Newborn Fever


Flocking to an adoption mecca

Katrina slept through most of her adoption hearing last week in the sun-washed Charleston, S.C., courtroom. Her would-be mother and father sat nervously alert. An attractive, wealthy couple from out of state, they eagerly testified about their four-acre country estate, swimming pool and well-protected play area as proof of their parental fitness. Yet it was Katrina, at 15 months all blond ringlets and neatly pressed ruffles, who spoke most eloquently on their behalf. Waking up in time to accompany the woman to the witness stand, Katrina clung hungrily to her side, cooing "Mama."

Katrina's new mother and father are one of hundreds of couples who flock to Charleston every year, drawn by the promise of easy adoptive parenthood. In most areas of the country, adoption is a frustrating process, burdened by the red tape and interminable waiting lists of state adoption agencies. Although a few other states also allow adoptions in local courts by nonresidents, South Carolina offers a unique blend of lax laws, aggressive lawyers and open-minded newspapers that accept classified ads from couples seeking babies. Federal regulations that are more rigorously enforced elsewhere, like the requirement that state officials conduct a "home study" of the prospective parents' fitness to adopt a child, are routinely waived by South Carolina's lenient family-court judges. In 1982 there were six times as many privately arranged adoptions—many of them made by non-residents—as placements made through the state's official adoption agency. To some, the situation has turned Charleston into a notorious baby bazaar; to others, it has made the genteel city a welcome haven for couples anxious to secure a child.

Katrina's case was handled by two of the nation's more controversial adoption lawyers: Stanley ("Mr. Stork") Michelman of New York City, who was indicted but acquitted in 1979 of arranging illegal adoptions, and his frequent collaborator, Thomas Lowndes Jr., a well-known Charleston attorney who handles more than 100 adoptions a year.

The two attorneys encouraged the couple to place an ad in the Charleston News & Courier Post, which carries dozens of classified pleas each week. Most of the ads promise love for the child and remuneration to the mother. All of them end on a desperate note: CALL COLLECT ANY TIME.

The couple's ad got a response. And after they spent $12,326 in lawyers' fees and maternity payments, their prayers were answered. Thanks in part to the loopholes in the state's laws, they whisked Katrina home four days after her birth. Some adoptions can be settled in as little as one day.

Officials of the South Carolina children's bureau, which handles official adoptions, charge that the insatiable demand for newborn babies and the state's laissez-faire attitude have spawned a new breed of ambulance chaser. These are the "bassinet hounds" who, in some cases, pursue unwed mothers all the way into the delivery room. Complains Francis Lewis, executive director of the children's bureau: "It used to be that we said, 'Here is a child who needs a home.' Now it is 'Here's a childless couple, let's go find a child.' " Lewis fears that couples screened out as undesirable in other states will pass muster in South Carolina's lax family courts. As an example of adoptive parents' vulnerability to fraud, she cites the case of two women from Summerville who are currently serving time for at tempting to sell the same baby to two different couples. The unfettered system can also induce young pregnant women, who are offered payments that may far exceed their medical costs, to surrender their maternal rights too readily. Eager parents are willing to pay $15,000 or more to lawyers, "finders" and young mothers. Promises one ad: LIVE LIKE A QUEEN. Says Attorney Kathleen Jennings of the Greenville solicitor's office: "Selling children should be illegal, but in South Carolina it is not. It's only immoral, and that is something we cannot enforce."

Proponents of the system argue that a state adoption agency's handling of an unwanted child often proves far more inhuman. Bureaucratic stalls and inefficiency can condemn a baby to foster homes and state institutions until the infant has outgrown any chance for placement with a family. Says Family Court Judge Mendel Rivers Jr. of Charleston: "Even if baby selling does exist, what's so horrible about that? If the child is going to a home with good parents who can give it all the love and security it will ever need, why should we care if the parents paid $50,000 for the privilege? The child is happy, the parents are happy, so what is the harm?"

State Representative David Wilkins, a Republican from Greenville, disagrees.

He introduced a bill last month in the state legislature to prevent the outright sale of children. On the national level, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas last month proposed a bill that will limit fees for arranging adoptions and restrict interstate adoptions. Until some action is taken, however, the courts in South Carolina have the last word. At Katrina's adoption hearing last week, Judge Robert Mallard made his leanings clear. "No one is contesting the adoption, and the child is obviously well cared for," he said. "What am I to do? Undo the bonds of love that have already developed?" Nestling Katrina in her quilted stroller, the couple left the courtroom beaming.


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