Private adoption laws have too many loopholes, critics say
November 20, 1987
Thousands of children placed in homes each year through private adoptions must depend on a legal system that critics say is poorly regulated, with too many loopholes and too few safeguards.
The death of Elizabeth Steinberg, the battered 6-year-old New York girl, is what some experts contend is a worst-case example of how a private adoption can go awry.
The child was given up at birth to lawyer Joel Steinberg, who promised to find her a solid home. However, Steinberg and his live-in companion kept the child after a prospective adoptive family refused to pay $50,000, an attorney for the girl's mother said.
Steinberg and his companion, Hedda Nussbaum, are charged with murder. Elizabeth's death was attributed to repeated blows to the head and body.
"The Steinberg case is an extreme example, but it points to what can happen in any potential independent adoption," said Jeff Rosenberg, adoption services director at the National Committee for Adoption, which represents private adoption agencies. "It points out the need for some real changes in our adoption system.
"There's no question there's not tough enough laws," he added. "You have 50 different state laws, filled with loopholes... You can have a lot of things go on - baby selling, pressuring young women, tricking them."
Defenders of private adoptions say the problems are with individuals.
"To take a freaky thing like this and say this is why private adoptions are not good is not just," said David Keene Leavitt, a Beverly Hills, Calif., lawyer who handles up to 300 private adoptions a year.
"Clean adoptions do not require agencies," he said. "All they require is a well-regulated system and openness."
Leavitt said there also have been scandals in licensed adoption agencies.
He cited a California case in which a transvestite and his "husband" were charged with beating to death a 14-month-old child in their custody whom they were attempting to adopt through an agency.
Rosenberg said 45 states allow some form of private adoption without licensing or certification.
"We require people to have licenses to sell real estate, but we don't have them licensed to place children," said Sanford Katz, family law professor at Boston College Law School. "It's a shocking mistreatment of children."
Critics of private adoption also say penalties for breaking adoption laws are insufficient.
In the New York case, Steinberg did not seek to adopt Elizabeth legally, and no charges have been filed in connection with the way he gained custody of her. Authorities, however, are investigating reports that Steinberg may have been involved in a baby "black market."
Several operations involving commerce in children have come to the attention of authorities recently:
A Florida man was charged with conspiracy and interfering with the custody of a minor, in a case involving the child of a Pennsylvania teen-ager.
Authorities allege Richard Gitelman operated as a baby broker, using classified ads to entice unwed mothers to travel to Louisiana to give up their babies. Authorities said he charged $10,000 to $30,000 to locate a baby.
The Massachusetts attorney general's office in July entered a judgment against a woman, banning her from providing adoption services without a license and ordering her to refund more than $20,000 to couples to whom she had promised, but did not deliver, children.
Officials also allege Suzanne Champney placed sick children, mostly from Central America, whom she had described as healthy.
Dallas lawyer Robert Kingsley, accused of paying an unwed mother more than $2,000 in living expenses in exchange for her child, was sentenced in October 1986 to seven years in prison and fined $5,000.
Two months later, he pleaded guilty to two other counts of purchasing a child and was sentenced to 10 years' probation, fined and ordered to pay restitution to adoptive parents in one case. Kingsley has won a retrial on the first case.
At any time, about 2 million couples want to adopt, Rosenberg estimated, and only about 20,000 to 25,000 healthy babies are adopted each year. About half are agency adoptions, the others private, he said.
Rosenberg said people seek private adoptions because they are faster and because prospective parents and mothers can circumvent screening.