Adoptions are big business in the U.S. There’s no shortage of demand for children, even as traditional sources for adoption close down or the process becomes more cumbersome.
This is article is part of Civil Beat’s investigative series “Black Market Babies.” Click here to read the other stories.
Many U.S. families grow frustrated working through the lengthy process of public adoption and foster care, says Chuck Johnson, CEO of the National Council for Adoption. There’s also been a huge downward trend in international adoptions — an 80 percent decline since 2004.
“It’s getting increasingly difficult,” Johnson said, citing Russia, which closed its adoption program, and other countries that have piled on “red tape.”
All of this is pushing — and will continue to push — adoptive parents into private domestic adoptions. In some cases, adoption agencies refer parents stuck on waiting lists that won’t budge to private adoption lawyers and consultants.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands has one of the highest birth rates in the Pacific. Birth control is hard to come by, and abortion is illegal except to save the life of the mother.
April Estrellon/Civil Beat
Leah and Nate Van Berkum started their adoption process in 2016 using an agency in their home state of South Dakota. They were both over 40, and felt like they didn’t have much time left to raise a child.
After six months of trying to adopt, the Van Berkums were matchless and feeling desperate. Then they got what looked like a second chance. Their adoption agency connected them with a consulting firm in Colorado.
For an extra $2,800, the consultants offered to connect the Van Berkums with a Marshallese birth mother in Arkansas and private adoption attorney Vaughn Cordes.
In March 2017, Leah Van Berkum and her husband traveled to Arkansas to witness the birth of the child they were matched with. But Van Berkum says it became quickly clear that the birth mom was having serious doubts about giving up her child.
“She made a comment that said, ‘But if I don’t do this will I go to jail,’” Van Berkum said.
The social worker at the hospital told the birth mom that’s not how it works — that birth mothers are allowed by law to change their mind and not go through with an adoption.
Van Berkum says she was going to leave, but Cordes told her to wait while he got his adoption fixer to speak to the birth mom.
After they spoke, the birth mother said she did want to go through with the adoption. So Van Berkum and her husband left the hospital with the baby.
The next morning, Van Berkum got a phone call from the baby’s father — someone she’d been told was not in the picture. He said they wanted the child back.
They frantically called their lawyer, but Van Berkum says Cordes declined to help.
“He said, ‘That’s not what I do. I don’t help return babies,’” Van Berkum said.
They ended up meeting the birth parents at a local police station to return the child.
“I don’t want anybody to ever go through this,” Van Berkum said. “This is horrible because I really feel like those girls — I just really feel like that community — is being taken advantage of.”
Cordes said he can’t speak to individual cases. But he said that adoptions like the Van Berkums’ don’t represent the norm.
Breanne Gilchrist is the hospital social worker who was there for this case. She left the hospital last year, but says she saw on average between four and eight Marshallese adoptions per week when she was there.
Gilchrist says she worked with a lot of women who weren’t aware of their rights to call off an adoption. She believes lawyers use the payments birth mothers receive during their pregnancy as leverage.
“They try to use any type of coercion that they can to bring the moms down,” she said.
While some adoptive parents persevere despite one or more failed matches, Nate and Leah Van Berkum say it’s unlikely they will ever adopt a child. Their home study — and the fees they paid the adoption agency — were only good for a year.
“We just decided with what we had been through and the cost,” Nate Van Berkum said, “We just at that point made a conclusion that, ‘Hey, this is the way it was meant to be for us unfortunately.’”
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