Who Cares If People Are Exploited by Adoption?
by Ken Watson
Adoption is a powerful social tool intended to meet the needs of children. Sometimes people have used it to exploit children and the families involved with them, often in the name of helping the victims. The Orphan Trains of the mid-1850s and the maternity homes of the mid-1950s are past examples of such exploitation. In today's consumer-oriented society, birthparents and prospective adoptive parents have become increasingly vulnerable to financial exploitation.
Adoption as a Commodity
The potential for making money in adoption has greatly increased over the past thirty years because of 1) the legal and social changes that have led to fewer infants available for adoption; 2) the growing belief that everything in our country (health, information, peace of mind, children) is a commodity that can be packaged, marketed, and sold at a profit; and 3) the increased number of affluent young adults who feel that rearing children is essential to their lives and who are determined to become parents whatever the costs.
While the outright sale of children is illegal, every day the legal right to parent a child is routinely exchanged for profit. Most state laws permit adoptions to be negotiated between birthparents and adoptive parents and allow attorneys to broker these transactions and charge fees for their services. Such brokerage does not require any contact between the actual adults participating, and even allows them to remain anonymous. Most laws also allow prospective adoptive parents to the pay expenses for travel, living, and medical care preceding and during the confinement of the mothers of the children they hope to adopt. (In the words of the California law, this money is given as an "act of charity" and is not tax deductible.) At legal consummation, the court requires a full written report of all fees and expenses, but it is unusual for these amounts to be questioned.
These independent adoptions have spawned a host of ancillary exploiters, including public relations and marketing firms that help prospective adoptive parents prepare biographies and photographs to increase their appeal to birthparents, Internet enthusiasts who sell space on their web sites to facilitate communication between birthparents and prospective adopting parents, and insurance companies who will write a policy to reimburse adoptive parents who have paid the expenses of a birthparent who then decides against adoption.
Agency Fees and Exploitation
Exploitation in adoption, however, is not limited to those who derive personal profit from it. In a more subtle way it is also an integral part of the programs of many nonprofit adoption agencies. Because these agencies meet state licensing standards, they often offer a wider range of services than those provided by attorneys and they usually reflect good social work practice. The agencies are supported by a combination of gifts, bequests, grants, allocations from community funding campaigns, contracts with public agencies, and, in most instances, fees charged to adoptive parents.
Agencies claim that this fee is not payment for a child placed, but money to cover the cost of the services they provide. This statement seems open to challenge. Agencies differ widely about what they consider "services to adoptive parents." Some may include all, or a part, of the costs of the counseling and medical care for birthparents. Others view birthparents as clients in their own right and hold that none of the costs of serving them should be included in computing charges to adoptive parents. There is also no agreement among agencies about how to measure the service to an adoptive parent. Should there be a flat fee for the total service package, a per interview charge, or, perhaps, an hourly rate? Some agencies have a sliding fee scale based on family income, and some of these have a top fee while others do not. A further complexity is the fee for service to applicants with whom an agency does not place a child. If the fee is for service rendered, the placement of a child would make a difference in the amount only if it required more or less service. Conceivably, an applicant with whom no child was placed could require more agency time and thus be charged a higher fee, but I know of no agency that does this.
The wide variation in agency adoption fees is based less on the quality of the service than on the fiscal base of an agency and how it calculates its fees. Whatever the agency charges, adoptive parents are not deceived. They know they are paying for a child. Some agencies involved in international placements make this clear. At their initial meeting with prospective adoptive parents, they circulate their fee schedule. Children are listed in categories by race and sex with a different cost for the adoption of the children in each category. The highest cost is for a white female and the lowest for a black male. The sad truth is that we have lost our way in adoption. We are being driven by greed. There are no certain legal signposts, and we have misplaced our moral compass. We have all become victims of commercial exploitation-children, birthparents and siblings, adoptive parents, and those of us who tolerate this situation.
Adoption as a Community Service
We can get our bearings again by reaffirming our belief that the legal exchange of parental responsibility for a child can never be solely a private matter to be worked out between birthparents and adoptive parents; nor can it ever be a transaction which includes the exchange of money for a child. Some readers may be familiar with my argument that any fee paid to anyone in any adoption is exploitative and inappropriate (see, for instance, the Decree, Summer, 1994). If we believe that adoption is a vital community service primarily designed to meet the needs of children who need adoptive families, then the cost of adoption services should be paid by those children. Since children are indigent and cannot pay this cost, as with service to other indigent populations, it then becomes a community responsibility. Adoption must be financed either by tax dollars or by voluntary contributions-but never contributions from people who are seeking adoption services or receiving them.
The fact that such a shift of fiscal responsibility for adoption may seem irrational in our current society is a measure of how much we have compromised our principles. In fact, most public adoption agencies, and some nonprofit private agencies, now operate within this structure; and in some other countries (for instance, the United Kingdom) there is no such thing as an independent adoption. Is it possible for us to end financial exploitation in adoption in this country? It is if we care enough.
Ken Watson has been a professional social worker in the field of child welfare for over forty-five years. Over this time he has presented over 650 workshops and seminars, has had faculty appointments at four university graduate schools of social work, and has published more than 45 books, monographs, and articles on adoption and related child welfare issues. At the end of 1994, he retired as the Assistant Director of the Chicago Child Care Society, but he continues to write, teach, and consult. He has long been active in the American Adoption Congress and is a former AAC board member.