Regulating adoption wranglers
States and child welfare advocates say private facilitators do more harm than good
Brittany Paladino found out she was pregnant again when her daughter was 3 years old. Her husband had recently died and her relationship with her unborn daughter’s father quickly ended. She decided adoption was her best option.
“What I didn’t understand was how much emotional support I was going to need to get myself to the finish line,” Paladino said. While she has had a good experience with her daughter’s open adoption, she said she endured more grief than she expected.
“I said to God, ‘You need to use this,’” she said.
In her years of mentoring women, she has seen some organizations prioritize finding a baby for hopeful adoptive parents over caring for birth mothers. Further complicating the adoption process, Paladino says, is the rise of adoption facilitators who advertise their services online, potentially making it more difficult for women to receive the support they need. Some state legislatures are restricting or even banning facilitators in a push for more oversight in the adoption process.
According to the National Council for Adoption, an adoption facilitator or intermediary is an unlicensed person or organization that matches prospective adoptive parents with expectant mothers with the goal of completing private adoptions. At least 22 states prohibit or restrict the use of facilitators.
In July, California became the latest state to ban facilitators. The legislature passed a measure requiring any organization that is involved in adoption to be licensed by the state. Unlicensed facilitators must cease operations by Jan. 1, 2024. California previously allowed these intermediaries to operate as long as they registered with the state Department of Social Services.
Adoption attorney Celeste Liversidge is the executive director of Ethical Family Building, where she advocates for better regulations in the adoption industry. “We’ve let people in a space where they don’t belong because child welfare is heavily regulated, as it should be,” she said.
I reached out to multiple adoption facilitators and adoption lawyers in states where they are not regulated for comment but did not receive a response.
In January, The Sacramento Bee reported that one facilitator in Northern California failed to find adoption placements for nearly two dozen families over multiple years. According to Liversidge, many facilitator websites do not clarify that they are not licensed agencies, which makes it difficult for parents to know if the entity is reputable.
“The whole goal at these websites, of these ads, is to get people’s information, get connected with them,” Liversidge said. “People go to the internet to find help with anything, adoption included. So they’re being inundated.” She said that facilitators target their advertising at birth mothers, often paying for their ads to appear in internet searches around the country, regardless of different state regulations.
Without oversight, adoption facilitators often charge tens of thousands of dollars for their matching services, Liversidge said. Those fees typically do not include legal services, a required home study, or financial support often offered to a birth mother. While some intermediaries claim to make dozens of successful adoption matches each year, unlicensed entities are not required to report actual figures.
While the exact number of families hoping to adopt is difficult to determine, experts agree that there are far more prospective parents waiting for a child than the number of infants in need of a home.
Adoption is not just about being matched with a child, said Sharen Ford, director of foster care and adoption at Focus on the Family. Adoptive parents must complete a home study to determine if they would be safe and suitable parents. Legal documentation is also required to officially transfer custody of a child from the birth mother to the adoptive parents.
“There’s an absence of that kind of documentation, the absence of that pacing, when it comes to an unlicensed facilitator,” Ford said. Because facilitators are only involved in the matching process, families often have to find other professionals to actually complete an adoption. Licensed adoption agencies are capable of walking families through all of those stages, she said.
Working with a licensed entity also ensures oversight and clear communication channels for everyone involved. “Where’s the accountability in this with this unlicensed facilitator?” Ford said. “It doesn’t exist. And I think that that’s very problematic.”
As states consider more restrictions, some organizations advocate for stronger federal regulations to oversee placements that cross state lines. While private adoptions are difficult to track, Ethical Family Building estimates about half of private adoptions in the United States are interstate placements.
The National Council for Adoption worked with members of the appropriations committees in the U.S. House and Senate to include language about this issue in their appropriations bills. Both bills directed the Federal Trade Commission to investigate facilitators for deceptive business practices.
“Even if we had 50 states plus D.C. with great laws on their books, we also need good laws that impact interstate placement,” said NCFA President and CEO Ryan Hanlon. The NCFA is also working with members of Congress to introduce federal legislation on the issue.
A 2022 NCFA survey of birth mothers found that women were most satisfied with choosing adoption when they did not feel pressured to make an adoption plan and when they had accurate information about the process beforehand.
Through her experience as a birth mother in an open adoption, Paladino discovered how important pre- and post-adoption support is for birth mothers. Now, 12 years later, she is the public relations manager and a birth mother mentor at Abiding Love Charities.
Adoption attorney Carrie Murray Nellis launched the nonprofit and Abiding Love Adoption Agency to give birth mothers access to local resources as they make their decisions. In 2022, Abiding Love served 171 women and completed 11 adoptions.
“Adoption is one of the most difficult, gut-wrenching things that a mother will ever choose or even consider, and she deserves to have somebody face to face helping her to know what resources are in her neighborhood to help her parent,” Murray Nellis said, adding that their goal is not to “find babies” for prospective adoptive couples. “What we are doing is trying to love her big and well.”
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