Adoption bill targets legal loopholes

Relates to:
Date: 2005-03-27

Bonnie Miller Rubin
The Chicago Tribune

Mar. 27 Long before the Baby Tamia case opened a window into some of the more questionable practices that have seeped into adoption, efforts were under way to close some of the legal loopholes in Illinois.

For more than a year a coalition of lawmakers, adoption officials and advocates have been meeting to draft legislation that would create protections for families involved in adoptions. The main provision of the bill is that only non-profit organizations would be eligible for state licenses to provide adoption services.

"We're trying to take the commerce out of adoption and end predatory practices," said state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago), a member of the coalition, sponsor of the bill and herself an adoptee. "We need to raise the bar."

Critics say increased regulation would limit options for prospective parents and drive up costs.

Earlier this month, the Special Committee on Adoption Reform passed the bill out of committee.

Other provisions of the bill, now awaiting full debate on the floor of the Illinois House, include creating a state complaint registry, requiring all adoption agencies to submit a detailed annual report and barring unlicensed, out-of-state organizations from advertising here.

If the proposed measures become law, organizations such as A Cherished Child the Utah-based agency involved in the Baby Tamia case couldn't do business in Illinois.

Six-month-old Tamia, who had been living with a Utah couple, was returned Thursday to her birth mother, Carmen McDonald, following a legal battle to regain custody. McDonald's mother, Maria, said her daughter had suffered from postpartum depression and gave up Tamia under pressure.

Tamia's is hardly an isolated case. As adoption has become a more lucrative business, stories have surfaced about young birth mothers being coerced into relinquishing infants and prospective parents being bilked out of their life savings, experts said.

"It is heartbreaking," said Feigenholtz, relating a story about a young Polish woman who surrendered her child after signing documents in English, which she did not understand. "There has to be greater transparency and accountability."

In the last two decades, more private organizations and attorneys have entered the adoption process. Officials say that with fewer pregnant women choosing to give up their babies, far fewer adoptions are taking place even as more couples experience infertility. Those dynamics, they say, have created a situation ripe for abuse.

"People are desperate ... and an unscrupulous adoption provider takes advantage of that desperation," said Julie Tye, president of the Cradle, a not-for-profit agency in Evanston and another member of the coalition drafting the legislation.

Some 15 to 20 of the state's more than 150 adoption agencies in Illinois now operate on a for-profit basis, said Richard Pearlman, executive director of the child welfare agency Family Resource Center, who testified this month in support of the bill.

A typical adoption can cost $15,000 to $20,000, but the price of acquiring a newborn American infant can hit the $50,000 mark, experts say.

"There needs to be some protection in place against agencies that exploit women and adoptive parents for profit all of whom are extremely vulnerable," Tye said.

However, some members of the adoption community say such laws would greatly reduce choices available to prospective parents.

"People would have nowhere to go but to a few large agencies," said Tobi Ehrenpreis, a social worker and co-director of the Center for Family Building, a for-profit agency also based in Evanston, where the average cost to adoptive parents is $22,000.

Before the field became more competitive, parents who didn't fit an agency's criteria because of age or religion, for example would find themselves shut out of parenthood. That happened to Ehrenpreis, who adopted her daughter through a private attorney in the late 1980s. The experience provided the motivation to start her own agency.

"We'll have a few big agencies which can dictate the situation ... an unintended consequence that I don't think that Feigenholtz or anyone has considered."

While conceding the need for more oversight, Ehrenpreis suggested that could be accomplished by the Department of Children and Family Services.

"Why not let DCFS pull the licenses of repeat offenders?" she asked.

Currently, there is no way to track complaints, said Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan, who added she generally is positive about the bill because it would give people who feel they have been wronged a way to address their grievances. (Tamia's grandmother had to pursue the baby's return by filing a lawsuit.)

"With that profit motive there," Madigan said, "predatory practices are much more likely to take place and they are unconscionable."

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