Midvale adoption agency under fire

Relates to:
Date: 2005-01-11

Lawsuit filed: It alleges staff coerced a Chicago mom to give up her baby; Adoption agency is sued over Tamia

Kirsten Stewart and Matthew D. LaPlante
The Salt Lake Tribune

The mother of a 20-year-old Chicago woman sued a Midvale adoption agency Monday, alleging staff coerced her daughter into surrendering her infant for adoption in Utah.

The lawsuit claims Carmen McDonald has a history of mental illness and was emotionally and physically impaired when she forfeited her 3-month-old daughter, Tamia, to A Cherished Child Adoption Agency on Dec. 4. Filed in Cook County Circuit Court in Illinois, the suit seeks to reverse the adoption.

"We are committed to providing for this child," said Maria McDonald, mother of Carmen McDonald and Tamia's maternal grandmother.

The adoption agency did not immediately return repeated calls seeking comment.

The case is drawing outrage in Chicago, where community and religious leaders have established a "Save Baby Tamia Legal Fund" at the Shore Bank of Chicago. Supporters say they appeal to the "moral foundations" and consciences of the couple who adopted the baby.

The United Pentecostal Churches of Christ International is calling on Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to investigate the adoption.

But authorities familiar with Utah adoption law say it strictly protects adoptions. A grandparent does not have the legal right to object to the relinquishment of a grandchild. A challenge can be raised only by a child's mother or, with some limits, the father.

Though Carmen McDonald is listed as a plaintiff, she did not sign the complaint. Attorneys for Maria McDonald say they have both women's consent to sue, but also acknowledge Carmen McDonald remains under psychiatric care.

"This will be a tough fight," admitted lead attorney Robert Fioretti.

Fioretti, who met with Carmen McDonald on Christmas Eve, said she alleges agency staff yelled at her and threatened to not pay for her return flight to Chicago if she didn't follow through with the adoption. Carmen McDonald, who is African-American, also alleges the agency lied by falsely telling her the adoptive couple was biracial, he said.

Even if a birth mother can establish wrongdoing by an agency, that may not be enough to overturn the adoption contract, said 3rd District Juvenile Judge Frederick Oddone.

"The burden of proof is on the mother to demonstrate that relinquishment was fraudulent through clear and convincing evidence," said Oddone, who oversees adoptions but is not involved in the McDonald case. "The Legislature and courts feel it is important for children to have consistency and not be subjected to frequent moves."

Oddone said a mother must establish she was under duress, the victim of fraud or incompetent to sign a contract.

According to the lawsuit, Carmen McDonald contacted A Cherished Child during her second trimester, after reading the agency's classified newspaper ad. That ad has drawn the ire of Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, who contends Utah adoption agencies prey on low-income black women.

Tamia was born Sept. 10 at an Illinois hospital. In November, the agency recontacted Carmen McDonald and sent her money, the lawsuit said. On Dec. 3, the agency flew her to Utah to meet the adoptive parents and sign the contract, it said.

In the past year, state licensing officials have twice found A Cherished Child to have not complied with Utah law, by fail- ing to properly inform a mother of her rights and obligations and to provide complete and accurate information to the adoptive parents; and by failing to provide a copy of the relinquishment contract to all parties. McDonald has no record of her adoption agreement, Fioretti alleges.

kstewart@sltrib.com

mlaplante@sltrib.com

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