Not all adoptions done through an attorney are bad. Dierdre McCool, executive director of the Deaconess Pregnancy and Adoption Services, wants to make that clear from the beginning. But state law has different regulations for adoptions through an agency versus one done by an attorney, leaving the system ripe for abuse, she said. That's something she hopes to change next year. McCool is hoping, with the help of other adoption advocates, to push through legislation that would call for attorneys to meet certain requirements before facilitating a child's adoption. The Department of Human Services has a code that adoption agencies must follow, but it does not apply to attorneys. They may not have bureaucratic DHS regulations, but several attorneys said they have harsh disciplinary rules in place to deal with abuses within their own practice, and to say their industry is unregulated is false.
Adoption regulation is left to the states, forming a patchwork of requirements. Anyone with a Web site can operate in multiple states, Flatley said, and can therefore manipulate the laws to their advantage.
"You can have the best rules you want, but if the transaction doesn't end within the four walls of that state, it doesn't mean a thing,” she said.
With the changes being sought by McCool and others, Flatley said Oklahoma could take the lead in adoption reform nationwide.
And any regulations that are put in place need to have hefty criminal penalties to ensure they are followed.
"This should be the most obvious no-brainer of all time,” Flatley said.
Regulations for agencies•They are prohibited from coercing birth parents into adoption. Also, they must have provisions in place to avoid conflicts of interest among the birth parents, adopting parents and the adoption agency. •They must help the birth parents reach a decision on plans for the child, while also helping them learn what it would take to meet their child's physical, emotional and financial needs. •They must document all expenses paid on behalf of the birth parents by the adoptive parents and must seek court approval for anything over the statutory limit of $500. •They must provide an education element, including how to cope with a child's psychological needs related to the child's racial, ethnic or cultural background, how to help the child understand adoption and how to give the birth parents' perspective in the process. •They must set an agreement regarding any adoption fees and a schedule of payments. Postadoption services also must be provided by an adoption agency to all involved.
Regulations for attorneysThe law requires attorneys to do a preplacement home study, and a postplacement visit as well. But there is no oversight to ensure attorneys are following that law, whereas adoption agencies are reviewed at least twice a year by DHS for license renewal, McCool said. Though McCool would like to see the law changed so attorneys have to follow the same procedures as agencies, she said her main legislative goal this year will be requiring more cost disclosure up front, regardless of who is facilitating the adoption. More than a year ago, a state grand jury criticized Oklahoma County adoption judges for being "indifferent or grossly incompetent” in overseeing expenses paid to birth mothers in exchange for putting their children up for adoption. The grand jury said that birth mothers essentially had been allowed to sell children for cars, televisions and vacations. When the report was released in May 2006, the jury called for the Legislature to strengthen the definitions of allowable expenses.
Lawmaker seeks changesRep. Susan Winchester, an adoptive mom, said she plans to introduce legislation calling for an adoption reform committee. The Oklahoma Adoption Code was last substantially changed in 1997, she said, and needs a fresh look. She wants to ensure the laws are adoption-friendly, but also that they are in the best interest of all the involved parties, especially the child. The task force will be able to analyze those regulations and make a recommendation to see if they need to be more broadly applied, she said. Winchester, whose husband James Winchester is the chief justice for the Oklahoma Supreme Court, said she also would like to see the Oklahoma Bar Association offer a continuing education class on adoption law, to serve as a refresher course for adoption attorneys.
‘Sold' to highest bidderThe current law puts the state in a bad position as well, said Katherine Brewer, an assistant district attorney in Oklahoma County. The state often gets involved in private adoptions. For example: A baby is born addicted to drugs and must be placed in DHS care. At that point, because of privacy concerns for the child, the state cannot share any information with prospective adoptive parents, she said. She also has seen cases where a birth mother is using her unborn child to get bills paid and had no intention of giving her baby up for adoption. Under the law, a mother and father have all rights to their child until a court terminates their parental rights. There also have been a growing number of situations where babies are being marketed to several different private attorneys, and essentially "sold” to the highest bidder, she said.
Attorneys urge cautionJohn Williams, executive director of the Oklahoma Bar Association, questioned whether imposing regulations on attorneys would be constitutional. Regulating the practice of law is the sole jurisdiction of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, he said. It is wrong for adoption advocates to imply that there is no regulation on attorneys, he said. Attorneys must follow the rules of professional conduct and risk disbarment if they don't. The Oklahoma Bar Association has a general counsel's office which takes complaints of misconduct and investigates each one. "There are few professions that are as heavily regulated as we are as far as our conduct,” he said. Sure, there are likely a few bad apples, as there are in any profession, Williams said. But as far as he is aware, attorney abuse in adoption cases is not a widespread problem in Oklahoma. But if it is, he urges those pushing for the increased regulations to file complaints about lawyers who are allegedly abusing the system. "If it is a real problem, we will go after them,” he said. Tulsa family law attorney Bill LaSorsa said adoption agencies have a financial incentive to make it harder for attorneys to facilitate adoptions. While many agencies charge flat fees for adoptions, LaSorsa said he doesn't know any attorney who has done an adoption that has charged any more than the time spent on the case. He said the general statements being made about attorneys are colored by the perspective those at adoption agencies inherently have, he said.
Federal changes wantedMaureen Flatley, an adoption law expert based in Boston, said Oklahoma can tighten its laws, but the adoption system will not be significantly affected until federal regulations are put in place. Flatley added that people often forget that adoption is a multibillion dollar industry, and those making that money have a financial reason to fight consistent regulation.
Oklahoma adoption laws•Who may adopt? Any individual age 21 years or older, regardless of marital status. Spouses must petition jointly, unless legally separated. •Who may place a child for adoption? Birth parents may place a child directly. The Department of Human Services and licensed agencies facilitate agency placements. •Is birth parent counseling required? No. •May birth parents receive assistance with expenses? Yes, for counseling, pregnancy-related birth mother necessities, medical expenses and attorney fees. Source: National Council for Adoption