The couple who adopted Crystal Drwenski's newborn daughter seven years ago had been parents for one week, she said, when the Oklahoma County law firm handling their adoption billed them an additional $15,000 they weren't counting on.
They'd already paid $15,000.
"That was a hard thing for me to hear,” Drwenski said. She said she claimed minimal expenses as birth mother and didn't realize the adoptive parents were billed hourly for time the caseworker spent with or talking to her.
"(The $30,000) gave me an awful feeling,” she said.
Drwenski learned of the costs through an exchange of e-mails with her daughter's adoptive mom. What began as a closed adoption with letters and pictures exchanged via the attorney's office evolved into an open one with bimonthly e-mails and semi-annual visits.
"I tell people I had a really successful adoption, despite my attorneys,” Drwenski said.
The 28-year-old Oklahoma City woman now runs her own public relations firm and is a columnist for Adoption Today magazine.
A year ago a state grand jury criticized Oklahoma County adoption judges as "indifferent or grossly incompetent” in overseeing adoption costs. Jurists said birth mothers essentially had been allowed to sell their children.
That means some Oklahoma County attorneys who practiced adoption had basically been allowed to buy children — on behalf of adoptive parents — by paying birth mothers in hidden expenses with cars and vacations, among other things.
The scathing report was news to many attorneys in northeastern Oklahoma when Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala shared it at an Oklahoma Bar Association adoption law seminar in May in Tulsa.
"When I read the report, my eyes popped,” Tulsa attorney Bobbie Callahan Freeberg said. Among the adoptions she's handled in her 26 years of practice, the most she's charged in legal fees is $5,000.
Nationwide, costs are lower than $20,000 in 64.6 percent of domestic newborn adoptions, according to a 2005 survey by Adoptive Families Magazine. In Oklahoma County, they averaged $26,838 in 2005 and 2006, according to the county public defender's office. The high was $34,000.
Among the county's estimated 10 adoption agencies and law firms, costs vary wildly, said attorney Chris Venters of the public defender's office.
"The very same service can be $10,000 more at one place than another,” he said.
Since the grand jury report, his office has been called to audit all adoption cases before court approval.
At the May seminar, Venters shared the lectern with Rogers County District Judge Sheila Condren on the topic of ethical adoption expenses.
"We think the proper range for adoptions should be $15,000, including a maximum of $6,000 in legal fees,” Venters said.