VIEWERS of ``L.A. Law,'' the popular NBC television series, know that Ann and Stuart finally got their baby. Unable to conceive a child, and unwilling to languish for years on an adoption agency's waiting list, they contacted a broker who specializes in private adoptions. For an undisclosed fee plus the expenses of the ``birth mother,'' the broker found them an infant. Private adoptions - in which a licensed agency plays little if any part - are common in the United States. Approximately one-third of the 50,000 non-relative adoptions in the US each year are private. In some areas, it is the only way for a couple or an individual to adopt a healthy white infant.
In most private adoptions, babies are placed in loving homes. Yet the practice carries risks. One of the less-publicized aspects of the tragic Steinberg case in New York was that the six-year-old girl who was battered to death and a younger boy, also abused, entered Joel Steinberg's home through illegal private placements by unscrupulous doctors.
Other children have been placed in homes with inadequate supervision, and the rights of natural mothers have been trampled on. Because childless people are often willing to pay large amounts for infants, private adoption has attracted fast-buck baby brokers, fostered unethical collusion among lawyers, doctors, and social workers, and led to the coercion of birth mothers.
States vary markedly in their regulation of adoption. In Massachusetts, private adoption is unknown. Although natural mothers and would-be adoptive parents sometimes identify each other through a private intermediary, all subsequent steps, including home inspections, counseling of all the parties, and legal procedures, must be handled by a licensed agency. In other states, by contrast, there is virtually no oversight of private adoptions.
A grand jury that investigated the doctors implicated in the Steinberg case proposed measures to tighten New York laws on private adoptions. Among them:
Home studies of prospective adoptive parents should be made by a qualified, disinterested person or licensed agency before a child is placed.
A birth mother should not sign a consent relinquishing her rights to a child for at least five days. A judge should determine that the mother is acting freely.
Independent counseling and legal representation should be made available to a birth mother before she signs away her rights.
There should be stiffer criminal penalties for people engaged in illegal practices.
Other reforms called for by experts include tighter regulation of classified ads for birth mothers, better record keeping of private adoptions, and limitation of fees paid to brokers. The payment of fees as high as $50,000 or more encourages ``baby selling'' and induces coercion of birth mothers.
Private adoption has blessed many families. Few experts would abolish the option. But private adoption can also bring heartache and grief, as Lisa Steinberg reminds us. It must be hedged about with adequate safeguards.