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Childless Mother: Guilty
Until Proven Innocent

By Mirah Riben

03 May, 2007

Why is Jonelle of Mesa. Arizona having to fight for the right to parent her own son? What did she do to her months-old son in the three days she got to see him that was so horrible? Why is her constitutional right to parent her child being challenged, not by the state or her son’s father—but by unrelated strangers? Equally important, why is this infant, Adrian Zane, being denied the right to be with his mother?

Jonelle, a 24-year-old intelligent and fully capable college graduate with a bachelors degree in nutrition and a minor in chemistry from the University of Arizona was studying for MCATS to enter medical school when she became pregnant. She is not a drug user nor has she been in any trouble with the law in any way. She doesn’t even smoke cigarettes.

On October 18, 2006 Jonelle gave birth to her first child—a healthy son who she has never been accused of abusing or neglecting. Jonelle is self-supporting as a neuro-monitor, a job that would allow her time with her son, as she only works 20 -25 hours a week with full-time pay. She lives in a two-bedroom, two bath townhouse with ample, clean space for her and her son.

Jonelle discovered she was pregnant shortly after moving to South Carolina. She had no friends and no family in the area. Her son's father distanced himself and wanted her to abort the pregnancy. “What was supposed to be the most beautiful time in a woman's life,” she says, instead “was the most depressing and lonely time of my life.”

A single expectant mother, Jonelle went to her parents for help. Instead of helping her, however, their feelings of shame caused them to hide her and her pregnancy from all extended family and friends who might have influenced her to do anything but what her parents wanted their grandchild placed for adoption without anyone ever knowing…except of course Jonelle.

Given no help or options, Jonelle found what she thought was a reputable adoption agency called “A Baby To Love” and dialed a toll-free number.

After 24-hours of labor, alone, Adrian was delivered by caesarian section. Three days later, still in the hospital, weak, groggy from the surgical birth, confused and stressed out…Jonelle was given relinquishment papers to sign by an attorney she had never previously met, and whom she believed was representing her interests. At the same time, she had a 30-minute first ever meeting with a couple who wanted to adopt her newborn son. Within an hour after that meeting on a Friday, the attorney called to tell her that she had to make a decision about the adoption by end of business that day, before the weekend. She felt as if she was having a breakdown but got no help, only pressure from her parents, the attorney and a social worker. Jonelle says, “I never wanted to give my child up. I truly felt forced.”

In a plea to the judge Jonelle wrote: “There was never a time throughout the adoption process that my rights or lack of rights were ever discussed with me. The content of what I was to sign was NEVER discussed with me until the day I signed. There is no way after going through the emotional trauma I went through during my pregnancy and giving birth to my son ALONE, by C-section, I was able to fully understand the content of what I was signing. I was never told that after I sign the papers there would be no way I could reverse my decision. I was misled into believing I had ninety days to reverse my consent… I didn’t understand the consequences of signing that document.... I never wanted to sign those papers, NEVER.”

Jonelle’s story, unfortunately, is far from unusual. In a 2006 online survey of mothers who relinquished, eighty-two percent of the 424 respondents reported feeling pressured to relinquish. Sixty percent said they experienced coercion, signed under duress, or felt their legal rights had been in some way denied.

How was this young woman—or anyone in her position—to understand that the attorney she was trusting to represent her, was in fact representing the interests of those who pay his fee—prospective adopters? L Ann Babb, Ethics of American Adoption states: “[A]doption, more than any other human service, is rife with conflict of interest. Adoption agency social workers and attorneys routinely represent both birth and adoptive families [who are] party to the same adoption. Agencies whose very existence is based on fees paid for consummated adoptions claim to offer unbiased ‘crisis pregnancy’ counseling to expectant mothers.”

Despite the fact that the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility concluded in 1987 that a lawyer may not ethically represent both parties, dual representation in adoption is permitted in Kansas and California, and prohibited in Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Wisconsin. All other states, including South Carolina where Jonelle gave birth and signed relinquishment of her rights, are silent on the issue. Why would anyone think such a thing could be possible? It would not be allowable in any other legal transaction, so why would have any reason to suspect such impropriety, especially in a case involving something as important as the transfer of child custody?

How are expectant and newly delivered mothers to know that infant adoption in the US has become big business based on a dwindling “supply” of healthy white infants to meet demands? How many of any of us are aware that: “…there is no professional standard for or regulation of adoption practice” or that we have “profit-based motivation in child placement [that] is … loathsome” and “largely driven by money.” Would she or anyone know that “[p]rofessionals have yet to develop uniform ethical standards… or to make meaningful attempts to monitor their own profession”? Or, that the adoption agencies and facilitators “main job” according to adoption facilitator Ellen Roseman “is coaching prospective adoptive parents.”

How is any such woman to know that attorneys like the one she was dealing with was one of many attorneys acting as a private adoption facilitator or intermediary….a go-between who scouts for women just like Jonelle: expectant mothers alone and in crisis acting on behalf of clients who pay his fees to obtain the sought after commodity of a healthy while infant? Anyone—attorney, clergy, physician, car salesman or hairdresser—can hang a shingle and arrange adoptions with little to no oversight of any kind, other than the regulations to open and run any type of business.

Alex Valdez Jr., spokesman for the California Department of Social Services states: “Essentially, [adoption facilitators] are required to have a business license, publish a list of their services, and [have a] $10,000 bond before they hang a shingle.” And, if a match fails—as it did the first time for Jonelle—the facilitator can offer the same child to another set of would-parents and collect yet again. Randall B. Hicks, an adoption attorney whose fees, home studies are paid for by his adoptive parent clients, said facilitators are “not licensed nor trained to do anything.”

When “in other professions and occupations, licensing or certification in a specialty must be earned before an individual can offer expert services in an area. The certified manicurist may not give facials; the certified hair stylist may not offer manicures” why is unreasonable to expect the same of adoption practitioners? “Yet…individuals with professions as different as social work and law, marriage and family therapy, and medicine may call themselves ‘adoption professionals.’” In adoption “…anyone with enough money to advertise him- or herself as an independent adoption facilitator can claim expertise and get into the business of moving children from family to family.”

How could a woman be expected to make such an important, and irrevocable decision without being properly informed? The Child Welfare League of America’s Standards of Excellence for Adoption Practices recommend that all mothers considering adoption and their families receive “counseling to help them understand the grief and loss” they may experience. This is only a recommendation, however, and is not enforced.

Elizabeth Samuels, Associate Professor of Law, University of Baltimore, states: “For mothers considering placing their children for adoption, skilled, unbiased counseling is invaluable: complete, well-communicated information is indispensable; and time is, perhaps, ‘the wisest counselor of all.’” Yet Samuels notes: “Many of these state laws do not ensure that best practices will be followed in all infant adoptions…. When a state places its legal imprimatur on the unmaking of one family and the making of another, the state should at least ensure to the greatest extent possible that all the individuals involved have followed or have been afforded ‘best practices.’ These are the practices that ethics and humanity demand…. In a number of other countries—including European countries and Australian states—consent may not be given or does not become final for a period of approximately six weeks.”

Jonelle and Adrian, like all mothers and babies who are unnecessarily torn apart by adoption will suffer life-long feelings of loss. Yet, despite the gravity of an act made by the stroke of a pen that affects the lives of many extended family members—both related and by adoption—the distressed mother is denied the decency of a “cooling off” or grace period, unlike any other legal transaction.

What “crime” did Jonelle commit that created an orphan of her cherished son? Being innocent and lacking the knowledge that infant adoption in the US is often corrupt and exploitive; that there is an invisible line separating black market adoptions from business-as-usual in the multi-billion dollar unregulated industry of American infant adoption. Jonelle was worn down, physically and emotionally exhausted, lacking any support of any kind, and believing for just long enough to put pen to paper that it was the best, or only, thing she could do. And by the time the ink dried on that paper, Jonelle had legally abandoned her child and become an unfit mother in the eyes of the law, and her son left to pay for the “sins” of his father.

Jim Gritter writes in Lifegivers: Framing the Birthparent Experience in Open Adoption: “How curious that one moment these critics admire [a mother’s] contemplation of adoption and consider it a sign of maturity, and the next they consider it a cause for concern. The proposed act that one day was regarded as a ‘loving choice’ is the next referred to as ‘unloading responsibility.’”

If her new attorney is successful in getting her relinquishment revoked based on coercion and pressure and the timing so soon after her birth….she will still have to prove her fitness as compared to the strangers in whose custody her infant son has now been for fewer months than he was inside of her. Why? Why must she prove her fitness? Why is she guilty until proven innocent? She is “guilty” of having trusted “her” attorney to explain and represent her rights. If she had never made that one phone call to a so-called adoption “agency” and instead simply given birth and taken her son home from the hospital, there would have been no question of her fitness. The irony is that in doing what women are told is “best” for their babies, they are automatically labeled unfit.

Infant adoption in the US is in dire need of an overhaul. “Professionals and organizations concerned with professional adoption practice have uniformly opposed the facilitation of adoption through intermediaries, such as medical doctors and attorneys, who are neither trained nor licensed to provide child placing services….” Yet, there is “no professional association or academics, no certification or licensing procedures, no professional recognition as adoption specialists, and no training or educational qualifications.”

Unlicensed, untrained adoption facilitators hurt all of the parties to adoption. They are often only charged when they have ripped off or scammed one of their paying clients, and few of them ever press charges. But the most innocent, most vulnerable are of course at the greatest risk. Lack of proper background checks by unregulated entrepreneurs have led to children being placed with pedophiles and even murderers, all in the name of free enterprise. Who is concerned about, and protecting the rights of, these precious children—and their mothers—after they are born?


L. Ann Babb, Ethics in American Adoption, Westport, CT: Bergen and Garvey, 1999.

Laura Mansnerus, “The Baby Bazaar: How Bundles of Joy Not for Sale Are Sold.” New York Times, October 26, 1998

Dan Gearino, “Special Report Hope & Risk: Money, Hope Lost In Failed Adoptions,” Courier Des Moines Bureau and Courier Lee News Service. February 20, 2006.

Jamie Court, “Beware the Baby Profiteers.” LA Times, August 20, 2006.

Elizabeth J. Samuel, “Time to Decide? The laws governing mothers’ consents to the adoption of their newborn infants.” Tennessee Law Review, V. 72, Winter 2005.

Lifegivers: Framing the Birthparent Experience in Open Adoption. Washington, DC: CWLA Press, 2004.

Mirah Riben is the author of “shedding light on…The Dark Side of Adoption” (1988) and “The Stork Market: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Adoption industry” (2007)

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