Baby tale: A peek at adoption's dark side

Relates to:
Date: 2005-02-22

Utah-Illinois cases: A judge uses the word "stolen"; others say rights are sometimes trampled; Custody case sheds light on Utah agencies

Kirsten Stewart
The Salt Lake Tribune

Hours after his birth in Illinois, "Baby Wade" was "stolen" by a Utah adoption agency.

So thundered an Illinois judge in a detailed March 2004 ruling that ordered A Cherished Child Adoption Agency, based in Midvale, to return the then-7-month-old to his biological father in Sagamon County, Ill.

The court order was made public last week by attorneys for Carmen McDonald, a Chicago woman who also has sued A Cherished Child. McDonald alleges the agency took advantage of her financial and emotional vulnerability and in December coerced her into surrendering her 3-month-old girl for adoption.

Attorneys for A Cherished Child refuse to comment on the lawsuits. But McDonald's attorneys hope the Baby Wade ruling will help give them the leverage they need for an injunction ordering "Baby Tamia's" immediate return.

A hearing to determine whether an Illinois court has jurisdiction over the Baby Tamia dispute is scheduled in Chicago today.

But the ruling also offers a rare glimpse at the confidentiality-cloaked world of adoption, at least as it happens in Utah. One industry watchdog says Utah laws -- particularly, a short waiting period and limited protections for unmarried biological fathers -- can victimize fathers and adoptive parents, as illustrated by the ruling.

Baby Wade's story: In the summer of 2003, Elicia Wade, 18, was pregnant -- and about to start college, the Illinois judge recounts. Fearing she would lose her scholarship, the Sagamon County woman wanted to place the baby for adoption. But her boyfriend, the child's father, was prepared to take full custody.

Lorenzo Harrington attended each of Elicia's 30 well-baby checkups. He offered encouragement and support throughout the 23-hour labor. And when Baby Wade was born Aug. 17, 2003, Harrington was the first person to hold him. He had already purchased a stroller and a car seat.

But hours after Elicia was discharged from the hospital on Aug. 19, she flew to Utah to surrender the baby without Lorenzo's knowledge.

A Cherished Child employee picked her up at the Salt Lake City International Airport and took her to a motel. Early the following morning, a counselor met with her for 15 minutes. Elicia then signed the relinquishment papers, an act witnessed by an agency representative and a motel maid.

Then, the Arizona adoptive parents came for the baby, giving Elicia "a picture book of the family, a letter and a necklace." Elicia gave them a diaper bag. She returned to Illinois -- where she changed her mind about the adoption a day later.

She called A Cherished Child, and executive director Ruby Johnston told her "she was horrible for wanting the baby back," according to the ruling.

Before Elicia had left for Utah, Harrington had told Johnston he would not consent to the adoption. He filed for paternity 30 days after the baby was born and succeeded in getting his name on the baby's birth certificate -- too late by Utah standards.

But Associate Circuit Court Judge Steven H. Nardulli determined Illinois, and not Utah, law applied to Baby Wade.

The judge examined a petition by A Cherished Child, which was trying to terminate Harrington's parental rights, and Harrington's counterclaim seeking his son.

In a 10-page ruling, Nardulli concluded Baby Wade had been "stolen" by agency staff who lured the baby's mother to Utah to "avoid Lorenzo's claim as the father and the [Illinois] 72-hour waiting period" for finalizing adoptions. He was adopted 67 hours after birth.

The judge said he sympathized with the adoptive parents, who he felt had been "victimized," but ordered the agency to return the baby to Harrington.

Considering fathers: In Utah, once a birth mother relinquishes her parental rights, she has 24 hours to change her mind. A birth father's rights are also revoked at that time, unless he has taken steps to establish his paternity.

That's no easy task for unmarried fathers like Harrington, says Orem family attorney Philip Lowry.

To preserve his parental rights under Utah law, an unmarried father must file for paternity, showing in court that he has provided some degree of financial and emotional support to the child, and register with the state's Putative Father Registry.

Adoption attorney Dave McConkie says the law prevents adoptions from being tied up by frivolous custody battles.

"Fathers are elusive. You get plenty of cases in the country where one guy will come in and sign the relinquishment, and the mother comes back and says, 'Guess what, that wasn't the true father,' " McConkie says. "Do we say to the mother, 'Tell us everyone you had sexual relations with and then we'll publish their names in the newspaper?' "

Lowry argues the law goes too far, trampling fathers' rights: "Utah is saying, 'We don't like babies born out of wedlock,' and wagering that 99 percent of these fathers are deadbeats who aren't worth the money and time to protect the small rights they have."

In Harrington's case, the Illinois judge criticized A Cherished Child for fast-tracking the adoption "in the hopes that a young man with Lorenzo's limited education would fall into the trap of technical adoption laws and falter in the assertion of his rights as a father."

Preferring to put the lawsuit behind him, Harrington declined to discuss the case.

Lowry calls Utah's "adoption friendly" laws anything but, stressing they hurt adoptive parents "who spend $20,000 for a baby to find out later that the natural father wants the child."

Without passing judgment on A Cherished Child, Utah Adoption Council President Susan Egbert says most Utah adoption agencies operate ethically and abide by state laws.

"Adoption happens privately and quietly until something bad happens and we're back on the map again," she said.

The fight for Tamia: In the McDonald case, Tamia's father is not asserting his rights. Her return is being sought by her grandmother and her mother, who has suffered from a history of mental illness.

The McDonalds' attorney, Robert Fioretti, acknowledges even if he prevails, Utah courts could refuse to enforce an Illinois ruling. But he was upbeat after last week's initial hearing, in which Cook County Presiding Judge Michael Murphy pushed for quick resolution of the case and asked Illinois' attorney general to contact Utah's attorney general. He also ordered A Cherished Child to notify the adoptive parents of the challenge.

"We think there's enough here to prove the contract was taken under duress, fraud and misrepresentations by the adoption agency. Even Utah courts should say no to this," said Fioretti.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says he hasn't yet heard from his Illinois counterpart. And state regulators, unaware until now of the "Baby Wade" ruling, say they have no plans to investigate A Cherished Child.

"I will probably ask the agency about it. But I don't know if we'll treat it as a formal complaint," said licensing administrator Jan Knaphus.

kstewart@sltrib.com

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