Guilty Until Proven Innocent
By Mirah Riben
Jonelle, a 24-year-old intelligent and fully capable college graduate with a bachelors degree in nutrition and a minor in chemistry from the University of Arizona was studying for MCATS to enter medical school when she became pregnant. She is not a drug user nor has she been in any trouble with the law in any way. She doesn’t even smoke cigarettes.
On October 18, 2006 Jonelle gave birth to her first child—a healthy son who she has never been accused of abusing or neglecting. Jonelle is self-supporting as a neuro-monitor, a job that would allow her time with her son, as she only works 20 -25 hours a week with full-time pay. She lives in a two-bedroom, two bath townhouse with ample, clean space for her and her son.
Jonelle discovered she was pregnant shortly after moving to South Carolina. She had no friends and no family in the area. Her son's father distanced himself and wanted her to abort the pregnancy. “What was supposed to be the most beautiful time in a woman's life,” she says, instead “was the most depressing and lonely time of my life.”
Given no help or options, Jonelle found what she thought was a reputable adoption agency called “A Baby To Love” and dialed a toll-free number.
After 24-hours of labor, alone, Adrian was delivered by caesarian section. Three days later, still in the hospital, weak, groggy from the surgical birth, confused and stressed out…Jonelle was given relinquishment papers to sign by an attorney she had never previously met, and whom she believed was representing her interests. At the same time, she had a 30-minute first ever meeting with a couple who wanted to adopt her newborn son. Within an hour after that meeting on a Friday, the attorney called to tell her that she had to make a decision about the adoption by end of business that day, before the weekend. She felt as if she was having a breakdown but got no help, only pressure from her parents, the attorney and a social worker. Jonelle says, “I never wanted to give my child up. I truly felt forced.”
In a plea to the judge Jonelle wrote: “There was never a time throughout the adoption process that my rights or lack of rights were ever discussed with me. The content of what I was to sign was NEVER discussed with me until the day I signed. There is no way after going through the emotional trauma I went through during my pregnancy and giving birth to my son ALONE, by C-section, I was able to fully understand the content of what I was signing. I was never told that after I sign the papers there would be no way I could reverse my decision. I was misled into believing I had ninety days to reverse my consent… I didn’t understand the consequences of signing that document.... I never wanted to sign those papers, NEVER.”
Jonelle’s story, unfortunately, is far from unusual. In a 2006 online survey of mothers who relinquished, eighty-two percent of the 424 respondents reported feeling pressured to relinquish. Sixty percent said they experienced coercion, signed under duress, or felt their legal rights had been in some way denied.
How was this young woman—or anyone in her position—to understand that the attorney she was trusting to represent her, was in fact representing the interests of those who pay his fee—prospective adopters? L Ann Babb, Ethics of American Adoption states: “[A]doption, more than any other human service, is rife with conflict of interest. Adoption agency social workers and attorneys routinely represent both birth and adoptive families [who are] party to the same adoption. Agencies whose very existence is based on fees paid for consummated adoptions claim to offer unbiased ‘crisis pregnancy’ counseling to expectant mothers.”
Despite the fact that the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility concluded in 1987 that a lawyer may not ethically represent both parties, dual representation in adoption is permitted in Kansas and California, and prohibited in Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Wisconsin. All other states, including South Carolina where Jonelle gave birth and signed relinquishment of her rights, are silent on the issue. Why would anyone think such a thing could be possible? It would not be allowable in any other legal transaction, so why would have any reason to suspect such impropriety, especially in a case involving something as important as the transfer of child custody?
How is any such woman to know that attorneys like the one she was dealing with was one of many attorneys acting as a private adoption facilitator or intermediary….a go-between who scouts for women just like Jonelle: expectant mothers alone and in crisis acting on behalf of clients who pay his fees to obtain the sought after commodity of a healthy while infant? Anyone—attorney, clergy, physician, car salesman or hairdresser—can hang a shingle and arrange adoptions with little to no oversight of any kind, other than the regulations to open and run any type of business.
Alex Valdez Jr., spokesman for the California Department of Social Services states: “Essentially, [adoption facilitators] are required to have a business license, publish a list of their services, and [have a] $10,000 bond before they hang a shingle.” And, if a match fails—as it did the first time for Jonelle—the facilitator can offer the same child to another set of would-parents and collect yet again. Randall B. Hicks, an adoption attorney whose fees, home studies are paid for by his adoptive parent clients, said facilitators are “not licensed nor trained to do anything.”