BABY BROKER LOOKS OVER S.C. LAWS
DEBRA-LYNN B. HOOK
March 7, 1988
A Florida baby broker, whose for-profit adoption practices have provoked new laws in two states, has been looking for fertile ground in South Carolina, where there is a gap in adoption laws.
Richard Gitelman, who Florida investigators said charges $24,000 to $45,000 to secure a baby for prospective parents, has talked to three family practice lawyers in South Carolina about conducting money-for-babies transactions here, said one of those lawyers, Randall M. Chastain.
Also, a 26-year-old woman told The State that Gitelman moved her and her family from California to Columbia 4 1/2 months ago so she could have a baby for a Gitelman client. The woman, who said she already had one baby for Gitelman clients in another state in May 1987, said she had a miscarriage.
Gitelman, reached in Coral Springs, Fla., where he lives, would not comment about his South Carolina interest or any aspect of his business. His lawyer, David Bogenschutz, also would not comment.
Officials at the state Department of Social Services, which is South Carolina's designated public adoption agency, shudder at the thought of a profit-seeking adoption agent doing business here.
Four years ago, the state's adoption laws were highlighted through the case of a Fountain Inn woman who tried to sell her child for $3,500. Lawmakers, responding to adverse national and local publicity, realized there was no provision outlawing baby-selling in South Carolina.
Legislators and adoption officials passed sweeping revisions to the adoption laws in 1986. Those revisions established requirements for home studies. A certified investigator had to report that the adoptive parent and the birth mother were fit to handle a baby transaction before such a transaction could take place.
The law tightened residency requirements so that only people who could prove they had permanent residence in South Carolina could adopt here, except under special circumstances.
Legislators also passed provisions that they thought removed the profit motive. First, it became a crime for a woman to sell her baby. Also, licensed "child placing agencies," such as DSS and church-affiliated agencies around the state, couldn't profit from placing a baby.
But fees for adoption middlemen were not outlawed. Rep. David Wilkins, R- Greenville, who drafted the law, said he didn't think broker fees were discussed during hearings about the plan.
"We had been addressing a specific situation," Wilkins said. "We were trying to make it narrow so we could get it passed."
Wilkins, contacted about the Florida businessman's interest in South Carolina, said Gitelman's potential presence in this state has made him realize broker fees also need to be outlawed -- much as they were in Louisiana in 1987 and Oregon in 1985. Responding to Gitelman's operations, lawmakers in those two states prohibited broker fees.
"On the one hand, I'm sure there are many parents who have adopted who say it was well worth the money they paid to the individual," Wilkins said. "By the same token, it bothers me that we're allowing our children to go to the highest bidder. I don't think it's healthy, and I don't think it's something we should allow."
Wilkins, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he intended to talk with the state's Joint Legislative Committee on Children about amending the law. That committee's chairman, Sen. Nell Smith, D-Pickens, said she is eager to listen.
The National Committee for Adoption in Washington, D.C., a privately funded information bank on adoption practices around the country, takes a strong stand against profits in adoption.
"It breeds situations where pregnant young women are prey," said Jeff Rosenberg, director of adoption services for that committee. "Once you put a price tag on a healthy white infant's foot, you're going to get young women repeatedly calling up, talking about being pressured into releasing their babies.
"The only interest becomes money."
Rosenberg acknowledged that there are some costs -- legal, medical and possibly housing -- that go with adopting a baby. But he said the total rarely tops $15,000.
"I tell people when they ask, 'If you're paying more than $15,000, I would have some questions,' " Rosenberg said.
Gitelman's base charge is $15,000 before additional medical, legal and "other fees," said Morton Laitner, an attorney with Florida's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services who has helped investigate Gitelman's business for that state.
Those additional fees usually amount to another $9,000 to $30,000 -- much more than typical medical and legal expenses accrued in adoption cases, said Laitner and Judi Cochran with the Pennsylvania Task Force on interstate child exploitation, who has been tracking cases around the country and is helping the FBI investigate Gitelman. One man in New Jersey reported paying Gitelman $72,000 for a baby, Ms. Cochran said.
Columbia lawyer Chastain, who has handled "a few" private adoptions, would not put a price on adoptions, except to say that lawyers should be allowed to collect customary fees. Chastain said lawyers have been known to charge $500 to $1,000 for their time in adoption cases, although complex casework may cost $3,500.
Chastain said Gitelman didn't talk about fees, but he did say he had been researching law in South Carolina. Gitelman sounded as if he intended to comply with the law, Chastain said. He said he wouldn't have a problem working with Gitelman as long as he operates legally and charges a reasonable fee.
"If someone comes to me and wants me to help" place a child, "as long as they're working in a legal fashion, I see nothing objectionable about that," Chastain said. "If I find out he's charging $50,000, well, that's another thing."
Gitelman, 45, who has operated his business for five years, always researches a state's laws thoroughly before deciding whether to introduce his business there, Laitner said. A concurrent move is to line up local lawyers who will handle the paperwork while Gitelman sticks close to home, Laitner said.
Gitelman typically finds women by advertising in small-town newspapers. The ads say a young, white couple is looking for a child to adopt, Laitner said. The advertisement says all medical and legal fees are paid and offers a number that pregnant women can call, collect.
An answering service will connect the women with Gitelman. If adoption laws in the pregnant woman's home state are stringent, he will move her to another state to give birth, Laitner said.
The 26-year-old woman who talked with The State about her dealings with Gitelman said she found him in February 1987 through an advertisement in a newspaper in Illinois, where she was living with her husband and three children.
She said she was six months' pregnant and panicking about having another baby on her husband's meager salary as a glass cutter when she saw the advertisement.
Gitelman offered to pay all medical fees for the mother and housing fees for the family and to give the mother $150 a week for food if she would move to Louisiana to have the baby, the woman said. At that time, Louisiana law was on Gitelman's side, and he was conducting much of his business there, said aJoel McLain, in charge of adoptions at the Louisiana Health and Human Resources.
The woman said she had her baby in May and afterward, Gitelman moved her and her family to California, where she asked to go so she could be closer to her husband's parents. In August, the woman said, she found out she was pregnant again. In October, she again contacted Gitelman and told him she would move to Louisiana if he would take her baby again.
Changes in Louisiana laws went into effect in October; broker's fees were outlawed and stringent requirements had been placed on out-of-state adoptions, McLain said.
The woman said Gitelman told her that he wanted her to move to South Carolina. She found out in December that she was no longer pregnant and is still in Columbia working as a waitress at a pizza parlor.
The woman said Gitelman seemed to be a "very nice guy." She said she didn't feel mistreated.
Other prospective parents have reported having pleasant experiences with Gitelman, who is usually able to find a baby for desperate couples much more quickly than an adoption agency can, Ms. Cochran said.
However, some women have complained about being pressured into giving up their babies, Laitner and Ms. Cochran said. And couples have reported paying $20,000 and $30,000 in fees for infants they never received.
Pregnant women also have complained that Gitelman misrepresents himself -- the women initially feel Gitelman is making a personal appeal only to find later that they're one of several women waiting to give birth, Ms. Cochran said.
Complaints have prompted changes in Oregon and Louisiana laws and a move by Florida to oust Gitelman from that state for consumer fraud.
He also was charged by Greene County, Pa., authorities in October with coaxing an under-aged pregnant woman across state lines. He is fighting extradition now, said Greene County District Attorney David Pollack.
The woman was 17, pregnant and unmarried when she heard about Gitelman, Ms. Cochran said. With Gitelman's help, she secretly left Pennsylvania for Louisiana to have her baby. The young woman's parents contacted authorities who found her in Louisiana, Pollack said. Laws in Pennsylvania say it is unlawful to tamper with the custody of a child, Pollack said.
While various states try to make it harder and harder for Gitelman to maintain his business, Ms. Cochran is hoping that complaints of fraud nationwide will help the FBI make a federal mail and telephone fraud case against Gitelman.
In the meanwhile, Gitelman is attempting to move to the West Indies island of Montserrat to continue his services outside the reach of U.S. laws, Laitner said. Shortly after Pennsylvania's charges were filed against him, Gitelman helped persuade the Legislative Council of Montserrat to pass a bill permitting women to come to the island to deliver the babies and arrange the adoptions.
The island's governor, Christopher Turner, had not signed the bill last week, his assistant said.