A Sale of Innocents

Because of a shortage of healthy, white babies for adoption through licensed agencies, childless couples are turning to private agents, usually attorneys, for infants. Authorities are beginning to crack down on the illicit trade but many babies continue being peddled in the infant trade.

By George Frank and John Moody
Eugene Register-Guard
December 26, 1976

An unwed California teen-ager, under pressure from doctors and lawyers broke into tears and said, "All they want is my baby. What about me?"

They got Cathy's baby.

In New York City, Marcia a former prostitute, told her lawyer she was pregnant again and wanted to sell the baby. The next day, the attorney had  buyer. It was the third baby Marcia had sold.

A UPI investigation into the murky world of private adoptions shows there are thousands of Cathys and Marcias who bypass traditional adoption agencies to place — and in many instances, sell for profit — their unwanted infants.

Dozens of lawyers and doctors in large and small cities are making money from adoptions. Some are reaping huge profits and some are running afoul of the law.

Experts in the adoption field estimate 5,000 babies are sold for profit each year. Nationwide about 150,000 children of all ages re adopted annually through private and public means.

There are no federal statutes out-lawing baby sales and the laws of the 50 states are highly diverse. Loopholes abound and enforcement is lax.

Often prosecutors, if they catch up wth the baby-sellers at all, do so on technical violations.

Officials in some states are demanding tighter laws and stiffer penalties, and prosecutors are beginning to crack down. Rep. Henry  Hyde, R-Ill., has proposed federal legislation to regulate private placements.

In New Jersey, five lawyers and two other persons were charged with running a five-state baby ring. The Bergen County, N.J., prosecutor assigned an investigator full time to ferret out black market operators.

In Washington, D.C., where babies born out of wedlock outnumber babies born to married women, two lawyers and one doctor are charged with baby-selling.

Authorities in Los Angeles broke up what they called the seeds of a worldwide baby ring that, prosecutors charged, would have netted disbarred attorney Ronald Silverton $3.3 million in two years.

In an 18-month period, California health officials received 250 complains of irregulat placements by doctors and attorneus.

As a result of UPI's investigations into black market baby operations in California, health authorities acknowledged the problem was more serious than they had thought, and Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. proposed legislation making it a felony for arranging adoptions without a state license.

New York attorney Harvey Sladkus, retained by a couple to arrange a private adoption, was told by a Chicago lawyer the baby would cost $10,000. When Sladkus complained the price was too high, he was promised "a cut of the action," Sladkus bowed out of the negotiations.

The private adoption business — the illegal along with the legal — is thriving because there are few healthy white babies available for adoption through traditional agencies.

"The girl who has, quote, 'made a mistake' is now deciding to keep her child and raise it alone, or else she's having it aborted," said Lillian Sikes of the Children's Aid Society of New York.

One couple, Herman and Elsa Swartzman of New York City, has adopted three children in the past 10 years, all of them privately. The adoptions were legal and arranged by a Seattle doctor.

"The entire thing — legal fees, paying for the natural mother's hospital stay of a week, and airfare — cost $1,500," Swartman, a lawyer, said of the first baby, adopted 10 years ago. The other two cost slightly more, he said, because airfare to Seattle had increased.

The Swartzmans did not go through a social or religious agency because, they said, the agency screening-process is dehumanizing.

"We know the kind of hoops those agencies can put parents through," said Swartzman. "They want to know, have we tried to have children, how often have we tried, how many ways have we tried."

"Because of the shortage, I would be surprised to hear that a woman who's given birth to a healthy white baby had not been approached at least once about selling it."

Even Nevada prostitures are being approached. Reno brothel owner Joe Conforte says two Oklahoma attorneys offered up to $10,000 per child for babies produced by his prostitutes. He said, however, that because of the pill and easy abortions, pregnancies among his 30 to 35 girls are "nonexistent".

Impatient childless couples — mostly white and middle to upper class — are willing to pay large sums to people who can get them a healthy child fast with minimum fuss. Reports of purhase prices as high as $15,000 have been documented and there are unverified reports of couples paying as much as $50,000.

Like commodities in a free market, price depends on quality. In marketing of babies, the determining factors

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She said attorney sometimes skirt adoption procedure by instructing adoptive parents to bring children home before required home study. "We've gone in a couple times to fight adoptions and judges have told us, 'Well, the child is placed now, and it's too late for aall that business anyway.'"

"At other times, adoptive mothers have refused to let us in to do home studies. They say their attorney told them not to let us in and they refer us to him. The mothers are afraid to lose their baby. They're afraid of the attorney."

A New York attoreney, who has arranged the sale of several babies, explained how he finds willing buyer. He agreed to speak freely on condition he would not be identified.

"I find out about a woman who's pregnant and wants to put the child up, and then I will let the word go out that I now there's going to be a baby available."

"Now the next part is the most difficult, becase this is where the legality part becomes fuzzy. The mother, of course, must be taken care of during her confinement, she most likely will not be working and perhaps the adoptive parents wouldn't want her to be working anyway."

"So, she will tell a lawyer, 'I need this much to live on'"

"How the mother communictes this need to the adoptive parents is where so many get in trouble," the attorney said. "A lawyer who makes himself  conduit for the payment of this kind of money — large amounts of money — is  putting himself in a position of danger."

Adoption laws themselves shield baby-peddlers. Adoption records are sealed for the protection of the child and parents. But this makes it almost impossible to check records to see if the same attorneus and doctors are involved in private adoptions of suspicious nature.

But, more than anything else, what deters prosecution of black market baby opertions is the refusal fo adoptive parents to testify against lawyers or doctors out of fear they will lose their children or, at the least, expose them to publicity.

A Rivirside, Calif., man told authorities he paid $7,500 to have an unwed mother register in a hospital and deliver her baby under his wife's name.

When the baby was delivered and the birth certificate issued, it appeared his wife had borne the child — and all adoption procedures were circumvented.

In Gary, Ind., Vicky Williams, a country welfare worker who conducts state-required home studies of adoptive parents, has despaired of using normal channels to check out reports of profiteering by lawyers.

"In Lake County," she said, "corruption is just a way of life. If the attorney in an adoption proceeding knows a judge and they're buddies, he can get his way on anything and I don't think there's a prosecutor anywhere who can break up that kind of arrangement."

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