LAWS, AND LAWSUITS, CATCH UP WITH INTERSTATE BABY BROKER
THE SEATTLE TIMES
January 28, 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."
MIAMI _ 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 to a guarded, $600,000 home in Coral Springs, Fla., 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 County 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 third-degree felony for allegedly luring an underage mother across state lines. Florida Gov. Bob Martinez is expected to order his arrest and extradition this week.
In court documents in the past, Gitelman 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 rates have skyrocketed, and many couples have delayed 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. It 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.
"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 two luxury cars and owned enough jewelry to fill a full-page 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. There, 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 as an exchange point for the mothers to 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."
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.
In July, mother and daughter arrived at a Mamou apartment building, which already housed a dozen or so other pregnant women. Some were runaways, some single, some married and with children and husbands.
A healthy baby girl 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.
"They told how much the hospital bill was. It was astronomical. We didn't have that kind of money."
Laurie Swanson gave up her baby.
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, Fla.
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.
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 to close down Gitelman's adoption firm was dismissed in 1986, but the agency kept track of his dealings, and alerted other states to his practices.
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 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 had happened, they charged Gitelman with a custody 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.
As one of the first cases of its kind, it brings with it questions rarely raised in the past.
"Do we want to say that only people who can afford these kids can adopt like this?" said Peggy Baker, who oversees adoptions in Kansas. "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?'