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The Baby Brokers : In the Emotional World of Private Adoptions, the Lawyers Make the Deals Between Childless Couples and Women Who Give Up Their Babies

August 14, 1988|KAREN STABINER | Karen Stabiner is a contributing editor of this magazine.

Whatever the approach, the lawyer's office is a safe harbor for what one social worker calls the "walking wounded": couples who need a happy ending to years of frustration and women who need a strong helping hand. In their vulnerability, they turn to an adoption lawyer--and, depending on what happens, they come to consider him either a saint or a baby salesman.

Private adoption is like the nursery rhyme about the little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When it is good, it is very, very good. Cathie Kanuit weeps with joy when she speaks of her 18-month-old adopted daughter. "It's absolute elation," she says. "You go through all the trauma of having to think about trying to get pregnant every single day for five years, and there's a tremendous relief in not having to think about it anymore and knowing it ended up in the best, best, best possible way. And there is euphoria, too, because you just can't believe that you're finally so lucky."

But when it is bad--when a placement falls through, or when it works but leaves emotional scars--it is horrid.

THERE HAS never before been a group of adoptive parents quite like the ones who now languish for as long as three months on a lawyer's waiting list for an initial appointment--people who, for the most part, are used to getting what they want and are prepared to spend the $6,000 to $14,000 it usually costs to adopt an infant privately.

As Radis describes them, "Adoptive parents are typically 35 to 45, have been through over five years of fertility treatments, middle- and upper-class, primarily white." Most of them are looking for Caucasian infants in the midst of a baby drought brought on by birth control, legalized abortion and an increasing tendency among young pregnant women to keep their babies. Demand far exceeds supply: Radis estimates that there are 40 eager couples for every available healthy Caucasian baby.

Private adoption can be an unstable, sometimes explosive combination: desperately impatient clients, lawyers who fervently embrace their work, and quality control that is left to the overworked county employees who review private placements. Cook, who handles both domestic and international adoptions and speaks zealously about "the dream and vision of helping kids around the world," was contacted by the FBI in 1985 during an investigation of improper Mexican adoptions that involved two of his associates in Texas; one associate was convicted of several charges in the case. However, the questioning of Cook never led to any charges against him, according to federal officials. Cook's actions were also reviewed in 1985 by the State Bar Disciplinary Committee after a client complained that Cook had refused to return fees after a failed adoption. The State Bar found no reason to issue a reprimand, an official there said.

But he is still the target of a 1984 civil lawsuit by a Madera couple who charge that he misrepresented a birth mother's due date in order to draw the couple into a contract. Cook denies that he mishandled the case.

Despite the scrutiny, he remains at the forefront of private adoption in California. Cook is one of the seven founders of the newly formed California Academy of Adoption Attorneys, a 22-member group that seeks to set its own guidelines, lobby in Sacramento and discourage legislative intervention. Although he handles only the occasional Mexican adoption now, he continues to seek placements of babies from foreign countries in addition to his domestic work. But more important to most of his clients, he, like his peers, is a pipeline to Caucasian infants. His services are much in demand.

SKEPTICS regard the juggernaut of private adoption with alarm. Reuben Pannor, for 14 years director of the adoption program at Vista del Mar Child Care Center, a private Westside agency, believes that the welfare of the child--and so, of the birth mother--should take precedence over that of the adoptive parents. He fears that the opposite is too often the case when lawyers become involved, that what he calls "their vested interest" in satisfying the adoptive parents who pay their fees keeps them from fairly explaining the variety of options a young pregnant woman has. He is outraged by what he considers to be an exploitative process that "preys on the vulnerability" of the birth mother by showing her only one way out. Sharon Kaplan, executive director of Parenting Resources in Tustin, is a social worker whose counseling and educational firm often works on referral from adoption lawyers--and she, too, is concerned about subtle pressures that can be brought to bear in the private-adoptive process. "Manipulation," she says, "comes in many forms, sometimes in what is not said to families about the decision they are making."

Kaplan is keenly aware of how difficult it is for a birth mother to keep her child, but she insists that the alternative is more complicated than the legal "problem-solving" approach suggests.

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