Desparate to adopt, couples increasingly turn to ads

Michael Vitez
The Philadelphia Inquirer
April 16, 1989

ADOPTION: love and hugs await the child we hope to adopt.
Call Jane and Hal collect anytime. 215-925-9899.

Jane Fischer and Hal Broderson were desperate for a baby. After two years of trying to have a child, after costly fertility treatment failed to produce a pregnancy, they turned to adoption. But one after another, the agencies painted them a grim picture.

"We were told we'd have to wait years and years," recalled Fischer, who then was 32 and a corporate lawyer in Philadelphia. ". . . We figured there's got to be a better way."

In the summer of 1987, at an impasse on the conventional road to adoption, she and her husband set out to explore the unconventional. Broderson, a doctor working toward his MBA, searched the Wharton School's computerized library and printed out reams of research material. Fischer plowed through it. Soon she chanced upon an avenue that, while fraught with great risk, also held the possibility of great reward: the classified ad.

In small but steadily increasing numbers, childless couples were resorting to newspaper advertising to find pregnant women who, after delivery, would give up their babies for private adoption.

Since then, the ads have become a stock tool, albeit a highly controversial one, in the radically changed world of adoption - a baby chase where an estimated 40 couples compete for every available healthy white baby.

An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 healthy infants are adopted annually in this country, about half of them privately - and in a growing majority of those cases, the couples advertise.

When Fischer and Broderson began their quest, however, the concept was still novel - and, in the estimation of Broderson's parents, dreadful. ''Things just aren't done that way," they warned the couple.

Fischer herself was skeptical: "It seemed like a real long shot, because you can't help wondering . . . who the hell is going to answer an ad like this."

Still, they decided to compose an ad - one that, she hoped, would "convey as much warmth as possible" - and spent $600 blanketing college papers, small weeklies and penny-savers.

In 18 states, such advertising is illegal. Fischer and Broderson zeroed in on states considered "friendly" toward private adoption, where laws allowed for quick termination of the birth mother's parental rights. They settled on Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arizona and Arkansas.

Fischer and Broderson had a separate telephone line installed in their home. Three weeks later, they received their first call, from an 18-year-old Louisiana woman five months pregnant.

Although Fischer kept her last name secret, she found a deepening rapport with the woman; every week they talked.

The couple agreed to pay her prenatal care, adoption counseling, and legal and medical expenses, about $10,000 including their own travel costs.

Meanwhile, though, they worried. Under no legal commitment to give up her child for adoption, the birth mother could back out at any time, leaving Fischer and Broderson with nothing but bills and broken hearts.

In February 1988, Seth was born.

"We were in the delivery room at the time of birth," said Fischer, "and my husband helped deliver him and cut the cord. I was the first to hold him and talk to him."

Six days later, Fischer sat in a Louisiana hotel room with Seth, waiting for word that his natural mother was ready to sign a form terminating her parental rights. Instead, "I got a phone call that she was too upset to sign," Fischer recalled. "She said she had been crying all day. . . . I said, 'Take all the time in the world that you need. As painful as it is for me, this is your baby until you're ready to give him up.' "

Several hours later, the woman called back. She wanted to sign.

Seth now is 14 months old, a toddler bouncing around the couple's Wynnewood home. And Jane Fischer is a private adoption attorney, practicing out of an office in her basement. In the last year, she has worked with 100 couples. Forty-six have successfully adopted infants, 36 of them through the classifieds. One couple placed an ad and, less than two weeks later, found a birth mother ready to deliver.

When it goes awry, advertising "can be terribly devastating," Fischer cautioned. "But where else can a couple find and adopt a baby within 10 days, like one of our couples, or in four months like my husband and I."

*

Traditional adoption agencies still find homes for at least half of the healthy infants adopted each year. Such agencies typically take custody of a newborn, perhaps put the infant into foster care until all parental rights are legally terminated, then award the child to clients of their choice.

Many couples prefer this route. They may wait longer, and the child may be several months old when placed, but the baby is less likely to be taken away
from them should the birth mother change her mind. For others, though, that process can be so frustrating that they take matters into their own hands. They, with the aid of independent attorneys such as Jane Fischer, have been turning to the classified ad as their primary tool for finding babies.

"Almost all couples are reluctant to do it, but it's the only thing they can possibly do," said Samuel C. Totaro, a Trevose lawyer who handles 100 to 150 private adoptions a year. "They've tried all the other avenues. Writing to doctors, friends, agencies are all coming up dead ends."

Advertising appears to work for many of them, in part because mothers planning to give up their children for adoption increasingly want more control. They want to pick the new parents, meet them and, in some cases, keep in touch for years after the adoption - although most adopting parents still want their own last names and addresses kept secret.

Birth mothers "seem to want the reassurance that the baby's going to a good, loving home," Fischer said, "and they seem to feel that, unless they can talk to the couple themselves and satisfy themselves instinctively that the baby's going to a good, loving home, they won't be happy."

But advertising also carries huge risks. Agency proponents warn that everyone can get hurt. Birth mothers may never receive counseling crucial to their decision, or may even be duped into giving up their children to baby brokers. Adopting couples can be left emotionally devastated and thousands of
dollars poorer by young women who shop around for the best deal, change their mind at the last minute - or may not be pregnant at all but simply hustling vulnerable couples.

Not least of the potential victims, critics warn, are the babies, who could end up in bad homes.

State to state, laws governing advertising as a route to adoption differ radically. For instance, both Pennsylvania and New Jersey allow advertising. In Delaware, it's a moot point because all private adoptions are illegal there. In California, advertising is illegal - but many couples place their ads in out-of-state papers, then bring the babies back. In Georgia, advertising is a felony, punishable by a 10-year prison term. "The purpose is to discourage people from getting involved in anything that might smack of a baby-selling situation," explained Georgia Attorney General Michael J. Bowers.

Jeffrey Rosenberg, executive director of the National Committee for Adoption in Washington, which represents 145 nonprofit adoption agencies, says classified advertising should be banned outright.

"There's simply no way for a young pregnant woman to know if the couple placing the ad would be appropriate parents for her baby - or to even know if the ad is legitimate or, if not, some sort of front for a baby mill,"
Rosenberg said.

One case that troubled Rosenberg involved an ad placed in 1987 by Richard Gitelman, president of a company called the National Adoptive Council Service Inc. in Coral Springs, Fla. Through the classifieds, he drew a pregnant 17- year-old Pennsylvania girl from a coal mining town below Pittsburgh to New Orleans, promising to pay her $100 a week for three months until she had her baby. Gitelman, according to Florida authorities, kept about 20 apartments in Louisiana for such girls. He charged his clients, often wealthy, white infertile couples, up to $15,000 for a baby, not including medical and legal expenses, authorities said.

Gitelman gave the Pennsylvania girl a plane ticket and travel expenses, then tried to prevent her from calling home, they said. Gitelman was charged with interference with the custody of a minor, a felony in Pennsylvania. He pleaded guilty in absentia, was fined $7,500 and given one year probation.

Reached at his Florida office last week, Gitelman declined to comment.

If birth mothers risk answering bogus ads, adopting parents face similar hazards. "Adoptive parents are probably the most gullible people," said Trevose lawyer Totaro. "They'll do anything. I'm an adoptive parent myself. They'll do anything at the drop of a hat."

Private adoption attorneys warn of the "shop-around mother," who answers several ads and asks each couple for money. In some cases, the women aren't even pregnant. "We ask for verification from a doctor of pregnancy," said Lucille Rosenstock, a New York lawyer who specializes in private adoption and strongly encourages her clients to advertise. "Verification is faxed to us."

Most people who place ads and the birth mothers who answer them, even the critics concede, are not motivated by money. Often, they're sincere folks willing to gamble for what they want.

"You pray the phone will ring," said one Bucks County woman who successfully adopted through advertising. "Then you're scared to death when it does."

Indeed, her first two contacts with birth mothers fell through. "You really have to hang in there. It was the longest six months in my life."

Mary Kent of Villanova found little luck in advertising. She and her husband received several calls - including some from birth mothers who merely wanted to hang on the phone - but nothing worked out. They also got salesmen calling. "It's not something I'd ever do again," she said.

Another adoptive couple endured a seemingly endless series of ordeals. The first birth mother backed out hours after her baby was delivered - a delivery that they had paid for. A baby born to a second woman had birth defects, and after tearful deliberation, the couple opted not to adopt. A third time, the adoption was successful, but only after the birth mother hesitated.

"I used to love roller-coasters," the adoptive father said of the emotional upheaval. "Now I can't go near them."

*

Many of the couples who seek counsel from Jane Fischer are a lot like her and Hal Broderson - highly motivated and successful professionals accustomed to making things go their way. "They've been able to deal with every stumbling block they've come across," except the prospect of childlessness, Fischer said. "I felt the same way."

Some agency officials' reservations about advertising spring from that I- want-it-all attitude. "Maybe it's not so awful that not everybody is a parent," said one Delaware adoption official who wanted to remain anonymous. They believe "the world has denied them of this one thing and they've been cheated forever. Some of these people get so fixated that they really need (counseling) to think it through. Is it the next diamond in the crown, or is it the welfare of the child?"

According to Rosenberg of the National Committee for Adoption, "If the couple wants to be aggressive, spend money on advertising, they can indeed get a baby through independent adoption. But adoption is not about 'getting a baby.' It's about finding a good home for a child."

Agency officials say their primary advantage is counseling for both the adoptive parents and the birth mother. Independent adoption attorneys contend that private transactions are as safe as agency adoptions. They point to the Interstate Compact, a set of regulations agreed to by all states to oversee interstate adoption. It mandates, according to Fischer, preliminary home studies of adopting parents by licensed social workers and follow-up visits after a child is placed. The problem, Rosenberg says, is that the compact ''has no teeth."

Attorneys also frequently recommend counseling for the birth mother prior to delivery. Laws covering the kinds of expenses adopting couples may pay, however, vary widely from state to state - some forbid couples from footing the bill for such counseling.

Jane Fischer and Hal Broderson studied the laws of 42 states before choosing Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Arizona. After that, they had to find just the right newspapers for their ad. They turned to
college papers and penny-savers, the kind, she said, "that are thrown on front lawns or left in laundromats and supermarkets. They can be very effective. I don't know why, they just seem to be."

Philadelphia area college papers report an increase in such ads. At the University of Pennsylvania, the Daily Pennsylvanian receives four to five adoption ads weekly, from all over the country. Last year, two or three ran each week. Only recently, the Temple News began receiving one or two adoption ads a week. La Salle's paper, the Collegian, ran its first adoption ad a month ago. St. Joseph's University had received just one, and the paper's editorial board chose not to run it.

Lucille Rosenstock doesn't recommend college papers. "College papers aren't great, because college girls tend to have abortions."

USA Today, one of the largest newspapers to run adoption classifieds, began accepting the ads two years ago; in the last six months, according to a spokesman, the volume has increased. Betty Ionata, of the Intercounty Newspaper, a chain of area weeklies, said she had begun receiving adoption ads in the last few months. The Inquirer and Daily News do not accept any adoption classifieds.

In the end, private adoption attorneys say there is no magic formula. "Big papers are good," Rosenstock said. "Little papers are good."

Some couples choose to advertise far away, to put distance between them and the birth mother. Others prefer proximity, so their lawyers can work closely with the birth mother.

One thing everyone agrees on, though, is the importance of wording in an ad. Rosenstock points out that some of the adoptive couples "are wealthy, and they have a home on the shore. Let the mother know this. Others have a close extended family. These are the things the natural mother looks for. Let the natural mother know their strength, what they have to offer, why they'll be a good parent."

*

Jane Fischer and Hal Broderson have maintained minimal contact with Seth's natural mother. On his birthday, they send her a letter and picture through an intermediary, an adoption lawyer they used in Louisiana.

Seth now has a little brother, Joshua. A few weeks after Seth's adoption, a few months after Fischer underwent successful surgery to correct her infertility problem, she became pregnant.

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