Tamia case an instance of déja vu?

Relates to:
Date: 2005-03-27

Adoption case eerily similar for couple

Kirsten Stewart and Elizabeth Neff
The Salt Lake Tribune

Carolyn and Steve Mintz searched for a child to adopt for months, exhausting connections in this country and abroad, before applying to A Cherished Child Adoption agency in Midvale.

The agency found a baby girl for them, and they went to Salt Lake Regional Medical Center in mid-November 2001 laden with gifts and cameras to welcome her into the world.

But when they arrived, they were approached by the adoption agency's director, who told them, "You better go talk to [the mother]. She's changing her mind."

What happened next horrified the Mintzes, whose story is eerily similar to a recent adoption botched by A Cherished Child -- that of 6-month-old Baby Tamia, returned last week to her Illinois mother after her flawed Utah adoption was overturned.

Watching the dispute over Tamia unfold, Steve Mintz said he ached to tell his story but didn't want to jeopardize the adoption for her prospective Salt Lake City parents.

Now that Tamia is back with her biological mother and grandmother, the Mintzes are coming forward, hoping to warn others about adoption agencies they fear are more interested in turning a profit than safeguarding birth mothers and helping children find safe, loving homes.

"I feel bad for everybody: the birth mother, the grandmother, the adoptive family and the baby," said Carolyn Mintz of the Baby Tamia debacle. "The state needs to do something to stop this."

An "aha" moment: Baby Tamia's biological mother, 20-year-old Carmen McDonald of Chicago, signed away her parental rights in a Salt Lake City motel in December. A month later she sued A Cherished Child, saying the agency enticed her to Utah while she was suffering from postpartum depression and then pressured her into surrendering the baby.

The allegations brought back memories for the Mintzes, who say they experienced the "seamy side of adoption" firsthand.

When their birth mother backed out, minutes before she was scheduled to deliver via Caesarean section, the Mintzes say A Cherished Child's director Ruby Johnston flew into rage.

"She started screaming at [her] and saying, 'You can't do this. You made a deal.' She was intimidating this girl right as she was about to have this baby," said Steve Mintz, who works as a surgeon at Salt Lake Regional.

Carolyn Mintz said, "I was devastated that we weren't bringing home a baby. But we weren't about to take a child from someone who desperately wanted her."

Steve Mintz says Johnston apologized profusely, claiming this had never happened before, but "the OB-GYN looked at her and said, 'What about that Vietnamese girl last month?' "

That comment triggered an "aha" moment for the couple, who decided to cut all ties with the agency.

In McDonald's lawsuit, she claims Johnston threatened to strand her in Salt Lake City if she did not surrender her daughter. The Mintzes wonder if that happened to the birth mother they met, who also was from Chicago. They were stunned to see her weeks later, featured with her infant daughter in a Salt Lake City TV news segment about overflowing homeless shelters.

"I don't even know if Ruby [Johnston] gave her bus fare to get back home," said Steve Mintz. "We gave her a little money and set her up with social services."

Carolyn Mintz said they last spoke with the mother six months after the baby was born, when she said she had found public housing in the Salt Lake area.

Johnston is overseas and could not be reached for comment. Her sole staff member, Cynthia Osborn, is not familiar with the Mintz case but "categorically" denies that Johnston badgers birth mothers or leaves them stranded.

"That's not her nature," said Osborn. "We give mothers every opportunity to change their minds and send them home. We buy round-trip tickets."

Lawyers for the embattled agency also have denied that McDonald was mistreated. Salt Lake City attorney Richard Van Wagoner says the unique circumstances of Baby Tamia's adoption caused it to crumble.

First, the agency revoked the adoption after the prospective adoptive parents were arrested on suspicion of drug possession. Days later, an Illinois judge ordered the baby's return after ruling the agency violated interstate adoption rules by not notifying both Utah and Illinois officials of the placement beforehand -- a practice Van Wagoner says is common.

State regulators are investigating A Cherished Child's eight-year track record. The agency has been ordered to return at least two babies recently -- Tamia and another child, "Baby Wade," whose biological father won his return to Illinois in 2004. But based on past investigations, any violations that turned up didn't warrant sanctions.

Tough for doctors: The Mintzes would like to see Utah extend its 24-hour waiting period before mothers can consent to an adoption and require mandatory counseling for birth mothers by an independent, licensed social worker.

"It should be someone independent so the mothers don't feel coerced," said Carolyn Mintz. "These women are young, poor, and their hormones are going crazy."

In January, Utah lawmakers passed a bill advanced by the Utah Adoption Council requiring any person or agency handling an adoption to offer independent counseling to birth mothers.

If she accepts, a birth mother is entitled to up to three sessions of at least 50 minutes per session. Agencies or adoptive parents must cover the cost.

Before relinquishing the child, the new law also requires a birth mother to sign an affidavit saying she was offered counseling and if she declined it.

Adoption Council President Susan Eg bert said the group would have liked mandatory counseling for birth mothers, but called the law a step in the right direction.

"Unfortunately this [Baby Tamia] case has shown that there is a need for this," Eg bert said. "These are vulnerable women with a hard choice to make, and as much support as we can offer is in everyone's best interest."

Osborn said it is A Cherished Child's policy to contract with independent social workers to counsel and prepare birth mothers.

"We always hope for the best for our children and work very consciously to abide by the law," Osborn said.

Steven Mintz also wonders why taxpayers aren't outraged by Utah's laissez-faire adoption laws, noting Medicaid and hospital emergency rooms often pick up the health care tab for out-of-state mothers brought here by agencies.

Treating such mothers puts doctors in a tough position, says Davis County obstetrician and gynecologist William Hughes.

About a year ago on a Friday evening, Hughes was the on-call doctor when a woman arrived at a Davis County hospital in labor. He managed to track down her doctor in South Carolina and get her medical history, but was stunned when a couple showed up to adopt the baby. He also was stuck filing paperwork to convince Medicaid to pay the bill.

"I have a patient I don't know, an adoptive couple I've never met and a lawyer who has not contacted me to make any arrangements beforehand," said Hughes. "And all we get is a malpractice suit if something goes wrong."

"A bit unsavory": Washington, D.C.-area attorney Mark McDermott, legislative chairman for the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, frowns on flying in mothers from other states for adoptions.

"The reputable agencies around here don't fly birth mothers around the country like that," he said. "There's something a bit unsavory about moving them around like that."

Like McDonald, two mothers matched to the Mintzes -- the first woman also backed out -- were poor, single, black, in their 20s and came to A Cherished Child from out of state to surrender their babies in secret.

"We asked the agency to notify the father [in the second attempt] because we didn't want somebody coming back later and claiming the child," said Carolyn Mintz. "They knew who the guy was, it was just a matter of picking up the phone and calling him."

The Mintzes asked Johnston for a refund of the $4,500 they paid for the failed matches. Johnston refused their request and they filed a complaint with Utah's Human Services Licensing Division, alleging that the agency fails to properly screen and counsel its mothers and makes little effort to notify biological fathers.

In the Mintz probe, licensors confirmed the father was never notified. But under Utah law, the responsibility of claiming paternity rests with fathers who, if they're not married to the mother, must show they provide for the child and register with the state.

The Mintzes have two biological pre-teen sons and have since adopted a girl from Kazakhstan. The family lives in a stately home in the Federal Heights neighborhood of Salt Lake City and don't expect, nor necessarily want, their money returned.

In hindsight, the Mintzes say they are fortunate that the birth mother they met bailed out of the adoption when she did. Their adopted daughter is now 3 years old and, said Steve, "the most wonderful little girl.

"There's a reason things happened the way they did."

kstewart@sltrib.com

eneff@sltrib.com

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