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Adoption Today: A Risky Business

April 4, 1995

Promising love, Jim and Mary Ann Cacacie left behind pain.

The couple took thousands of dollars from eager parents-to-be, vowing to deliver babies to them in months. But cribs stood empty as the Cacacies retreated into silence.

``If I saw her tomorrow on the street, I would spit in her face,″ said Doreen Vitale, a New Jersey woman who lost $15,000 _ her life savings _ to the Cacacies. ``I have no use for her because of the heartache she put us through.″

The adoption Donna and Anthony Greco hoped for fell through after the birth mother demanded more and more money, then changed her mind and kept the baby.

``The room was done. The cradle was ready. ... Now every day I stare at an empty room,″ said Mrs. Greco.

Adoption has become a business, a rough and sometimes risky business. Stiff competition for babies, the lure of profits and the desperation of the childless have turned a once relatively staid process into a roller-coaster ride.

Where church or public agencies once ruled, now independent adoptions via lawyers or consultants dominate. Couples who once waited for agencies to approve them now run ads for children. Young women who once anonymously gave up newborns now choose their babies’ future homes.

For many would-be parents, such roll-up-your sleeves methods pay off: Out of the fray, they get a baby. But others question the emotional and financial costs.

``People go into this thinking it’s a benevolent process. But that’s not the case anymore,″ said Susan Freivalds, executive director of Adoptive Families of America, an adoptive parent support group.

``There are certain people who recognize that they are dealing with vulnerable consumers, and take advantage of that,″ she said.

The gurgling, wiggling commodity called baby is of course at the heart of adoption. Too many people want them, too few are available.

As parents get older, infertility problems rise. Out-of-wedlock births are no longer scandalous, so only 2 percent of unmarried women place babies for adoption, compared with nearly 9 percent in the 1950s and ’60s. The abortion option also may have made fewer babies available.

Thousands of disabled, minority or older children are available for adoption, inexpensively. But adoptive parents, usually white and well-off, want healthy, white babies. By one estimate, 40 couples vie for each baby.

In 1991, Doreen Vitale contacted the Cacacies after 10 years of trying to have a baby and discouragement from agencies. Some said her husband Jim was too old because he was over 40; others spoke of years on wait lists or fees up to $25,000.

``I went with Mrs. C. because she assured us that for $7,000 we would get two healthy children from Honduras within four to five months,″ Mrs. Vitale said.

Three years, $15,000 and a trip to Honduras later, the Vitales had only an empty nursery.

They and three other couples were each awarded $7,500 in a civil court last year. But the Cacacies moved to Florida after New Jersey authorities froze their client list.

``Complaints began in December 1991 and came so regularly and were so severe that we suspended their intake,″ said Linda Mattoon, coordinator of adoption agency licensing for New Jersey. ``We told them they couldn’t take on new clients until they cleaned up their act.″

The Vitales, who have since adopted a baby, can’t afford to pursue their claim.

Palm Beach, Fla. police are now investigating complaints that the Cacacies, working as unlicensed adoption consultants, took thousands in fees from Michigan families.

``It’s a real muddled issue right now, as far as where the money went,″ said Detective Chris Calloway. ``People feel that she’s taken their money. ... I would have to prove she’s pocketed the money and I can’t prove that right now.″

The Cacacies, who did not return a reporter’s telephone calls, told police they gave the money to foreign lawyers.

Serious misdeeds by licensed agencies are rare, experts say, but many think the quality of service is slipping.

``I think a lot of these guys are cutting corners,″ said Clyde Tolley, a Baltimore adoption consultant. For example, the time social workers spend studying prospective parents is decreasing, he said.

But cries of alarm are particularly sounding about independent adoption, legal in all states except Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota and North Dakota.

Studies show independent adoptions rose from 21 percent of adoptions in 1971 to about 31 percent in 1986, while private agency adoptions fell from 40 percent to about 30 percent. An estimated 104,000 domestic adoptions took place in 1986.

Of course, many of these adoptions are problem-free. Colleen Alexander-Roberts found a baby privately after spreading the word among her friends.

``It was simple,″ said Ms. Alexander-Roberts, a Toledo, Ohio mother who had such positive experiences adopting privately and via an agency that she wrote ``The Essential Adoption Handbook.″

Still, social workers and private agencies say many lawyers and matchmakers are untrained and motivated by profits.

``We hear attorneys routinely charging $15,000 to $20,000, although ... there’s not much legal work involved,″ said Ritch Hemstreet, chief of adoption policy for California. The average cost of a private agency adoption in 1992 was $9,200, said the National Council for Adoption.

Ballooning private fees, which can reach $40,000, eliminate good prospective parents who don’t earn high salaries. Worse, there is little or no monitoring of independent adoptive services or recourse if the process goes awry.

Legally, adoptive parents can lose money they’ve paid in expenses and fees if birth parents change their minds within a set time that varies by state. But some insurance companies now offer adoption termination policies.

The Grecos, of Freehold, N.J., were insured when their adoption fell through in February. Still, Mrs. Greco said she felt that when the process began to go wrong there was ``no one on our side.″

One pregnant woman in Palm Beach, Fla. received generous living expenses from several couples, then gave her child to the highest bidder, said Investigator Synda Williams. After the third scam, she was arrested.

Those desperate to adopt are often vulnerable. ``When you’re looking for a baby, your emotions tend to override your logic,″ said Ruthanne Okun, a Huntington Woods, Mich. attorney who said she lost $4,300 to the Cacacies.

Said Mrs. Greco of the birth mother who disappointed her, ``We truly didn’t believe she would do this to us. We were so excited and believing.″

To combat abuse, a number of states are reconsidering adoption laws. Texas last year passed measures including a ban on paying birth mothers’ expenses retroactively to prevent women from shopping around for adoptive parents. Alabama has tightened supervision on fees and expenses.

Yet critics call attention to gray areas of adoption that don’t usually break laws but foster a profit-oriented spirit.

Advertising for a baby, a practice legal in 32 states, ``creates a marketplace mentality″ that curries under-the-table dealings, said Mary Beth Style of the National Council.

But it may get you a baby, argues author Cynthia Martin, who calls for aggressive techniques such as picking up female hitchhikers or chatting up school gym teachers to find pregnant women.

``If you’re looking for a blond blue-eyed baby girl, you have to be willing to compete,″ said Martin, author of ``Beating The Adoption Game.″

For now, couples trying to adopt mostly are left with one warning: Let the buyer beware.

``Be an expert. Be prepared,″ said Ms. Alexander-Roberts. ``Everything fell together for me during my adoptions. But it wasn’t luck.″

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