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Beware the Baby Profiteers

Who's to blame when an adoption fails? In this case, a greedy matchmaker eager for a quick `sale.'

August 20, 2006|Jamie Court

The clerk swept the hand-held scanner over our returns, negating each onesie, binky and bottle. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. . . . Soon, our $700 pile of baby gear would be piled high on the red shelves of Target's customer service department alongside other people's unwanted things. Beach balls. Shoes. Bad plaid.

What had gone wrong?

The birth mom was old enough to make up her mind; perhaps she knew all along that she would keep the twins. But there was an underlying problem: an unregulated matchmaking system that keeps critical information out of the hands of adoptive parents and allows birth parents to put off facing the consequences of their decisions for too long. The matchmakers belong to a cottage industry of unlicensed "facilitators" who can earn $6,000 to $20,000 per match, often just for making an introduction. Some facilitators solicit for unborn children on the Internet or in newspaper classifieds, particularly in the Midwest or South. The facilitators then arrange for a pregnant woman to sift through profiles of prospective parents. Even before the two parties meet, the meter is running.

As a consumer advocate for a decade and a half, I have led successful campaigns against insurers, HMOs, oil companies, banks and powerful politicians. The last two California governors have taken my name in vain. My wife, Michelle, a public interest and civil rights attorney, has successfully sued police departments, predatory lenders, multinational corporations and slum landlords. She was recently named one of California's top 20 lawyers under 40 years old. Yet nothing prepared us.


On a September day Michelle and I sat on the deck of Gladstone's, just a few yards above the sand, with Diana and her boyfriend, Tony. Tony had never seen an ocean, and we figured that the Pacific would make an impressive climax for our midday driving tour of Los Angeles. Diana, eight months pregnant, had already talked with other Southern California couples about adopting her twins. And in a few hours she had a dinner meeting booked with candidates who were just as eager as we were to sell themselves to a 35-year-old mother of seven from Milwaukee.

What could be more humbling than telling a stranger why you, of all people, should raise her child, unless it is giving up that child? There are no icebreakers for that conversation. But we found Diana easy to talk to and engaging. She told us a story, for example, about the time her boss stopped giving her and the other waitresses where she worked a discount on menu items, so she ordered a pizza from elsewhere and devoured it in view of the restaurant patrons. I remember thinking that if we got the chance to raise them, the twins would hear about their birth mom's strong sense of right and wrong.

We also learned over a late seafood lunch that Diana and Tony had a lot in common with Michelle and me. Diana had my gift for gab. Tony and Michelle were introspective. As working stiffs, Diana and Tony respected our professional choices to represent the underdog. None of us were religious, vegetarians or Republican. We agreed on the benefits of an open adoption that would encourage the exchange of photos and maybe even visitation. Because Michelle and Tony are African American, and Diana and I white, it seemed like a perfect fit, down to the kids looking like their adoptive parents.

The conversation also turned up this: None of Diana's seven kids lived with her. Two had been placed with adoptive families, and the other five were staying with a "friend" who had unofficially adopted them. Odd. But we chalked up the fuzzy scenario, and the string of broken matches in which Diana had been involved, to the sort of bad luck and cultural realities that had brought us all together.

By the time we dropped off Diana and Tony at the Best Western in Mission Hills, I believed that our children had found us. Diana and Tony needed a financially secure home for their sons. They had searched their hearts and arrived at a logical, compassionate conclusion. We would name one Joseph, after both our grandfathers, and the other Steven, in honor of a teenage friend who had been blinded by HMO negligence at age 2 and had fought with me for healthcare reform. On the drive home, Michelle reminded me about a couple we had met through our L.A. adoption agency who had been passed over by prospective birth mothers a dozen times. Still, to both of us, it all fit. The twins. The personalities. The next day we got our wish. Diana picked us. Under the informal tenets of private adoption, we would pay, happily so, for not only the twins' uninsured delivery but also for Diana's lodging, groceries, phone cards, taxi vouchers--everything an expectant mother could want.

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