Chicago woman sues Utah agency over baby's adoption

Relates to:
Date: 2005-01-12

Linda Thomson
The Deseret News

A Chicago woman is suing a Midvale adoption agency, alleging her mentally ill 20-year-old daughter was pressured into relinquishing a 3-month-old baby for adoption.

But the agency director insists this is a family fight involving a young woman who didn't want her mother to know she was placing the little girl for adoption.

Maria McDonald filed suit Monday in Cook County Circuit Court in Illinois, alleging A Cherished Child adoption agency coerced her daughter, Carmen, into relinquishing parental rights to Carmen's daughter, Tamia. Carmen McDonald also is a plaintiff, although she did not sign the suit.

Maria McDonald said she and her daughter want the baby back.

Her daughter is in the hospital getting psychiatric help for bipolar disorder, according to Maria McDonald, who added this is the young woman's second psychiatric hospitalization in weeks and one of many since she was diagnosed at age 13.

But Ruby Johnston, director of A Cherished Child, said the lawsuit's claims are untrue.

"This whole thing is not an agency issue, it's a family issue," Johnston said. "This birth mother didn't want her mother to know she was placing (the child for adoption).

"One thing our agency does is, whenever a birth mother contacts us with a child that has been born, we ask if there's anyone in the family that can take the child. That's what we encourage them to do first," Johnston said.

The legal battle has evoked strong emotions in the Chicago area as claims circulate that low-income black women are enticed to Utah to give up their babies. Local pastors and lawyers have joined together in this case and a "Save Baby Tamia Legal Fund" has been set up at South Shore Bank of Chicago.

Bishop Tavis Grant, chief of staff for the United Pentecostal Churches, a group of 500 churches, said this goes beyond the McDonalds' situation and raises questions about the "predatory practices" of some Utah adoption agencies.

"They purposely go after low-income minorities, in particular African-American women, who are in crisis," Bishop Grant said. "They seek out women who are in unstable situations for the purpose of being expedient in terms of the transfer of custody."

Bishop Grant said they're extending a "moral appeal" to the adoptive couple to return Tamia.

"You wouldn't want to buy a car from someone in these circumstances, let alone disconnect a child from her family forever. These are not the proper circumstances for someone to build a family, no matter how desperate they are," Bishop Grant said.

Robert Fioretti, attorney for the McDonalds, said Tamia was born Sept. 10 in Illinois and A Cherished Child gave Carmen McDonald plane tickets to fly to Utah on Dec. 3.

Fioretti said when Carmen McDonald arrived in Utah, she was distraught over the recent death of a grandmother, was suffering from postpartum depression, had not slept or eaten properly in several days and was running a 102-degree fever.

"She was there less than 24 hours. Due to her mental, emotional and physical impairments, we believe she didn't understand the consequences of traveling to Utah with her minor child," Fioretti said.

When she met with the prospective adoptive couple, she saw they were white, not biracial as she had been told on the phone, he said.

"When she decided not to go through with the adoption, she was told, 'How are you going to get back?' She had no way to get back at that point. Ruby Johnston, over the phone, began yelling at and threatening Carmen," he said.

Fioretti said McDonald was unable to make an informed decision and gave her consent under duress, undue influence and misrepresentation. She also did not receive a copy of the contract, he said.

Agency director Johnston, meanwhile, denies the lawsuit's allegations.

"Everything in there is a lie and I have to keep confidentiality for the adoptive parents' sake," Johnston said. "We do everything within the law. We're very committed to doing what's in the best interest of the child. We try to help adoptive parents and birth mothers meet their needs in a very kind and loving way."

Johnston denies yelling at or coercing Carmen McDonald, and said the young woman initiated contact with the agency and was fully informed about the adoption. As for the adoptive parents, "She picked the family, she met the family, she approved the family," Johnston said.

Johnston blames Maria McDonald for the dispute, which now has become very public.

"I don't think that was very kind to her daughter. Her daughter very clearly wanted to keep things confidential," Johnston said. "I believe she wants to get back at her daughter for not telling her."

Elizabeth Sollis, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Human Services, said a complaint in this case was filed in December.

"We reviewed the adoption procedures, met with the parties involved and we found the adoption was handled appropriately," Sollis said.

Utah licensing authorities found A Cherished Child did not follow adoption law in two cases last year. E-mail: lindat@desnews.com

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