A little child leads them in Springfield: Baby Tamia

Relates to:
Date: 2005-04-17

Mary Mitchell
Chicago Sun-Times

Baby Tamia stole the hearts of dozens of legislators on Thursday as the House passed a bill to close loopholes in Illinois adoption laws. Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat and an adoptee herself, paraded Tamia on the House floor before the vote was taken. Earlier that day, Baby Tamia; her grandmother, Maria McDonald, and her lawyer, Robert Fioretti, visited Minority Leader Tom Cross' office to lobby for passage of the bill.

Cross, a Downstate Republican and father of two, carried the baby to his office window and pointed out the sights.

"I think they were shocked that I could hold a baby for about five minutes and she didn't cry, yell or spit up," Cross said. "She didn't mind hanging out with me for five minutes. It was kind of nice."

Back on the floor, African-American female legislators passed Tamia from arm to arm.

But few legislators were aware of the predatory practices of some out-of-state adoption agencies before the story broke about McDonald's fight to bring her grand-daughter back from Utah. With help from clergy and readers, the matriarch hired a lawyer after she discovered her 20-year-old daughter, who was suffering postpartum depression, gave the baby to an agency doing business in Illinois through newspaper ads.

Consciousness raised

"There's no doubt about that," Cross told me. "Most of us who haven't been through the adoption process, there was no awareness. This case, with its good result, helped us all understand a significant problem we face in Illinois."

The sordid tale of Tamia's near-adoption by a Utah couple who were later arrested and charged with drug possession exposed an industry that has operated under lax rules and little oversight. After Judge Michael Murphy ruled A Cherished Child Adoption Agency in Utah violated an interstate agreement when it brought Tamia from Illinois, she was reunited with her mother, Carmen McDonald, and her grandmother.

The adoption reform bill passed 117-0 on Thursday and now goes to the Senate.

Among other things, the bill would mandate that only nonprofit agencies organized as 501(c)(3) under the federal tax code can provide adoption services in Illinois. It also establishes a complaint number where adoptive and birth parents could report agency violations, prohibits agencies from compelling or enticing birth parents to waive their legal rights and prohibits agencies not licensed in Illinois from advertising their services.

"I was really happy to hear about the outcome," Maria McDonald told me. "Had these laws been in place prior to Carmen putting Tamia up for adoption, I wouldn't be $125,000 in debt right now."

Fioretti, one of the lawyers who successfully represented the McDonalds, has since been overwhelmed with requests for help from birth mothers and fathers. One particularly egregious case involves an adoption agency operating out of a trailer park.

In March, a Wheeling woman was taken to Wichita, Kan., by Greyhound, where she was put up in a trailer park until she gave birth. When the young woman -- who was broke -- tried to change her mind, she claims, the woman who arranged the adoption threatened to strand her in Kansas.

"Hopefully, the new adoption laws will stop a lot of interstate adoptions," Fioretti said. "If you aren't licensed here, you won't be able to adopt a kid from here."

Feigenholtz is delighted that legislators in the House embraced the reforms.

"They really like the philosophy of making adoption commercial free," she said. "I think this bill goes a long, long way in making Illinois the most adoption-friendly state in this country."

The new law really should be known as the "Baby Tamia Law," because her plight forced light into some pretty dark places. And I believe her innocence may make some people more sensitive to the complex circumstances that surround all adoptions.

Now we get it

I remember feeling annoyed at a press conference about the adoption battle when a cocky, young, male TV reporter framed a question to Maria McDonald by telling the grandmother that if her daughter hadn't given the baby away, "we wouldn't be here."

"He just doesn't get it," I thought.

None of us got it until Baby Tamia.

Now the General Assembly, the Illinois attorney general, and the Department of Children and Family Services are aware that whoever was responsible for monitoring private adoptions in this state fell down on the job, and these government bodies have moved to address the problem.

Now the average working-class people in this city know with certainty that if they pool their resources, someone who has been victimized by an unfair system can actually win the fight, and that's a victory for us all.

Whatever happens, I'm calling it the Baby Tamia law because this baby is special.

She did something most politicians cannot do. She brought a city together to do what was right.


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