Weighing rights in adoption case

A British judge this week put US-born girls in state custody, in case that set off transatlantic furor.

The laws and rules governing adoption vary from country to country and from state to state. A trans-Atlantic tug of war over American-born twins is raising a new question: Which laws take precedent if parents in one country find children - via the Internet - in another country?

On Tuesday, a judge in Birmingham, England, ordered that a pair of US-born twins remain in temporary custody of social services, pending a review of the legal implications of the case. A decision could be made within weeks. A Welsh couple had paid thousands of dollars for the girls, whom they found through an Internet broker that had previously placed the girls with another US family.

The case has prompted British officials to speed up implementation of a new overseas adoption law. And it has increased pressure for a coordinated Federal policy in the United States, where adoption rules can vary greatly from state to state.

Enter "adoption" into a common Internet search engine and within moments dozens of organizations pop up, listed under "Business and Economy," subcategory "Shopping and Services." Presumably this is how Alan and Judith Kilshaw of north Wales clicked their way to notoriety.

The Kilshaws paid $12,000 to a San Diego-based service - whose operator has since disappeared - to finalize the adoption of the girls they call Kimberley and Belinda. The Kilshaws took custody of the six-month-old twins in Arkansas and returned home with them in December. But when they went to a tabloid newspaper last week to relate the harrowing experience, everything backfired, setting off a transatlantic tug-of-war.

The birth mother, who lives in St. Louis, has indicated she wants the girls back. A couple in California is claiming that they paid the same broker $6,000 for the twins before the Kilshaws, who they say did not follow US adoption procedures. The FBI has launched a preliminary investigation. And in the latest twist, a Missouri judge has awarded temporary custody of the babies to their biological father.

In the sensationalist press, the "Internet twins" were bought and sold online. But the Internet is only one factor in modern-day adoption. To many, the recent proliferation of so-called "adoption facilitators," or brokers, in addition to customary agencies, is much more troubling. The huge differences in British and US adoption law have become glaringly clear - and the case may help the push for greater speed and transparency in adoptions.

British officials sharply condemned the Kilshaws' use of a facilitator in what appeared to be a bidding war for the girls. Prime Minister Tony Blair called it "disgusting." Home Secretary Jack Straw told Channel 4 News: "It is illegal, completely illegal, in this country for people to buy and sell babies or children. And that is entirely as it should be." The government pledged to implement legislation that would make it illegal to bring adopted children into the country without approval of local authorities.

One week ago, the British Department of Health sent a letter to domestic Internet providers, reminding them of their obligation to remove any Web sites that would violate British law, including the Adoption Act that makes private adoption services illegal.

The industry has sought clarification, stating that legal uncertainty could deter Internet businesses from establishing themselves in Britain. "The Internet obviously makes a difference in the speed or geography of communications. [But] in theory the children could have been put up for advertisement by a newspaper or magazine," says David Kerr, head of Internet Watch Foundation, a self-regulating body set up by British Internet providers. "There has to be a cooperative effort between government and industry," says Mr. Kerr, noting that Web surfers need only click on a site based in the US, where private adoptions are legal - though baby-selling is not.

Dozens of adoption organizations float through cyberspace, some dilettantish, others highly professional in appearance. One Chicago adoption firm states that "we are not the cheapest provider on the market."

A Polish company lists "adoption" along with its other services, including "translating and notarization." A California-based organization lists the fees for a Guatemalan child running between $15,000 and $19,000, which is a typical cost for international adoptions in the US. On another page, visitors can view pictures of dozens of "waiting children." It's a service adoptive parents say helped them find children they might not have otherwise.

But Conna Craig, head of the Institute for Children in Cambridge, Mass., emphasizes that "the Internet is a medium - that's all." Ms. Craig, who advised the Bush presidential campaign on child welfare, adds: "Personally I'm not in favor of posting children's pictures on the Internet, because adoption is not a service for parents, but for children."

Just a decade ago, she says, county social services also kept photo listings of children available for adoption. The couples who viewed them, however, had demonstrated an interest in adopting, whereas on the Internet, anybody can view them anonymously.

Another recent development is the growth of private adoptions. "Most states allow what's called 'independent adoption.' Historically that was an attorney matching a birth mother with a couple," says Craig. "More recently, 'brokers' have come into play." Craig says that of the 50,000 to 60,000 adoptions finalized in the US every year, one-third are now handled by independent brokers.

In Britain and the US, the case could provide impetus for sorely needed reform of systems often bogged down in red tape. Craig says that adoption organizations should be required to get some sort of standardized accreditation, as is the case for doctors. "The missing link in the US - and UK - is that private and public agencies are not held fully accountable for the results of their actions," she says.

Meanwhile, another controversial case in Britain is raising questions about technology and parenthood. On Monday, it was revealed that a woman in her mid-50s is expecting twins, following fertility treatment. Britain's 75 fertility clinics have no official upper-age limits and decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, according to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority in London.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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