Adoption Umbilical

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A New York lawyer feeds off South Carolina's easy adoption policies with help of his favorite connection, Charlston lawyer Thomas P. Lowndes

From the State (Columbia, SC), Feb. 27, 1984
By Margaret N. O’Shea

The floodgates were opened to a national adoption market in South Carolina in 1981, when a pregnant teenager got homesick in New York while waiting for her child to be born.

Her tearful insistence on coming home led to a profitable association between New York lawyer Stanley Michelman and Charleston lawyer Thomas Pinckney Lowndes Jr.—an association that has bolstered the state’s national reputation as an easy place to get a child.

Theirs is not the only liaison that feeds white adoption trade into South Carolina from other states, but it is obviously the strongest. In the past three years, statistics at South Carolina’s Department of Vital Records show, a fourth of all infant adoptions in the state have occurred in Charleston County, as have a fifth of all adoptions of children of all ages.

Statistics for calendar 1983 have not yet been released, but increased adoptions in the Charleston County family courts indicate those percentages may have climbed even higher.

Lowndes is not solely responsible for those figures, but he has a definite impact on them.

Other interstate links to lawyers here don t touch the volume handle by Lowndes and Michelman, despite the fact that their combined legal fees total $6,500 to $6,700 before any of the other extensive costs are added.

In the most expensive of their cases, those costs include transportation to South Carolina for an out-of-state mother, whose living, maternity clothing add medical expenses will have to be covered while she is here and for the six weeks after she delivers.

If the mother is a minor, still in school, costs may include homebound education unless she attends public school as long as her doctor will let her. If she has other children who are not being placed for adoption, the costs may include their care as well.

Add hospital expenses for mother and child, various court costs and the adoptive parents’ own transportation and lodging when they receivein the baby and when they return to South Carolina for a final adoption decree, and the cost for Lowndes/Michelman adoption exceed $10,000 and sometimes $15,000.

The cost is no deterrent to the flourishing association between the two_lawyers, nor does it necessarily mean that they are involved in child-selling. There is no evidence that any of the big money associated with Lowndes/Michelman adoption is passed on to mothers in direct payment for a child, althoug such back-market adoptions are not illegal in South Carolina anyway.

The type of,adoptions Lowndes handles for Michelman are generally considered "gray-market” adoptions——privately handled and expensive, but legal.

Lowndes now handles nearly 100 adoptions a year, more than half of them Michelman’s clients, and Michelman now routes pregnant women from other states to South Carol1na to give birth—a practice that allows their babies to be adopted through lenient South Carol1na courts. The attorney in those cases is Lowndes, who is grossing close to $200,000 a year on adoptions alone.

That estimate is based on Lowndes report that he charges $1,500 for adoptions done in Charleston County and $1,700 when he has to drive elsewhere. In a statistical check of approximately 50,000 Family Court docket sheets in 34 counties, The State counted 89 Lowndes adoptions completed and in progress during 1983

In the fall of 1983, Lowndes firm had at least 42 adoptions pending court action — 26 in Charleston County, counting one filed by his law partner, Thomas P. Lesesne III, who has since resigned from the South Carolina Bar; five in Dorchester County, four in Anderson County; twins in Florence County, and the rest scattered in Orangeburg, Sumter, Beaufort, Horry, Richland and Lexington counties.

During the year, Lowndes had also filed and completed 10 additional adoptions in Charleston County and completed the last of 36 filed the year before in four other Counties. He had “lost one" in Greenville, when the mother refused consent, an he had been approached by lawyers in New Jersey, Connecticut and California to handle cases in South Carol1na for them.

Court records show that last year was Lowndes busiest since he began handling adoptions 17 years ago, and his volume reflected a practice that has at least quadrupled since his association with Stanley Michelman began.

Lowndes acquaintances say the brisk business has not changed him. He still wears penny loafers Khaki pants, and he doesn't style or spray unruly brown hair. But Lowndes is aware that his extensive adoption practice and his tie to Michelman, who is nationally known as a “baby broker”, affect his reputation, and he is quick to assure inquirers, I am not a werewolf. I don't grow fangs and howl at the moon at night." The comment is delivered with a wry impishness.

He is a municipal Judge in Mount Pleasant as well as one of the busiest lawyers in the state, and his children are proudest that he is a volunteer firefighter. The only baby picture in the third-floor, walk-up office is one of his youngest son, the beginning of a new family in a second marriage.

 

Lowndes owns the office building on Vendue Range, which is a block from the ocean. The décor ranges from crowded and seedy on the lowered floor to modestly tasteful in Lowndes quarters above—what one potential client described as “early unpretentious.”

But the Lowndes seen in hospitals and courtrooms around the state has a different image. A visiting Judge in Charleston Country noted with awe that Lowndes "walks in with fistfuls of out-of-state adoptions and affidavits that say the home studies ought to be waived."

That assessment appears to be borne out by court records. Of 39 Lowndes/Lesesne adoptions completed in the Charleston County Family Court in 1982, no home studies were listed for 32. None of their 24 home-county adoptions in 1981 borne any indication of home studies. An incomplete tally by fall 1983 showed the same trend.

Records at the South Carolina Children’s Bureau also show that most of Lowndes’ non-resident adoptions illegally circumvent the Interstate Compact on Children.

At the Medical University of South Carolina Hospital, Lowndes is sometimes called "the Saturday-afternoon hustler," because his out-of-state clients tend to arrive in Charleston on long weekends to pick up babies from the hospital.

Lowndes’ face is less familiar in other hospitals in counties where private adoptions are usually handled by local lawyers. The staff at Anderson Memorial Hospital became concerned when Lowndes showed up last year with court orders for the removal of four babies within a few weeks’ time.

And Spartanburg General Hospital has held a long and fruitless correspondence with Lowndes over a bill he declined to pay when the child slated for adoption died soon after birth. Lowndes has referred the inquiries to an insurance carrier, which won’t pay either.

Perceptions of Lowndes as a brusque man have to do with the sheer physical demands of his far-flung adoption business, which involves juggling court dates in more than a dozen counties at once.

Until his 1981 link with Michelman, Lowndes' adoptions involved primarily babies born to South Carolina women, mostly unwed mothers. Most of his adoptive clients were South Carolina couples, who came to Lowndes through a loose referral network based mainly on word of mouth. The mothers were mainly unwed girls sent to Lowndes by doctors, or flushed out of the woodwork by "friends of friends of friends" of couples who wanted a child.

The first adoption Lowndes ever handled occurred because of his friendship with Charleston obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Bert Pruitt, who handles one of the state’s largest private adoption matching services and who is still one of Lowndes’s best referral sources.

One of Pruitt’s pregnant and unwed patients, he and Lowndes both agreed, was a “dead ringer" for a mutual friend of theirs who happened to be childless. Together they worked out the details and a business was born.

Lowndes said he had to have some help on that first case, and he got it from Robert R. Mallard, who had an office in the same building as Lowndes then. Mallard is now the chief judge in the 9th Circuit Family Court. Then he was a lawyer, whose practice included "a fair amount" of private adoptions, for which he allowed adoptive parents to pay a few dollars a week until they hit $3,000, according to reports filed with the South Carolina Children’s Bureau.

As Lowndes began to handle more adoptions, a few birth mothers even stayed at his home in the final weeks of their pregnancies, his first wife told acquaintances. Today’s mothers are more likely to find apartments, which prospective parents of their babies finance, or to live with an Isle of Palms couple who are paid for housing them.

A Sumter teenager who stayed at the Isle of Palms in 1982 got $80 a week allowance, and the family who later adopted her baby paid $400 a month for her room and board. A Michigan girl who was there at the same time got more, and her room and board was charged at a higher rate, because "her family"—the adoptive parents—had more money to spend, the girls were told.

Because the Sumter girl was originally scheduled to enter the Florence Crittenton home and to release her child to an agency, her change of mind—prompted by a Sumter obstetrician—prompted an investigation of the Isle of Palms house by the Department of Social Services. DSS notified the owners—Douglas and Carol Brown—that they appeared to be operating an unlicensed maternity home, and provided the criteria the Browns would have to meet to get a license.

DSS workers who visited the house said they found four pregnant girls from three states and Mexico staying there. The investigation was dropped, however, on the basis of a brief letter from Lowndes, as attorney for the Browns, who said they were not operating an unlicensed maternity home. A copy is in the licensure file.

The need to find housing for pregnant girls is but one change that has occurred over the years.

"If you came to me back then and asked about adoption, I’d expect you to find the baby," Lowndes said. "I’d advise you to tell everybody you knew that you wanted to adopt a baby—friends, relatives, neighbors, doctors, ministers, the guidance counselors at schools. Maybe once every three or four teasr somebody would walk in and say, “I'm pregnant.” It just didn't happen. Still doesn't.”

"I'd tell you all the rocks to look under that I could think of, but I never though of advertising. For many years it never occurred to me that somebody pregnant and worried to death about it would even look at a newspaper.

Before the Charleston News and Courier and the Evening Post began publishing in 1981 classified advertisements for white infants to be adopted by childless couples, Lowndes was handling about a dozen adoptions a year. In 1981, he handled 24 in Charleston County alone, and the local figures jumped to 34 in 1982 and 54 in 1983, Family Court records show.

Most of the couples placing those ads were clients of Michelman in New York.

The turnabout for Lowndes began when a pregnant teenager in Charleston dialed a telephone number listed in a Charleston newspaper ad placed by a couple looking for a baby. They referred her to Stanley Michelman, who assured her all her medical bills and living expenses would be paid if she came to New York to have her baby and agreed to surrender the child for adoption there.

“She went, but she couldn't stand New York, Lowndes said. She told Michelman she was going to have her baby at home in Charleston. Period. He had to have a lawyer in South Carolina handle that adoption or lose it, so he asked around and ended up calling me."

Michelman remembers that young lady, too.

He says he picked Lowndes to handle that case because the girl had heard of him. He stayed with Lowndes for all his South Carolina work because he did a “good, clean job" and was easy to work with. South Carolina, he admits, was a godsend, because so many other states were clamping down on private and non-resident adoption.

New York was among them, its crackdown prompted at least partly by Michelman himself. In 1978 he was indicted but not convicted on 192 counts of perjury, interfering with a government investigation, accepting under-the table cash for adoptions, conspiracy and unlawful child placements.

In 1980 Michelman was the primary subject of an investigative journalist's book, "The Baby Brokers", and by 1981, he was up to his ears in clients but hampered by a reputation as a baby-seller.

“One reason I liked Tom was he never looked to circumvent the law, Micheliman said, “Those indictments and that book all came from a particular point of view—not entirely accurate, in my opinion.

“I guess people will always think of me as a baby-seller because of that. But you can’t look at Tom Lowndes and see anything but what he is—a hard-working, straight-shooting lawyer."

Lowndes says he talked with Michelman before accepting that first case from him, "and if I had thought there was baby-selling involved, I wouldn't have taken it. I wouldn’t take any now if I thought there was baby-selling involved. Of course, a lot of people think you've bought a baby if you pay legitimate expenses, but that is just agency talk. Agencies would like to have all the business.

Michelman says he has no idea how many adoptions he handles a year and how many of them involve South Carolina.

"I don’t know because I’m phasing out my adoption practice, he said recently. “I’ve been in it 13 years, and that s long enough.“

If Michelman does quit—and his detractors doubt that he will—its not likely that the volume of interstate adoptions involving South Carolina would decrease as a result. Evidence suggests increasing numbers of lawyers from other states are discovering South Carolina.

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