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Date: 2006-02-19

Dan Gearino
The Quad-City Times

DES MOINES - The adoption of children is changing faster than parents or regulators can follow.

This rapid shift, fueled by the Internet and national advertising, creates opportunities for prospective adoptive parents but also increases the risks of a financial and emotional disaster.

Today, and for the next three days, the Quad-City Times Des Moines Bureau investigates some of the perils and promise of infant adoption in Iowa.

This is a story about people who can be in some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives. The mothers and their families are facing an unwanted pregnancy; the prospective adoptive parents are eager for a child, with some willing to pay more than $30,000 in fees to adopt; and the children are at the mercy of decisions and laws made by adults.

Such circumstances would seem to demand close scrutiny by regulators and high standards of entry for adoption service providers. But the opposite is true, as a patchwork of state laws does not closely regulate an industry that routinely crosses state lines.

Iowa City adoption attorney Lori

Klockau has watched her practice transform. When she started 14 years ago, nearly all adoptive families had some connection to the mother or at least lived in the same area.

Today, the Internet allows for quick connections all over the country and the world.

"Now, about 80 percent of the cases I'm doing are Iowa babies going to adoptive parents in another state. That's a big change," Klockau said.

But regulatory safeguards have not kept pace. This has given rise to a relatively new class of adoption professionals called facilitators. These people, who in many states are not required to be licensed or trained, get paid an upfront fee that can reach $7,000 to match an adoptive family with a mother.

A few dozen facilitators and adoption agencies advertise across the country in newspapers and phone books, sometimes offering to relocate pregnant women and pay their living expenses.

Residents of Illinois and Utah got a glimpse last year of how this can go wrong. In an incident that became known as the Baby Tamia case, an Illinois woman said she was coerced by an adoption agency to relocate to a Utah hotel, give birth and place her baby for adoption. An Illinois judge ordered that the baby be removed from the adoptive family and returned to her family in Illinois.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a bill in August that dramatically boosts the protections for families involved with adoption.

Iowans have vivid memories of the Baby Jessica case in 1993, which also involved a child being removed from adoptive parents. Jessica was 2 years old when courts in Michigan and Iowa ruled that she should be transferred from her adoptive family in Michigan to her family in Iowa. Television cameras captured the image of a sobbing Jessica being taken away from the only family she had known.

Her father in Iowa successfully argued that he did not know the girl was being placed for adoption. This led to the creation of father registries in Iowa, Michigan and other states.

But the greater effect of the case was that prospective adoptive parents learned some of the risks of adoption - risks that have arguably become greater as the industry takes on a national scope.

"It's very rare when a child is returned, but everyone knows about the Baby Jessica story. Things like that made us cautious," said Nancy Emmerson, an adoptive mother in Davenport.

Her family adopted through a nonprofit agency, which is a part of the adoption industry that once handled nearly every adoption but now is suffering from competition with nonagency service providers like facilitators.

One reason for the rise of facilitators is many of them are more aggressive than agencies at recruiting mothers, which leads to quicker placements, though often at a greater financial cost.

But the picture is not all, or even mostly, bleak. Adam Pertman, director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York, describes an "adoption revolution," in which old stigmas and secrecy are fading away and adoption is widely accepted.

He is an advocate for open adoption, in which the mother's identity is known to the adoptive parents.

"The vast majority of the time, (adoption is) going smoothly, ethically and well. … (However), we're dealing here with the transfer of children from one family to another, and not the interstate transfer of refrigerators, so we have to get it right every time," he said.

Dan Gearino can be contacted at (515) 243-0138.


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