Is Utah a 'baby warehouse'?

Relates to:
Date: 2005-01-30

Adoption laws make giving up babies easy

Kirsten Stewart
The Salt Lake Tribune

Maria McDonald did everything a doting grandmother would do to welcome her daughter's baby girl into the world.

The Chicago woman hosted a shower for "Baby Tamia," was present for her September 2004 delivery and purchased Christmas gifts. But on Dec. 7, New Orleans police found her daughter Carmen wandering the streets, alone and incoherent.

"My first question was, 'Where is the baby?' " said McDonald, who discovered Carmen had flown to Utah days before and surrendered the 3-month-old for adoption.

In Illinois, the adoption has sparked a lawsuit by McDonald, seeking Tamia's return, and accusations that Utah adoption agencies prey on vulnerable, low-income African American women. In Utah, the case has renewed debate over whether the scant oversight provided by state and federal laws has turned the state into a "baby warehouse."

The Utah adoption debate: Phillip Lowry, an Orem attorney who has filed lawsuits for fathers and another Chicago grandmother attacking Utah adoptions, says Utah's laws attract parents and birth mothers from other states.

"Utah has come to be known as a baby warehouse," where mothers and adoptive parents can "minimize legal hassles," Lowry said. "There are no guards at the door going in or out."

Under current law, private adoption contracts between individuals must go before a judge. But licensed adoption agencies need only two witnesses present at the time the mother signs over custody of the child.

In their lawsuit, Maria and Carmen McDonald allege Carmen has a history of mental illness and was mourning the recent death of her grandmother, suffering from postpartum depression and running a 102-degree temperature when she relinquished Tamia.

"If [Carmen McDonald] had appeared before a judge in her state, the judge may have scratched his or her head and said, 'This girl doesn't seem to know what she is doing,' " Lowry said.

In defense of Utah's laws, adoption attorneys say they protect mothers who may be fleeing abusive and broken homes or situations where there is no consensus on how to raise the child.

"Our legislative leaders feel like the birth mother ought to have the first choice in what should happen with her child," said Larry Jenkins, a Salt Lake City family law attorney.

Utah Adoption Council President Susan Eggbert said Utah's laws "give adoption agencies the freedom to provide a great service to people." Without commenting on the McDonald case directly, Eggbert added, "We can continue to enjoy those freedoms so long as adoption agencies act ethically and morally. But it gets tricky."

Court records for 2003 show 2,190 adoptions were finalized in Utah -- not a high number when compared with other states.

But the adoption industry here is booming. Of Utah's 37 adoption agencies, 13 were licensed in the past six years. During that same period, one agency folded and no licenses were revoked.

Proposals to amend Utah adoption laws have fallen flat before the predominantly Mormon Legislature. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints runs 12 of the state's 37 licensed adoption agencies.

A bill before the 2005 Legislature would mandate offering psychological counseling to all birth mothers. That move, or requiring a judge to sign off on all relinquishments, might prevent lawsuits like the one filed by the McDonalds, Lowry said.

The outcry in Chicago: The lawsuit, pending in Illinois, claims Midvale-based A Cherished Child Adoption agency took advantage of Carmen McDonald's financial and emotional vulnerability, coercing her into surrendering her baby.

Ruby Johnston, the agency's director, now refuses to comment on the case, citing "the need for strict confidentiality for both birth mothers and adoptive parents."

But last month, Johnston spoke to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, saying Carmen McDonald came to Utah to escape family meddling.

"This was not something [Carmen] did at the last minute. She knew fully well that her decision was final. She did not want to leave the child with her mother and that is her choice," she was quoted as saying in a Dec. 9 column.

Tamia is black and her adoptive family is white. Mitchell quoted Johnston as saying white couples in Utah adopt African-American babies because "no one else wants them" -- eliciting a fiery response from the column's black author. She chastised black mothers for thinking "white mothers can do a better job" raising children.

"After all, Utah has never been seen as a state that welcomes blacks," wrote Mitchell, noting that the LDS Church didn't lift its ban on black men in the priesthood until 1978.

Mitchell says she isn't opposed to interracial adoptions.

"I just want to know, how can you fly a child out and put it up for adoption and then tell the grandmother that she has no rights? It doesn't happen like that in our families, or in most families," Mitchell said. "It's sad, because it's giving adoption agencies all over Utah a bad name."

Under Utah law, a grandmother does not have standing to challenge the relinquishment of her granddaughter. A challenge can come only from the child's mother or, in some cases, a biological father.

Once a birth mother relinquishes her parental rights in Utah, she generally has only 24 hours to change her mind. Baby Tamia's father lives in Ohio, but has no rights under Utah law because he hasn't acted within the narrow window provided to fathers to establish paternity.

Chicago attorney Robert Fioretti, who represents the McDonalds, says Carmen supports the lawsuit seeking the return of Tamia, but acknowledges she has checked herself into a hospital where she is being treated for bipolar and manic-depressive disorders.

The legal battle has evoked strong emotions in Chicago, with church leaders assailing Utah adoption agencies. At least two other Chicago grandmothers are calling for the return of babies they say their daughters secretly put up for adoption in Utah.

The common thread: each mother was single, black, struggling financially and allegedly suffering from postpartum depression. And the families who adopted the babies are white.

"I don't know what to do. I don't have money to fight those big agency lawyers," says Wilena Orr, grandmother of a 7-month-old boy adopted in 2003 through Utah's Adoption Center for Choice.

Orr, 55, said her daughter Eula McNulty was being treated for depression when, enticed by a $1,300 check, she agreed to fly to Salt Lake City to surrender her baby. The baby's father was in a Louisiana jail on gun possession charges.

"If she wanted to give up the baby she could have done it here. Why go to Utah?" Orr asked.

Another Chicago woman was grieving her loss of a child to a congenital heart defect when she surrendered her second baby to A Cherished Child, says Earline Drummond, 66, the baby's grandmother. "I don't want my granddaughter to grow up and be looking for her people and think she doesn't have any, or that we didn't try to get her back."

kstewart@sltrib.com

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