'Best moment in my life'

Relates to:
Date: 2005-03-25

Tamia's mother is back with her baby in a tearful reunion at Chicago airport; Baby Tamia is reunited with her mother

The Salt Lake Tribune

Baby Tamia -- the child at the center of an interstate custody battle -- was reunited with her mother in Chicago on Thursday night, four months after being given up for adoption in Utah.

"It's the best moment in my life," said 20-year-old Carmen McDonald after the family reunion at O'Hare International Airport.

In the car on the way over to the airport, McDonald told Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell what the impending return of her child meant to her: "I feel so blessed. I have never felt that way before. I feel so good, like everything in my past doesn't even matter anymore. The only thing that matters is what is going to happen in the future."

The story of a now-famous little girl wasn't always in a spotlight.

Few people noticed when Baby Tamia arrived in Salt Lake City on Dec. 3. A day later she was surrendered for adoption by her mother.

But Tamia's departure from Utah on Thursday evening was anything but undercover.

Two Illinois child-welfare authorities and religious leaders sent to escort the baby home met a throng of news crews at Salt Lake City International Airport. They picked up the baby at an undisclosed shelter, drove her back to the airport and boarded a 5 p.m. flight to Chicago, where she was met by her mother and maternal grandmother.

"She looks good, she looks healthy," Maria McDonald, Tamia's grandmother, said Thursday night. "She looks like she was taken care of."

The baby's return was ordered by an Illinois judge who found the adoption violated federal law because his state was not notified in advance of the placement.

McDonald, 20, had sued Midvale-based A Cherished Child adoption agency in January, claiming the agency took advantage of her emotional and financial vulnerability and coerced her into relinquishing the baby. She was joined in the lawsuit by her mother, Maria McDonald.

The custody battle persisted until this week, when A Cherished Child revoked the adoption after the prospective Utah adoptive parents were arrested on suspicion of drug possession.

Cook County Circuit Judge Michael Murphy on Wednesday ordered that the baby be turned over to the Illinois Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS), which is placing the baby with the McDonalds.

Bishop Larry Darnell Trotter, a Pentacostal leader who lobbied for Tamia's return and escorted the baby home Thursday, said Carmen McDonald is supported by friends, family and dozens of well-wishers who are eager to donate food, clothing and lend a helping hand.

"People want to take her shopping, and she will be christened Easter Sunday morning at our church," said Trotter, who has agreed to serve as a godparent for the baby.

"I thank God the baby is not older. I'm sure she'll be a little fretful, but with the right amount of love and care, she should have a complete turnaround," said Trotter.

McDonald suffers from bipolar disorder.

She checked herself into an institution after she was found wandering the streets in New Orleans, incoherent, shortly after the adoption. Trotter says she has lived with her mother for the past three weeks.

The custody battle has prodded Illinois leaders to propose legislation barring adoption agencies such as A Cherished Child from advertising in that state without a license.

But the scandal has yet to inspire similar reform in Utah, home of the agency that botched the adoption.

Utah legislators recently passed a law, signed by the governor, that would require adoption agencies to offer counseling and that sets limits on how much birth mothers are paid. In addition, state regulators are investigating A Cherished Child's 8-year track record.

Carmen McDonald's supporters say that's not enough.

At the impromptu news conference at the Salt Lake City airport, Trotter and his colleague, Bishop T. Lane Grant, called upon Utah officials to bar A Cherished Child from doing business.

"We hope adoption agencies in Utah will change their policies, especially as they relate to inner-city single moms," said Trotter, presiding bishop of the United Pentecostal Churches of Christ International.

Grant added: "This is about the predatory behavior of an adoption agency. We pray that Utah's attorney general would have an open season for investigating these agencies."

The Utah governor's and attorney general's offices say the responsibility of overseeing adoptions and investigating A Cherished Child rests with the Department of Human Services.

Responding to calls for reform legislation or stricter enforcement of current regulations, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s spokeswoman Tammi Kikuchi said: "I don't know how Huntsman would feel about people from another state telling him what to do. We're glad the true biological mother is getting a second chance and hope Illinois will take an active role to make sure she gets what she needs so she can be a good mom."

In late December, Utah licensing officials found that the agency violated interstate adoption rules by failing to notify Utah's Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children (ICPC) administrator before placing Baby Tamia.

The notification came on Dec. 20, roughly two weeks after McDonald relinquished her baby.

According to state regulators, A Cherished Child also failed to provide McDonald a copy of the relinquishment papers. But licensors found nothing to substantiate complaints that McDonald was coerced or deceived by the agency.

Since 1997, when the agency was founded, regulators have fielded four complaints, three of which resulted in findings that there had been violations.

But Utah Licensing Director Ken Stettler says, "The nature of the violations wasn't serious enough to warrant more than corrective action and they've always been very responsive."

Derek Williams, a lawyer for A Cherished Child, says agencies routinely violate ICPC.

"It's the media attention and this particular case that exposed a common practice by all agencies. This agency was punished for doing something all of them do," said Williams, stressing ICPC administrators often allow adoption agencies to file retroactively.

"What do you do if you have a birth mother who wants to place her baby now? Does the agency say, 'Unfortunately, we need to send you back home to wait two to three weeks while we do paperwork?' "

In Wednesday's ruling, Judge Murphy underscored the importance of enforcing the ICPC. But Williams doesn't believe the ruling will put other retroactively approved adoptions at risk of being overturned. Illinois judges have approved such adoptions, said Williams.

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