Trafficking Native Children: The Seamy Underbelly of U.S. Adoption Industry
by: Suzette Brewer
Jeremy Simmons was heartbroken, baffled and confused. He had been living with his girlfriend, Crystal Tarbox, in Mannford, Oklahoma, when she became pregnant in August, 2012. But in March of this year, he says she moved out when she was seven months pregnant. Without a trace, she was gone.
For the next two months, Simmons, 27, searched for Tarbox, who was 23 at the time and already the mother of two small children. Worried about her and their unborn baby, he says he asked everyone he knew about her condition and whereabouts, and tried every possible means to find her. Her relatives, who are members of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, were also unaware of what was about to happen.
But Tarbox, like Christy Maldonado, the birth mother of Baby Veronica, had disappeared, refusing any contact or financial help from Simmons. As Baby Veronica's case, Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, was being discussed at the U.S. Supreme Court, Simmons was driving around northern Oklahoma looking for his pregnant girlfriend, completely unaware of what was transpiring without his knowledge or consent.
It was not until two days after his daughter, Deseray, was born in May that Simmons, who is non-Indian, learned the truth from the baby's maternal grandmother. Janet Snake called Simmons to alert him that his daughter had been put up for adoption and pleaded with him to find a lawyer to put a stop to it.
Simmons contacted Tulsa attorney Don Mason, who is not only a battle-hardened veteran family law practitioner, but also a member of the Delaware Tribe of Oklahoma. He serves as chief judge in their the Delaware Tribal Court in Bartlesville and is also chief public defender in Pawnee Nation Tribal Court in Pawnee, Oklahoma. Mason is an expert on the Indian Child Welfare Act and its application in Oklahoma, which has 39 tribes and the second largest tribal population in the United States. On his client's behalf, he filed a suit, Simmons v. Tarbox, to halt the finalization of the adoption and bring Deseray back to Oklahoma from South Carolina, where she has been living with an adoptive couple who do not have the legal authority or a court order to retain her.
“My client was cut off, lied to, left out of the loop, and never received any notice at all regarding the whereabouts of his child and the intent to remove her from the state of Oklahoma to South Carolina in this illegal adoption. His parental rights have been completely denied and abrogated by all of the attorneys and their clients in this case,” says Mason. “The only reason I got involved was because Deseray's Indian grandmother called him to give him the heads up and asked him to intervene.”
Tarbox's family concurs that they were also caught off-guard, having been kept in the dark about her plans to give the child up for adoption without first notifying Simmons or seeking placement with another family member. “We had no idea what was going on and we were not notified that she had even had the baby until May 15, which was two days after she was born,” says Jana Snake, Tarbox's sister, who is fully supporting Simmons in his quest to obtain custody of his daughter. “She cut us off and didn't tell anybody what she was doing. But I knew that [this adoption] wasn't right. It was illegal and I knew the tribe needed to be notified. So I told my mom to call him and call the tribe to stop it, but it was already too late.”
By the time Simmons was even able to dial Mason's phone number, Baby Deseray had already been spirited away to South Carolina, a state known to be a safe haven for quickie private adoptions to wealthy couples seeking domestic babies in the United States. Time Magazine ran a feature story in 1984 entitled “Newborn Fever—Flocking to an Adoption Mecca,” in which South Carolina's questionable adoption practices are described as “a unique blend of tax laws, aggressive lawyers and open-minded newspapers.” Home studies, it says, are “are routinely waived by South Carolina's lenient family-court judges.”
These practices, say legal experts, have led to a deeply dark underbelly in the U.S. adoption industry that is little different than human trafficking, and in direct violation of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. “There's no question that this is human trafficking at its worst. It's the selling of infants and children to the highest bidder,” says Mason. “These kids generate huge legal fees in the process and there is a lot of fee splitting among attorney and adoption practitioners in keeping the assembly line moving.”
Tulsa attorney Mike Yeksavich handled the adoption of Baby Deseray in collaboration with the law firm of Bado and Bado, an Edmond, Oklahoma-based adoption team. Together, the two law firms coordinated the adoption with attorney Raymond Godwin and Nightlight Christian Adoptions in Greenville, South Carolina. Godwin is also the attorney who handled Veronica's adoption to Matt and Melanie Capobianco in 2009. Veronica's adoption, which also went through without notification to the birth father, Dusten Brown, or the Cherokee Nation, has become the most expensive, litigious custody battle in U.S. History.
Indian Country Today Media Network has also learned that in addition to the fact that no Interstate Custody for the Protection of Children (ICPC) paperwork was filed in the case prior to Deseray's removal from the state, Yeksavich also took the additional step of having himself appointed as the legal guardian of the baby to ensure her speedy adoption in South Carolina. Additionally, Paul Swain, the Tulsa attorney representing the Capobiancos in Oklahoma, also represents Godwin.
Bado and Bado, according to the Oklahoma Bar Association website, has had numerous complaints filed against it and was publicly reprimanded by the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys Board of Trustees in 2009 for the mishandled adoption of a Native child to a Kentucky couple.
In their review, the board demanded then that the firm “cease and desist” from the following: Conduct in which they represented themselves as an adoption agency, and not an adoption law firm; providing legal advice and counsel to birth mothers while also representing adoptive parents; holding out employees as “independent contractors”; permitting non-lawyers to practice law or explain legal issues to clients or other parties; involving themselves excessively with birth mothers whom they do not represent; and neglecting to promptly address tribal enrollment, in addition to other sanctions.
Bado and Bado could not be reached for comment by deadline on this story.
It's the lack of oversight on the adoption industry, combined with acts of this nature, say legal experts, that led to the legal Gordian's Knot that became the highly contentious and emotional Baby Veronica case that went to the Supreme Court.
In fact, Indian Country Today Media Network has learned that Raymond Godwin allegedly told another lawyer in South Carolina, who declined to be identified, that he placed “upwards of 50 Native American children from North Dakota” last year alone. In that conversation, Godwin said that Indian children are easier to place, “because they're lighter-skinned.”
Even worse, says Mason, is the blatant marketing and selling of Indian children by lawyers who make anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 in legal fees for these children. “Anyone can do the math and realize that this is an enormous industry in the trafficking of Indian children,” says Mason. “And they're preying on poor, uneducated Native women who are in poverty and have no idea what's going on and don't know any better, which is precisely why ICWA was enacted in the first place. They are predators who do everything in secret to prevent the biological fathers and the tribes from blocking the flow of income they receive off these adoptions.”
Mason says that before Simmons had even received notice on this case, Yeksavich had already filed a motion in Oklahoma County in early July to dismiss the case in Oklahoma courts. Godwin filed a motion for adoption proceedings in South Carolina at the same time in a coordinated effort to push the adoption through. Simmons was only notified of the proceedings in South Carolina on July 24 for the adoption hearing in South Carolina on July 25, which he had no way or means to attend with less than 24 hours to respond to a court action a thousand miles and five states away. As was the case for Baby Veronica's father, Dusten Brown, the wheels had already been set in motion months before to cut him completely out of his daughter's life.
Experts say that by the very nature of complicated and conflicting interstate laws and procedures that adoption attorneys are able circumvent not only mainstream adoption law, but the federal laws involving the Indian Child Welfare Act, as well, which has lead to chaos and confusion for judges, attorneys, birth parents and adoptive couples who may be located in multiple jurisdictions. “I came into this case trying to put the brakes on,” says Mason. “But by the time I even got a hold of it, an Order of Dismissal had already been pushed through without anyone knowing about it. Yeksavich never even gave notice of his intent to dismiss and rushed this right past the judge's desk.”
Mason says it was a family court judge in South Carolina who finally caught on to what was happening. “To the credit of the South Carolina judge, they realized that no ICPC paperwork had been filed and refused to finalize the adoption,” says Mason. “Under the law, this child has been illegally kidnapped from Oklahoma and the judge there appointed Shannon Jones to represent my client there.”
Jones, who also represents Dusten Brown in South Carolina family court, has a thorough understanding of the Indian Child Welfare Act. She is also an expert in the Uniform Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act.
In the meantime, Mason says he intends to pursue full custody for Jeremy Simmons, even if he has to file an adoption action in Creek County, Oklahoma court for Deseray to be adopted by her father. “These shady adoption practices have to stop,” says Mason. “It is the buying and selling of human beings, which is unconscionable in its vast application in the United States. Its tentacles reach far and wide and one of the only good things to come out of Adoptive Couple is that Dusten Brown has brought to light the shady practices of an adoption industry that actively worked against his parental rights from the beginning. To his everlasting credit, he dug in and fought and he should be commended for that.”