Sunday, August 1, 2010
Justice for birthmothers is an oxymoron
Lately, I’ve been involved with a mother and daughter who are those pariahs of civilized society, parents trying to get their kids back from the only family the child has ever known. Irony all intended.
Last month, a woman called me and asked me to help her 15-year-old daughter get her infant daughter back. The story she told was this:
When Leticia learned her daughter, Ashley, was pregnant, she went to her pastor for advice. He referred her to his wife who conveniently happened to run an adoption agency.
Over the next several months, Leticia and Ashley met with the adoption social worker as well as a couple interested in adopting Ashley’s baby. But Ashley did not commit to placing her daughter. Leticia says they were looking for help, not adoption.
Ashley gave birth June 16, via caesarian section. Five days later, Ashley signed an irrevocable surrender to the agency while still under the influence of drugs and the effects of the delivery. The next day, with her mother’s help, Ashley tried to revoke her consent. Too late under Oregon law!
Neither Leticia nor Ashley has funds to pay an attorney. (I cannot represent Ashley because I do not have an active license.) A generous Portland attorney agreed to begin the case, based on coercion and lack of informed consent, but cannot afford to continue pro bono. The sad fact is that family law attorneys are often sole practitioners who cannot take on time-consuming cases for free. Even if they were willing to accept nothing for their time, it costs them a thousand plus dollars every month for shared office staff and rent, supplies, utilities, and insurance just to open their doors. Additionally, litigation requires money for court reporters, expert witness fees, travel, and the like.
Family law attorneys who could afford to do the work (those who represent celebs in divorces for example) are unlikely to take on cases for birthparents because they represent adoption agencies and prospective adoptive parents. In other words, attorneys with the big bucks count on the other side for those bucks.
Ashley’s attorney has asked the judge to appoint a lawyer for her. Oregon provides attorneys in cases where the child welfare authorities are trying to take children but there is no statutory authority for judges to appoint attorneys for parents seeing to revoke consent. Leticia has contacted Legal Services which declined to help, explaining that it takes only cases involving domestic violence. (Depriving a mother of her child and a daughter of her mother is not domestic violence?)
I have talked to the American Civil Liberties Union on Ashley’s behalf; the ACLU, which takes only cases alleging a violation of constitutional rights, is considering her request. While the ACLU has been aggressive in fighting legislation allowing adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates, contending that such laws would invade birthmothers' constitutionally protected right to privacy, it is not too much to hope the ACLU will find that laws which allow mothers to lose their children on the most fragile of pretexts are unconstitutional. In fairness to the ACLU, I should add that it depends upon volunteer attorneys and has many more requests for help than it can possible meet.
Ashley’s case is only one of many cases throughout the country where a parent seeks to contest an adoption and confronts a legal system which demands money in order to achieve justice. Several mothers have resorted to using the media to launch a national fund-raising campaign. Carla and Nyles Moquin, who live in Salt Lake City, have been fighting for four years to undo the adoption of Carla’s daughter Peri. We’ve written here and here about Utah’s appalling anti-parent adoption laws.
Stephanie Bennett and her parents also waged a national campaign to raise funds to contest the adoption of Stephanie’s daughter, Evelyn. In 2006, 17 year old Stephanie went to her school counselor, Thomas Saltsman, for advice on her class schedule. When he learned she was pregnant, he arranged for her to meet with employees of the notorious Ohio adoption agency, A Child’s Waiting, which the State eventually shut down. After Stephanie gave birth, Saltsman encouraged her to run away from home and place her daughter for adoption with ACW. Stephanie reconciled with her parents and fought the adoption, but unsuccessfully. The baby remained with the adoptive parents.
Even when parents have money, finding the right lawyer is not easy. Time is obviously of the essence. State laws which allow mothers to revoke surrenders typically give them only a few days. The longer it takes a mother to find an attorney, the lower her chances of winning in court. Fueled by the industry and adoptive parents, the media springs into action, condemning “selfish” birth parents that put their interests before the child’s. Judges face enormous pressure to keep the child with the only family she has known, or risk emotionally crippling the child for life, a concept the media typically plays up. Actually, reports of children returned to their natural parents (Baby Richard, Baby Jessica) are positive, even after many years. (Scroll down to the third story on the page: A child's life shows folly of adults, media, and for how the media treated the natural family read Lorraine's story originally published in On the Issues: May the Richest Parents Win--The DeBoer Case.)
In 2008, I sought to create a directory of attorneys on Origins-USA’s website who agreed to consult with parents seeking to overturn adoptions. I wrote to the Chairs of the Family Law Section in every state and Washington DC requesting them to circulate my letter to their members. I asked for attorneys who would be willing to consult with parents for a nominal fee of $35. Representation and fees beyond that would be negotiated between the attorney the parents. I received ZERO responses.
Contesting adoptions doesn’t appeal to idealistic attorneys in the same way that, say representing a communist or a Nazi or a Southern black man accused of raping a white woman does. A would-be Atticus Finch or William Kunstler is more likely to be hounded out of practice than make a name for himself as a champion of unpopular causes by representing a parent in a contested adoption.
Next: What can be done to assure that mothers contesting adoptions get their day in court?
NOTE: Link to stories about Baby Anna Schmidt/Jessica De Boer have been corrected.