Saturday, January 29, 2022 Jan 29, 2022
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An agency isn’t the only answer
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MOST PEOPLE think of infertility as something that happens to someone else. For years you put all your efforts toward preventing pregnancy, never expecting conception to elude you when the time is finally right. Infertility sneaks up on you, then it smacks you in the face, shattering your dreams.

A flat 15 percent of married couples cannot conceive a child. Some of those couples give up trying, preferring to channel their energies elsewhere. More couples, it seems, travel an emotional treadmill that eventually leads to a desire to adopt. And here a frustrating and seemingly endless struggle begins.

When most couples think of adoption, they think in terms of a tiny, cuddly newborn child-ideally, matched to their appearance, intellect and natural attributes. Sadly, in 1983, that is more myth than reality. There simply is a scarcity of infants available to be adopted.

Although unwed teen-age pregnancies are on the rise, the relaxation of sexual mores has lessened the stigma of a child born illegitimately. Many mothers arc opting to raise their children rather than relinquish them for adoption. Improved birth control and the availability of abortions have also limited the field of adoptable infants. “Adoption has indeed changed,” a spokesperson for the North American Council on Adoptable Children says. “It is no longer just a service for infertile couples who long for a baby. Adoption is a service to children who, through no fault of their own, are caught in the unfortunate circumstances of being parentless wards of the state.”

It is not impossible to find a baby through an adoption agency – but the process is open to fewer and fewer families and invariably involves a long wait – sometimes up to five years. Most private agencies have criteria that must be met before an application can even be filled out -restrictions regarding age, marital status, religion and finances. The Texas Department of Human Resources rarely – if ever -has a healthy white infant in need of a home.

These changes have cast adoption in a new light. Child-placement professionals are increasingly concerned with the population of “parentless wards of the state” previously considered unadoptable – children who are older, have physical or mental handicaps, are members of a sibling group, are biracial or are minorities. In the lexicon of the social services, these are children with “special needs.”

Not all parents are willing to abandon their dreams of holding an infant in their arms, nor is every parent equipped to handle a special-needs child. For parents who, for one reason or another, choose to take it, there is another route: private adoption through a legal go-between.

In private (or independent) adoption, there is no agency involved. Instead, a reputable neutral party- a doctor, lawyer, clergyman or perhaps a mutual friend – links an infant to be placed for adoption with a couple seeking to adopt. Here’s how it works: Through some form of word-of-mouth referral, a couple hears of an impending birth and the prospective biological parents’ intention to give up their child. Sometimes the referral is made by an obstetrician or an attorney who practices family law; often the expectant mother is the daughter of Great Aunt Harriet’s next-door-neighbor’s niece. In any case, the adopting parents’ first step is to hire a lawyer who will assure the legality of the adoption and will file the necessary documents with the court.

When the baby is born, the attorney is normally notified by the hospital or the go-between, and it is he who gives the adoptive parents the good news. Those who have experienced that special moment echo this refrain: No matter how prepared you think you are, that phone call is still a shock. “I’ll never forget when I heard that my daughter was about to be born,” says Toby Roberts Noteware, who was a teacher at St. Mark’s at the time. “It was Friday afternoon, and I was in the parking lot about to go home. Someone in the school office called to me to come back for a phone call. When I got there, my attorney was on the line yelling, ’I know it’s a month early, but you’re in labor!’

Surely, few occasions in life can compare to the culminating moment of a couple’s arduous efforts to adopt. But unfortunately, news of the baby’s birth is not always the end of the road. In a few rare cases, it signals that the battle has just begun.

“I tell every client that walks in here wanting a private adoption that there’s a serious emotional risk involved,” says attorney Mark Seigel, who handles adoptions as well as other matters of law. “I’ll never forget when one of my clients hired a limousine and a chauffeur to drive to Den-ton to pick up a baby who had just been born. When we got there, I went up to the mother’s hospital room to have her sign the termination papers. She had changed her mind. I had to go back down to that car and hand Kleenex to my client all the way back to Dallas.”

A mother who has made the decision to give up her baby must sign an Affidavit of Relinquishment after the baby is born. For an affidavit to stick, the mother must be free of medication and must sign in the presence of two credible witnesses and a notary. According to one family-practice lawyer, “It’s a terribly emotional scene when the mother signs the papers. You have to confront her with ’You will never see your child again. You will never have any rights to that child,’ and so on. That conversation is invariably accompanied by great big tears.” Inevitably, in the wake of such an emotional decision, mothers do change their minds. This can be devastating for the adoptive parents.

“The roughest case we ever went through involved a young intern and his wife who had lost their own child at 3 months old,” the lawyer continues. “Somehow, the deal got fouled up, and the Affidavit of Relinquishment was declared invalid. We told the adoptive parents, ’You’ve already been through one terrible ordeal, and your chances are about 80/20 that you’ll lose this child.’ But they hung in there for over a year – and we won.”

There is a measure of protection written into Texas law, that states that the relin quishment forms can be made irrevocable for a period of 60 days. Even after that time expires, a birth mother cannot simply knock at the new parents’ door and ask for her baby back. Assuming that the attorney has filed his papers properly, the procedure must be contested in court, and it must be argued that there was some sort of duress or fraud.

The first leg in the hearing process is the termination hearing -a relatively simple suit filed on behalf of the go-between requesting a final severence of the biological parents’ rights to the child.

Once the papers requesting a termination hearing have been filed in court, a judge appoints the baby a “guardian ad litem” to comply with his right to representation. The guardian ad litem will probably visit the adoptive parents to insure that the baby is being properly cared for.

In addition, the court will send a qualified social worker to conduct a home study, the purpose of which is to assess the overall appropriateness of the baby’s new home. Once the study report is complete, the final step is the adoption hearing, which, the law states, must be held after the child has been in residence with his adoptive parents for six months. Sometimes, however, those residency requirements are waived. Seigel says a private adoption can be heard and declared legally valid long before a birth mother has an opportunity to oppose it.

There is a trend in both private and agency adoptions toward direct communication between birth and adoptive parents. Some couples want to meet and get to know the biological parents of their new baby in the hope of understanding him better and of avoiding the need for surreptitious contacts later on. Others want the couple’s medical and family histories yet want their own identities concealed. “I advise complete confidentiality to my clients,” Seigel says. “It’s just my personal feeling that you can get yourself into a dangerous situation.”

Arlington adoptive parent Debbie Thompson’s baby daughter was literally placed in her arms by the child’s biological mother. “When we learned of the chance to adopt through a mutual friend of our daughter’s birth parents, we knew we really wanted the baby,” she says, “but we were adamant about protecting ourselves and sticking to the letter of the law. Angela’s parents were very, very young, and she was to be their fifth child. We had several very long telephone conversations with them before she was born. We wanted to assure ourselves firsthand that they knew what they were doing and that they wouldn’t change their minds later on.”

Although private adoption is considered legal in Texas, it is not free of confusion or controversy, and it is vehemently opposed by most child-placement workers and many volunteers -who say that the placement of a child in a home is a complicated and risky process that requires the skill and experience of qualified professionals. Agencies offer a great deal of counseling, which has proved beneficial to both adoptive parents and their adopted children. While some couples may seek private adoptions for the very reason that the questioning is likely to be less intimidating and intense, others may find many unanswered questions both during the adoption process and after it occurs. Another point to consider is that privately there is little attempt to match baby and parents. While Seigel does compile a history of the birth parents and conveys that history to his clients, he admits that his primary method of matchmaking is to go numerically down his waiting list.

Texas law reflects both the concern and the confusion that surrounds private adoption. Some years ago it was written into the social welfare laws that only a licensed social worker could place a child for adoption. Failure to comply with the regulation, the law states, can result in a misdemeanor charge. Ironically, the Texas Family Code, the body of law most often referred to by family-practice attorneys, authorizes any competent person to act as an adoption go-between. “The law contradicts itself,” according to one lawyer, “and, generally, the courts have chosen to pay little mind to the licensing regulation. Judges don’t take too kindly to little ladies from the DHR [Department of Human Resources] telling them when they can or can’t approve an adoption.”

If there is controversy about unlicensed go-betweens, there is even more misunderstanding about where a private adoption crosses the line into an illegal black-market sale. Jacqueline Horner Plumez writes in her new book, Successful Adoption: “A black-market adoption involves an illegal or shady practice. The most common black-market offense involves fees so high that it appears that either the birth mother or the go-between is selling the baby for profit, which is illegal.”

Unfortunately, the law does not state what constitutes an exorbitant, illegal fee. It is considered normal for the adoptive parents to pay, in addition to legal fees on both sides, all medical expenses surrounding the birth, including doctors’ fees and hospital costs, and any travel expenses incurred. Sometimes a birth mother will request that her expenses during pregnancy also be paid. Says Seigel: “You can tell when a birth mother is trying to make a profit by asking for outrageous sums of money. I had one girl come in here asking to be put up in a $500-a-month apartment, with $1,000 a month living expenses. In that case, I felt it went from the gray area to the black.”

It may be difficult to assess propriety when the entire fee is computed and charged through an attorney. Seigel estimates that an adoption normally requires 25 to 40 legal hours of work. If the attorney’s fees are more than $2,000, you should ask for a complete breakdown of costs. Author Plumez quotes another “respected lawyer” as warning that any time the total cost of an adoption is more than $10,000, a black-market deal should be suspected.

Naturally, most people attempt to stay within the dictates of the law. But with an adoption, failure to do so can be more than legally condemning; it can result in a child being removed from his adopted home. According to Plumez, any illegal practice-including the use of inaccurate or incomplete records and forms -can render an adoption invalid. Black-market laws are not always enforced, but there is always the risk that an improperly secured child will be taken away. There have even been cases cited of black marketeers sending blackmailers to the adoptive parents’ house, threatening to have the adoption invalidated or to have the baby removed. It is, then, essential to make sure the character of a go-between is flawless.

BUT HOW DO you go about finding a baby? The initial advice given by people who have adopted is to tell everyone you know. Anyone-the mailman, the woman in the next office, your college roommate – could know of a pregnant woman in need. It’s a good idea to speak of your plight to everyone you feel comfortable sharing it with. But concentrate on those people who are in a position to help: doctors, especially obstetricians and pediatricians; lawyers, especially those who specialize in family practice and those who represent doctors; nurses in hospitals and women’s clinics; clergymen; other parents who have adopted. Dallas’ support group for adoptive parents, the Council on Adoptable Children (COAC), is primarily concerned with the placement of children with special needs. But go to the meetings anyway -you’ll surely meet other couples who can identify with, and possibly aid, your search.

Some parents compile résumés with photographs of themselves, little autobiographical sketches and their reasons for wanting to adopt and then mail them to doctors, lawyers -sometimes everyone they know. Attorney and adoptive mother Ellen Ryan believes this costly blanket approach is ineffective because so many resumes are sent out that doctors and lawyers toss them as soon as they arrive. She suggests concentrating on small towns where you have a personal contact that might know a leading doctor or lawyer.

Another approach is to advertise for a pregnant woman who may be considering adoption. Although such ads are illegal in some states, they are legal in Texas. Some newspapers, nevertheless, have a policy against running them.

The most frustrating thing about adoption may be that it renders you powerless over the future of the child. You never know when a phone call may come, whether the mother will change her mind, what the baby will be like or if there will be problems later on. But then, as one prospective adoptive father puts it: “Life’s not real great at offering guarantees. At least we’ll at last have a child in our home.”