more political and financial clout than birth parents. There is an assumption by most people in this country that adoption is a win-win solution. The problem is that most people don’t really understand what is actually going on in this industry. Private adoption could move more toward a nonprofit model that is similar to Nebraska Children’s Home Society. They are a nonprofit that does private adoptions only in Nebraska (with a sliding fee based on income) and which rarely allows adoptive parents to pay expenses for expectant parents.

A civilized society protects children and vulnerable populations. It doesn’t let the free market loose on them. Children should not be treated as a commodity. Expectant parents in difficult situations should not be exploited. It is always about the money with the profiteers. During the pandemic, Adoption Pro Inc (which now operates ANLC) was approved for hundreds of thousands of dollars in stimulus loans. Its social media accounts suggest it has plenty of adoptive-parent clients. ANLC continues to run hundreds of ads targeting expectant parents. For example, if you Googled the term “putting baby up for adoption” in January 2021, you might get shown an ANLC ad touting, “Financial & Housing Assistance Available.”

As for Shyanne Klupp, she has since immersed herself in an online adoption community (probably much like the one I am in). What she’s learned has slowly chipped away at the pleasant patina that once surrounded her adoption journey. This realization is common. It is described as “coming out of the fog.” The problem is the profit motive. Klupp admits “I know in my heart that I would have kept my son if I had had the right answers.” That is what groups like the one I belong to attempt to do.

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