South Carolina Is the Nations Baby Buying Supermarket

Date: 1984-02-26

By Margaret N. O'Shea
The State (Columbia, SC)

(This five-part series of articles will examine South_Carolina's role in interstate adoption traffic, the sale of children, the fate of “defective merchandise”, the competition for babies, abuses of the system, and _highly varied views of public versus private adoption. Research included examination of more than 50,000 court records in 34 counties and interviews with more than 120 persons involved in adoption.)

After the baby was born, his mother lay panting on the delivery table, her feet still in the birthing stirrups and her body_bathed in sweat. That was when the doctor leaned over and offered to take the child off her hands.

The obstetrician said she knew "a delightful couple with no children who would "love to adopt your baby," and she knew a lawyer who could "handle everything.

The unwed mother refused the offer, and she recounted it later in horror to social workers she had come to know during weeks of counseling at the South Carolina Children's Bureau. The young woman was appalled to think she had been expected to give her child to someone she had never met before in her life.

The obstetrician who solicited her baby had been summoned to the delivery room only because her own doctor could not come.

But the delivery-room incident at McLeod Regional Medical Center in Florence did not end the competition for that one woman's baby.

Home from the hospital, the young mother received several anonymous, telephone calls soliciting the baby she had already relinquished to the Children s Bureau. Across town, the baby's father received calls urging him to withhold his consent to a bureau placement so the child could be privately adopted.

Meanwhile, the baby was already living with an adoptive_family. Then joy was dampened, however, by telephone calls from persons who said they knew the final papers had not been signed, and they wanted the baby.

Files at the Children's Bureau and county Departments of Social Services are full of similar stories that illustrate the mad scramble for healthy white babies in an open adoption market, where demand is greater than supply.

The Dillon County DSS receives an apologetic telephone call from the mother of a client, who has been planning to release a baby for adoption through DSS. The woman says her daughter has had a miscarriage.

Knowing miscarriages do _not occur at full term, the suspicious social worker probes and learns that the client bore twins. She gave them to the obstetrician to be adopted privately so she could get her medical bills paid.

A nurse at Richland Memorial follows a discharged maternity patient out to the parking lot, where she says it's a mistake to keep the baby. She offers to put the mother in touch with “a good lawyer who'll be happy to place the child”.

A young woman is wheeled from the recovery area to her room on the maternity ward at Lexington County Hospital. The bedside telephone is already ringing. Somebody wants to adopt her baby.

The rare ambivalent patient-- or the one who has waited too long to seek an abortion at the Greenville Women's Clinic -- will be referred to one of several local lawyers. The clinic is one of the few in North or South Carolina that has an open policy for adoption referrals.

Such scenarios are not uncommon in South Carolina. The state has become a national clearinghouse for babies-- one of the last hopes for childless couples from states with long waiting lists or more stringent adoption laws.

Under South Carolina law it is legally possible for an out-of-state couple to fly into this state one morning and leave that afternoon with a baby and a final adoption decree, even if they have openly bought the child.

State law requires waiting periods and home studies, but they can be waived by a family court judge. Financial disclosures are not required, and there are no specific guidelines to what a couple can pay.

Such loopholes in state adoption laws have encouraged interstate baby traffic, frequently involving the transportation of pregnant women from other states to South Carolina to give birth. Their babies are adopted here by out-of-state couples, who can pay as much as $22,000 to obtain a child.

In most parts of the state, court records show adoptions are fairly evenly spread among local lawyers, although the range of legal fees is vast --anywhere from $300 to $12,000 before peripheral costs, proper or padded, are added in.

Adoptions have been traditionally divided into three categories agency adoptions, the "gray market" and the "black market" based largely on cost.

At the lower end of the spectrum are state agencies, which charge adoptive parents little or nothing for their services beyond a local legal fee that is usually $500 or less.

"Gray market" adoptions are private placements that may cost over $1,000, and include the payment of medical expenses for the birth mother.

"Black market" adoptions are generally considered to be those that carry exorbitant legal fees-- $5,000, $10,000 and $12,000 are frequently quoted prices-- as well as a long list of expenses that imply the use of financial incentives, if not outright child-buying, to obtain children.

Those distinctions are blurred in South Carolina, because under the state's lenient laws, almost anything goes-- including child-buying. And adoption agencies are no longer confined to state, charitable or religious organizations. They now include some which charge over $10,000.

Despite its cost, the private adoption market is thriving. Public agencies, meanwhile, have long waiting lists because of the dwindling supply of babies given to them to place. Abortion, contraceptives and greater acceptance of single parenting have affected the baby supply. The shortage also is complicated by demographics-- the adopting pool is glutted with postwar baby-boom adults.

But money is often the deciding factor. Funds are readily available in the private market to cover a wide array of pregnancy-related expenses-- including free vacations after giving birth-- while budget cutbacks in the public sector mean most agencies can't foot even essential bills.

There is a sharp contrast between the two systems-- criteria for making adoptive placements, however. In the private markets, the ability to pay comes first, and every other qualification for parenthood is left to the courts to determine.

Social workers in agency adoptions have a longer list of criteria for parenthood and the only financial consideration is whether the family can support a child.

Agencies also provide counseling before they will accept birth parents' consent to adoption, and they allow mothers who want to see their babies to do so before they decide to keep them or let go.

Whether either system is good is bad is a matter of widely divergent opinion, but private adoptions clearly have the statistical upper hand in South Carolina. For every baby adopted through an agency here, six are adopted through lawyers.

Some of the nation's top adoption lawyers are sending clients to South Carolina for babies, and at least two-- Stanley Michelman of New York and David K. Leavitt of Beverly Hills, California are sending pregnant women here to deliver.

A third, Seymour Kurtz of Chicago and Atlanta, is expected to spend $25,000 or more this year on Yellow Page advertising alone to recruit South Carolinians for his adoption agency. The advertising, although directed to pregnant women, also serves to attract potential adoptive parents.

Evidence suggests that scores of other out-of-state lawyers are channeling clients into South Carolina.

Humanitarians as well as profiteers are involved in private adoption, which can be lucrative. Its proliferation has contributed to heavy competition for healthy, white infants. Unwed mothers are solicited in abortion clinics, doctors' offices, health departments, hospitals, flea markets, maternity shops, parking lots and grocery checkout lines.

Some South Carolina newspapers publish advertisements for babies to be adopted,and occasionally for toddlers and older children.

The demand for children so far exceeds the number available that excessive adoption charges are sometimes collected, either by lawyers in other states who channel babies and adoptive couples into South Carolina, or by lawyers who handle the legal work in South Carolina courts. In some cases, women have been paid for their babies, but state laws does not prohibit the sale of a child.

The secrecy surrounding adoptions sometimes masks abuses of law-"quickie" adoptions are available; it is possible to adopt a child without ever undergoing a home study, birth mothers are frequently asked to sign illegal and coercive adoption consents for unborn children; fathers' legal rights are sometimes ignored; and the state Children's Bureau is seldom informed, although state law requires such a notice for any child under six months old.

Most interstate adoptions accomplished here are potentially illegal not because any state laws were violated, but because the Interstate Compact on Children was ignored when the children were taken across state lines.

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