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Adoption Go-Betweens

There is growing debate over regulation of paid facilitators who find children for prospective parents but are sometimes unethical.

March 12, 2001|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are praised as matchmakers, condemned as baby sellers. Unlicensed, often untrained and largely free of regulation, baby finders are increasingly in the middle of adoptions-gone-wrong stories.

The adoption intermediary, usually a woman working out of her home, makes connections directly with birth parents or agencies to locate a child for a client. Fees vary widely, but she may charge $6,000 for a match or perhaps twice that for a two-year search contract. Some facilitators are honest and ethical; others are not.

The role of these for-profit adoption facilitators--who are legal in some states, including California, illegal in others, including New York--is being examined across the country. The debate ranges from whether they should be banned to how they might be better regulated.

Even the California Department of Social Services, which licenses adoption agencies, says it has no way of knowing how many facilitators operate in the state because they are not licensed. Facilitators need only to obtain a business license and to post a $10,000 bond to set up shop.

The increasing use of paid facilitators in adoptions--and the accelerated rate at which information is traded on the Internet, where a number of facilitators post Web sites--is dramatically changing adoption from what once was a close-to-home, hush-hush process.

Once, agencies had their corner of the market, and adoption attorneys theirs. The use of intermediaries began to take hold in the 1980s, although the term facilitator only started to be used in the last few years. As birth parents began seeking more control, and adopting parents began looking for financial savings, more choices and quicker matches, their use increased.

Facilitators can only locate babies, not finalize adoptions, though. That still must be done only by attorneys and licensed agencies.

Many adoptions today occur across state lines, falling into a maze of 50 possible sets of state regulations. Although there is no national legislation, all 50 states have agreed to an interstate compact that says a child cannot be taken across a state line for adoption without approval of both the state of birth and the state where the child is adopted. Many adoptions cross international boundaries, creating even more complex scenarios.

One of the more notorious cases--that of twins who were bartered by a California facilitator on the Internet--both to a couple in San Bernardino County and to one in Wales--has fueled the debate and underscored fundamental flaws in the adoption system.

"I think 50% of adoptions people are promising things they can't deliver," says Mary Lib Mooney of Lexington, Va., a consumer advocate who launched her http://www.theadoptionguide.com Web site after being burned in a Russian adoption. "They're God, and they're in control. They have the child. They can manipulate you. There aren't any ethics."'

Mooney says that, in many instances, people are giving baby finders big bucks and signing agreements that basically say, "No refunds. We don't guarantee anything." Yes, there are laws on the books, she adds, but they need to be more aggressively enforced. "Adoption is a nasty business."

It was good intentions--to create a home for a Chinese orphan--that led Sarah Novak to a facilitator, who she hoped would help arrange the adoption. But what evolved was a match fraught with problems. Novak places part of the blame on the facilitator, contending that she misrepresented the situation to close the deal. Whether that was the case is open to dispute.

Caught in the middle was a child.

Novak, a 42-year-old single mother in Medina, Ohio, remembers clearly the day she first saw the girl she would later call Corrie. The 12-year-old, who did not have any fingers, was on a videotape made at a Chinese orphanage by a friend of Novak's who had adopted a child there. "She was absolutely beautiful, and I fell madly in love with her," Novak says of the child.

Novak was put in touch with Ming Hua He, a Chinese American facilitator working out of her home in Connecticut with Michigan-based Adoption Associates. Novak made the connection through an Internet discussion group.

"I worked for a year trying to get [the child]," Novak says, with Ming telling her, "This little girl just can't wait to be adopted. She can't wait to meet her new mama."

Novak was happy and excited when last April she flew to Nanjing, anticipating adding another daughter to her little family, which included Chinese adoptees, then 3 and 2. Her happiness was short-lived.

Novak recalls, "I get to China and this little girl is anything but well-adjusted. She was so angry and filled with such hatred. She did not like white people. She did not want to leave China. It took five people to get her in the car to bring her to the hotel." Once home, Novak had her examined by a doctor, who found signs she had been beaten.

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