DESPERATION FUELED ADOPTION FIRM BROWARD MAN MATCHED IMPATIENT COUPLES WITH MOTHERS-TO-BE
The Miami Herald
January 25, 1988
ADOPTION: Young professional couple, early 30s, religious, happily married 7 years, desperately desires to adopt a white newborn. We will provide a loving home w/much warmth, a very secure future, but most of all lots & lots of love. Attorney involved. All medical, legal and birth related expenses paid. Confidential. Call collect.
The ads have appeared all over the country, mostly in the back pages of rural newspapers, usually with a similar description of the young couple, and always with the same long- distance phone number at the bottom.
The calls come in to a guarded, $600,000 home in Coral Springs, where Richard Lewis Gitelman, one-time Marine, book salesman and art importer, runs an adoption service that works like no other.
Gitelman started five years ago with little more than a push-button phone, classified ads like the one above and this simple proposition:
Couples in a hurry to adopt children pay him fees of up to $10,000; he finds pregnant women to their liking who will give up their babies in exchange for medical and living expenses.
By the time Broward deputies arrested him in October on a Pennsylvania charge expected to lead to an extradition order any day, Gitelman's list of clients -- some joyously happy, some suing mad -- stretched across the country, from New York to California, from Texas to Michigan.
Their stories reveal a business that traded on desperation, where the laws were vague, the profits high and the results sometimes bitterly complicated.
Frightened young mothers tell of being pressured into giving up their babies; couples tell of paying $20,000 and $30,000 in fees for infants they never received; pregnant women tell of responding to what they believed were couples' personal appeals only to end up one of dozens of mothers-to-be housed together, waiting to give birth.
"What he was running was a baby farm," said Morton Laitner, a lawyer with Dade County's Public Health Department. "That may not be how it started out, but that's what it ended up being -- a baby farm."
Gitelman, 45, declined to comment because of the pending
criminal case. He is charged with a third-degree felony of allegedly luring an underaged mother across state lines. Gov. Bob Martinez is expected to order his arrest and extradition this week.
"I can't say anything," Gitelman said.
In court documents in the past, he has said repeatedly that he runs a simple search firm that finds babies for adoptive parents. "I do not sell babies, stock babies or have anything to do with babies in any way, shape or form," he said in one affidavit.
Indeed, when Gitelman started out in Florida in 1983, his National Adoption Counseling Service Inc. seemed a logical response to the changing field of adoption.
Demand for adoptable infants has risen sharply in recent years. The number of babies put up for adoption has dropped with the rise in abortions. Infertility has become more common as many couples delay having children until later in life.
Discouraged by the long waits at public agencies, couples with the means are turning to private lawyers and brokers who arrange adoptions directly with the mothers of the infants.
In Florida, state law requires that adoption agencies be licensed and forbids brokerage fees charged by private individuals. By working strictly on cases out of state, usually where the laws are lax, Gitelman's unlicensed firm stayed out of trouble initially.
Couples found him by word of mouth or through adoption lawyers. In a field otherwise rife with red tape, he worked fast and required little paper work, often arranging adoptions within weeks.
To most of his clients, he was never more than a voice on the phone. Once he took a case, he often would be in touch within days, describing a choice of babies. His details would go down to the parent's living habits, biological makeup, grandparent histories and sometimes the sex and size of infants.
"He earns every bit of that money," said Mary Ann Femmer of Villa Ridge, Mo., who placed the infant of her 16-year-old daughter, then later a second grandchild through Gitelman. "They could not pay me to do what he does, to deal constantly with people in the state that I was in back then."
Working with adoption lawyers around the country, Gitelman was able to find babies for hundreds of couples. In one of the few hints of the breadth of his business, the state of Louisiana documented 127 of Gitelman's adoptions approved by a local court in a 16-month period from July 1985 to January 1987 -- apparently just a portion of his trade nationally.
The brisk business seemed to reward Gitelman. He and his wife drove a Jaguar sports coupe and a Cadillac El Dorado. They owned Rolex watches, raccoon coats, mink stoles, twin VCRs, three stereos and enough jewelry to fill a full page in a list of personal inventory.
Yet as the adoption service picked up, questions, then complaints, rose against Gitelman. Judges and social workers became suspicious at the sheer number of cases he was handling.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in Louisiana, where, until the laws were tightened at the end of 1987, neither the mother nor the adoptive parents had to be residents. Gitelman used the small central Louisiana town of Mamou for the mothers who would give birth and for the new parents to pick up the babies and file the court cases.
"We never saw anybody," said Louise Bourne, who at the time ran the state family services division that reviewed adoptions.
"They came here, picked up the children after they were born, the petitions were filed and they flew back to their home states. We had to report to the court on the suitability of adoptions where we never saw the mother, never saw the child, never saw the adoptive couple."
Bourne said that violated the spirit of state review of adoptions. As those involved in Gitelman's cases have come forward, they tell of other apparent breaches of adoption rules.
Ads led to Gitelman
Twenty-one-year-old Laurie Swanson and her mother, Bonnie, found Gitelman through an April 1985 classified ad in The Valley Morning Star in Harlingen, Texas.
So began a long phone relationship in which Gitelman said he had a couple who would pay travel expenses, medical bills and living costs in exchange for the baby.
"Did you ask Mr. Gitelman if he was making any money on Laurie's child?" a lawyer asked Mrs. Swanson in a deposition later.
"Yes," she said.
"What did he say?" the lawyer asked.
"He told me no," Mrs. Swanson said.
In July, the mother and daughter arrived at a Mamou apartment building that already housed a dozen or so other pregnant women. Some were runaways, some single, some married with children and husbands.
A healthy baby girl soon was born to Laurie Swanson. When she was supposed to sign adoption papers five days later, the young woman expressed doubts about the whole procedure to the lawyers who worked with Gitelman.
"They said she could either sign the papers, or she had to pay back the bill and all the living expenses," Bonnie Swanson said from her home in Rio Hondo, Texas. "They told how much the hospital bill was. It was astronomical. We didn't have that kind of money."
Laurie Swanson gave up the baby.
Some fled from Gitelman's arrangements. Two young women came to Dr. Mark Dawson, the regional coroner and a family doctor near Mamou, who helped them get away from the apartments about a year ago after they grew worried about the mass adoptions.
"They were scared," said Dawson. "It was a subtle type of thing that was done to them. They had no money. They had no transportation. They're in the middle of nowhere. They're intimidated into staying."
In a few cases, women have sued to get back their babies after the adoption, sometimes revealing questionable payments to mothers of the infants. One suit told of a payment far in excess of the cost of the birth.
Phyllis Quintana, then a 21-year-old secretary from Albuquerque, N.M., contacted Gitelman through a newspaper ad after a baby girl was born to her and her boyfriend in March 1984.
After a series of phone calls, she said Gitelman agreed to a flat $7,000 fee in exchange for her child. Her contract explained the money as delivery expenses, but Quintana said later that the actual fees were not nearly that high.
Quintana sued and got her child back. In a deposition for the case, she said nobody with Gitelman's adoption process ever counseled her about the adoption or questioned whether it was the right decision.
"The only thing they ever talked about was money. You can get this for that, you can get this for your medical bills," said Quintana. "That's all they ever talked about."
There were reasons money was on Gitelman's mind.
Unknown to those in his adoption business, Gitelman left behind a tangle of debts when he closed his New York art sales firm in 1983, sold his Long Island home and moved to Coral Springs in northwest Broward County.
Just as his adoption business was cresting, the bills caught up with him. He declared bankruptcy in May 1986. Court records show that debts from around the country now total $1.8 million, including numerous unpaid Visa, Mastercard and American Express bills, hotel charges, car payments, business expenses and loans to him from his family unpaid for years.
Creditors found Gitelman's finances full of inconsistencies. He filed no taxes from 1982 to 1985. When he did offer back returns in 1986, the incomes he claimed differed sharply from banking statements and what appeared to be his earnings from the adoption business, court documents show.
Gitelman said at one point that he wasn't sure how much he was making. "I have no idea," he said in a deposition for the bankruptcy case. "One year I didn't make a damn dime."
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Sidney Weaver found the claims unbelievable. In a pointed ruling last June, the judge concluded that Gitelman "knowingly made a continuous series of fraudulent representations" in arranging bank loans that helped launch his Florida business.
Business troubles mount
As Gitelman's financial troubles mounted, so did his difficulties in the adoption business.
First Oregon, then Louisiana tightened their laws, both in part because of Gitelman. A suit by Dade County health department attorney Laitner, filed on behalf of the state, to close down his adoption firm was dismissed in 1986. But the agency kept track of Gitelman's dealings, and alerted other states of his practices.
Gradually Gitelman's reputation started catching up with him.
District Judge Sam Bruner in suburban Kansas City grew alarmed over the $10,000 finder's fees he discovered in two adoption cases arranged by Gitelman that came through his court a year and a half ago.
"I simply didn't think it was fair," the judge said recently. "I don't feel comfortable that the only people who can hire this type of service are the ones that can pay $10,000."
The judge ordered most of the fees returned and never saw a Gitelman case again. But before the petition was concluded, he found out why private arrangers are in such demand.
"One of the couples said, 'Judge, we'd have paid $50,000 if that's what it took,' " Bruner said. " 'We don't want the money back. The beauty that this has provided us is far in excess of what he's been paid.' "
Some of his clients say they've paid nearly that price between Gitelman's fee, legal bills and the mother's medical costs, living expenses and travel bills, only to have the adoption fall through.
Soft legal ground
Already on soft legal ground in some of their cases, the couples say they have nowhere to take their complaints. Some said Gitelman turned crude and sometimes threatening once their deals collapsed.
"It has been very bad. We lost a lot of money and we had emotional pain," said Ellen Worstadt, a homemaker from Rockville Centre, N.Y., who dealt with Gitelman for months without ever getting a child. "It was a horror," she said in a deposition.
Then in the fall of 1987, Gitelman got into criminal trouble.
The parents of a 17-year-old runaway from the Southwest Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Nemacolin tracked their pregnant daughter to one of the Louisiana hotels where Gitelman
put up his clients.
The young woman, Rebekah Lin Dulik, told of a new side of Gitelman's system. She said that at one point he asked her if she would bear a second child for him to place after the first was delivered.
After Pennsylvania investigators pieced together what happened, they charged Gitelman with the custody case, a charge usually used in domestic cases. He turned himself in to Broward deputies Oct. 29 and was freed on bond pending his extradition.
"We're going to fight this," said David Bogenschutz, Gitelman's lawyer. "We just don't think a crime was committed."
As word of the charge has spread, other complaints against Gitelman have surfaced from around the country. Federal prosecutors in Miami and Pennsylvania are now looking into some of those cases as well.
"Before it's over, I expect we'll have heard from every state but Alaska," said Judi Cochran, a Pennsylvania district attorney investigator who is working on the Gitelman prosecution.
As one of the first cases of its kind, it brings with it questions rarely raised in the past.
"Maybe if we ourselves aren't interested in adoption, it's easier to be hard-nosed and say that this is baby selling," said Betsey Rosenbaum, a project manager with the American Public Welfare Association, a trade group that reviews adoption cases that cross state lines.
"But if you really want a baby, and that's the only way you can do it and you can afford it, why shouldn't you use your resources to get what you want? I don't think society is really too clear on this."
Those who work in the adoption field say the reason profit should be kept out of the adoption business is simple.
"When you go to place children, you should shop for the parents who best meet the child's need," said Bruce McNellie, a social worker who looked into Gitelman cases in Texas. "You don't shop for the child who best fits the parents' needs."
Added Peggy Baker, who oversees adoptions in Kansas: "Do we want to say that only people who can afford these kids can adopt like this? I don't think that necessarily means you're going to be the best adoptive parent. Are you going to have any time for the kids? Or is this your purchase for the year?"
Despite the consensus among adoption professionals, even they admit that demand for alternatives to government child- placement is spreading.
As state laws tighten in response to businesses like Gitelman's, the role of the private arranger is likely to become only more lucrative -- and more in demand.
Gitelman, while free on bond on the eve of his extradition, refused to say whether he is still in business. Yet he is still taking calls at his adoption service.
When an injunction was pending in Florida, Gitelman started using a Louisiana number. When that state tightened its laws with the recent new year, someone placed a recording on the Louisiana phone, giving callers a new number.
It is actually Gitelman's old line, which rings in his Coral Springs home where his business began. An answering service promises callers that Gitelman will return inquiries shortly.