South Carolina's Booming Baby Business

Date: 1984-02-26

South Carolina's Lenient Laws have made it the “Birthing Capital” , for the Nation's Quickie Adoption Services

From the State (Columbia, SC), Feb. 26, 1984
By Margaret N. O’Shea

Other girls in the Asheville senior class were envious-their graduation gifts paled besides an extended trip to France.

They didn't know “France” was Just 70 miles away, across the South Carolina line in Spartanburg, and the trip was carefully timed to keep secret the birth of an illegitimate child.

It also sidestepped a residency requirement in North Carolina law that would have prohibited the adoption of the baby by the California couple the mother and her family had chosen from a set of general descriptions.

On this occasion, South Carolina law also provided another “escape valve” not often needed by Beverly Hills adoption lawyer David Keene Leavitt, who says most of his 200-300 adoptions per year can be handled in California. But the 1981incident opened a channel for “problem-father” cases, and Leavitt has used it several times since then.

Leavitt sends women to give birth in South Carolina—usually in Spartanburg and occasionally in Columbia—when it’s inconvenient or distasteful to name the father of the child. California courts are "pretty sticky” about father’s rights, and it’s hard to get by with saying a father is unknown, Leavitt says—even if the father doesn’t know there is a child, and even if the mother doesn’t care to tell him.

In South Carolina, birth mothers seldom go to court in an adoption proceeding, and if a lawyer produces a signed statement that the father of the child is unknown, its usually accepted.

“There is nothing magical about state lines. South Carolina is a special State only because it takes a reasonable attitude toward the biological father”, Leavitt said. “If you name him, he has to be served notice of the adoption petition, but if you don't name him, he can be served by publication."

That means a notice of the pending adoption can be published in the legal advertisements of newspaper—in these cases, preferably one the child’s father will never see.

It does not mean that “you don’t have to name the father in South Carolina," as Leavitt says, or that a father’s consent to adoption is not required here, as some out-of-state lawyers contend— only that the requirement is easily avoided.

The procedure can backfire, as it did in one of Leavitt’s cases in Spartanburg in 1982, when the "unknown” father showed up and demanded custody of the baby surrendered for adoption by his common law wife. He won his case in the circuit court.

Technically, his parental rights could have been terminated under South Carolina law because he had not supported the mother during her pregnancy, but Family Court Judge Clyde Laney questioned how he could have, since she left him in Florida, then purposely hid from him in Spartanburg on Leavitt’s advice.

The case brought to light some details about interstate adoption arrangements in areas like Spartanburg—the prospective adoptive parents were pledged to pay, had the adoption gone through, close to $10,000 for legal fees in two states and also expenses for the birth mother. They included her transportation to Spartanburg from California, her rent and other living expenses in Spartanburg, her medical expenses and other incidentals.

Among the incidentals, a Spartanburg woman—who has recently changed her fee to a flat $200 per case—was paid $5 an hour for various services to pregnant women involved in adoption proceedings.

The same general financial arrangements occur throughout South Carolina, with various touches of local style. Women brought to Charleston to give birth may stay in apartments or private homes where owners receive monthly compensation based on the financial capacity of the potential adoptive parents.

Women brought to Sumter to give birth usually stay at two local motels, according to reports filed with the Department of Social Services and South Carolina Children’s Bureau. The motel addresses are given at Tuomey Hospital when the women give birth there.

Runaways and other teenagers who give birth in Myrtle Beach can wind up in quarters that run the gamut of everything the Grand Strand has to offer. One lawyer in Myrtle Beach owns apartments sometimes used for transient mothers.

Some lawyers cover expenses from a flat rate, and others keep a precise record, although state law does not require an accounting of adoption costs. Nor do most Judges ask for one, even in cases where there is probable cause to suspect large sums have been paid, or when it is obvious that both in—state and out-of-state legal firms are involved.

The conduits from other states have multiplied in recent years with the tightening of adoption laws. Nationally known adoption lawyers like Leavitt, Stanley Michelman of New York and Seymour Kurtz of Chicago and Atlanta, have all developed ties in South Carolina. So have scores of other lawyers around the country.

Some of them send clients here to adopt babies, and others funnel all the principal parties to adoption into the state, where their mutual concerns can be met more simply than at home.

The secrecy surrounding adoptions in South Carolina makes it hard to trace inter-state patterns. Leavitt associations appear most often in Spartanburg where several lawyers have handled the legal work locally. Michelman adoptions have occurred in at least a dozen South Carolina counties, channelled through a single Charleston lawyer.

Kurtz, who runs an Atlanta-based agency, has placed babies in several South Carolina counties, but he says he prefers to have them born in Georgia, where they await delivery in private homes.

Major feeds into Sumter appear to come from Florida and New York, while those into Myrtle Beach, Columbia, and several other cities appear to come from New York, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia an Michigan.

Although Leavitt has zeroed in on South Carolina courts' leniency toward fathers' rights, what appeals to most out-of-state lawyers is that non-resident adoptions are simply and easily accomplished here.

While state law provides that extraordinary circumstances must be present, it is unusual for any adoption petition to be denied, a survey of court records shows.

At least 14 states prohibit non-resident adoption, and at least 18 states either prohibit non-agency adoption or place restrictions on private placements. In those states, people who are rejected by agencies or placed on long waiting lists may look toward states like South Carolina for relief.

Most lawyers who handle private adoptions agree that once a trickle is established, a flood is likely to come, because the demand for babies is so great nationwide.

The flood has struck South Carolina. Nobody knows how many babies leave the state every year in the arms of adoptive parents. Vital Records at the State Department of Health and Environmental Control keeps statistics on non-resident adoption, but not broken into categories that show the children's ages, whether they were placed by agencies or by private entities, and whether they have been adopted by relatives or strangers. (Step-parents' adopting children from a spouse's prior marriage accounts for a large percentage of adoptions)

DHEC keeps tallies in all those categories, too, but without applying the residency variable.

Without knowing how all the variables interact, its hard to say what DHEC numbers really mean. What they do say with resounding clarity, however, is that adoption is a highly popular way to have children, especially healthy, white children.

In 1982, the last year for which DHEC statistics were available, 1826 children were adopted in South Carolina; 259 of them were under a year old when the adoptions were finalized, and another 473 were between one an four. That year 450 children were adopted by non-residents, and 394 of the youngsters were white.

Public and private agencies placed only 390 of those 1,826 children.

Leavitt’s experience in South Carolina provides some insights in how the demand for children balloons private adoption statistics.

In the process of using South Carolina as a birthing state, Leavitt has picked up some new adoptive parents as clients as well. When he routed the young Asheville girl to Spartanburg, he needed a local attorney to handle legalities in South Carolina and he chose a Spartanburg woman who was listed in the family law section of the American Bar Association directory.

Since then, a partner in her firm had adopted twins through Leavitt

Several South Carolina families have adopted California babies in California through the cross-country channel, and Leavitt has handled adoptions of South Carolina babies. One, born in Beaufort, is being adopted by a California based tennis pro who mentioned at a Hilton Head tournament that he and his wife were interested in adopting a baby. By tournament s end they had been introduced to the unwed mother who would agree to their having her child, Leavitt said.

Leavitt charges a flat $2,000 for an adoption, no matter how easy or how complicated, he said, and he resents any implication that he is involved in a black marker for infants—"There is no auction or commercial transaction going on here, he said.

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