exposing the dark side of adoption
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Miami Herald, The (FL)

Author: KAREN TESTA, Associated Press

Dateline: BOCA RATON

For nearly 20 years, Michael Chalek was tormented with unfulfilled questions of his birth, his adoption and his true parents.

Now, at age 47, he's condemned to know the answers.

Chalek discovered he'd been sold for $200 by a baby broker after his young mother was coerced into giving him up under an assumed name, state records unsealed recently show. Chalek claims that was the beginning of a childhood marked by sexual and verbal abuse.

His adoptive parents and the baby broker cannot defend themselves - they are all dead. But Chalek hopes a lawsuit filed this week in Alachua County will right some of the wrongs: he's asking to annul his 1953 adoption and get a new birth certificate with his true mother's name.

``By me doing that, it's making a statement that ought to be made,'' said Chalek, who moved a few months ago from Boca Raton to Estes, Colo. ``I think the individuals involved in this ought to be exposed.''

That has been Chalek's lifelong quest. He has been aided by investigators, including Virginia Snyder.

Chalek was born Jan. 25, 1952, in Jacksonville to Winnie Faye Higginbotham Yarber, a barroom waitress who had separated from her husband and became pregnant by another man.

Eight days later, the child then known as Baby Barnwell went home with Alex and Adela Chalek, who had contacted baby broker Lenora Fielding when they were not successful at having their own child, records show.

Florida adoption laws were not as strict then, and adoptions could be arranged by doctors or lawyers, said Josette P. Marquess, coordinator of the Florida Adoption Reunion Record. Adoptions such as those arranged by Fielding were not really legal - but that was largely ignored.

About a year after his adoption, Michael Chalek said, the Chaleks had their own son. Michael claims he began to suffer sexual abuse by his mother as he grew up in Gainesville and later in Atlanta. There is no record of any abuse being reported.

At age 11, he found out he was adopted and he became obsessed with wanting to know about his birth family, he said.

``It burned in my lower gut all the time,'' he said Tuesday. ``I always wondered every single day who I really was.''

A vital document

In 1981, Chalek found a document that named the hospital where he was born.

Seven years later, a judge listened to one of Chalek's repeated petitions to unseal his confidential records - something rarely done in Florida without a compelling medical need, Marquess said.

Judge Robert P. Cates allowed Chalek access to 100 pages of his early life's history. The revelations were startling, Chalek said.

Notes from state case workers showed Fielding coerced his birth mother into using a false name. The record also showed his mother asked a state worker if she could get the baby back.

The mother - Winnie Faye Whitaker - welcomed the telephone call this past December when Chalek finally found her. His birth father died sometime in the 1970s.

``I didn't want to give him up - but I was so young,'' said Whitaker, now 70, who added she supports Chalek's court request. ``I asked if I could just get the baby back, and they told me no. I'd already signed the papers.''

Those are the papers Chalek hopes to have annulled by his petition.

Madelyn Freundlich, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York, said annulments of adoptions are extremely rare. And of those, most are sought by the parents, not the children. She's never heard of a new birth certificate being issued.

``This is really an unbelievable set of circumstances,'' said Freundlich, whose institute studies adoption issues.

Anger over payment

Attorney Mallory Horne, former Florida Senate president and House speaker who filed the petition on Chalek's behalf, said Chalek was angered by the fact his parents paid his birth mother for him.

``He took it more in the nature of a buying him, which really was an insult to him,'' Horne said.

Chalek hoped to sue the attorney who brought his adoption to the court and the judge who approved it - both now elderly men. Horne advised him he'd have no case.

Instead, Chalek has turned his efforts to mobilizing other adoptees in similar situations and has set up a website, www.adoption-fraud.com. He hopes if the annulment is successful it will pave the way for others to follow suit.

Marquess fears a chilling effect if he's successful.

``What happens then when adopted children are disgruntled for whatever reason? . . . I say disgruntled, certainly not abused as Michael said he was,'' she said. ``. . . We are a litigious society, and I think we are litigious about things we don't need to be litigious about.''

Chalek is beyond litigious. He's writing a book and is showing no signs of letting this chapter of his life rest easily.

``I have covered every inch in this,'' he said. ``I am going all out with this.''

1999 Jun 9