Recently, a young woman, let’s call her Mary, became pregnant.
After Googling adoption in Maryland, she connected to a nationally-based facilitator for guidance.
Mary gave birth, and before having any counseling, was advised to select a family from those presented to her, all from other states. She didn’t know the laws of Maryland and that choosing someone closer to home was an option. The facilitator took a hefty fee from the family and rushed them on a plane to the hospital.
The situation grew more complex when Mary expressed hesitation about moving forward with an adoption plan. The facilitator told Mary she had to sign over her parental rights under the law where the prospective family resides, meaning her decision would be irrevocable upon signing. She was not told that she could sign under Maryland law, where she gave birth, which provides a 30-day grace period. Meanwhile, the hopeful prospective family had arrived at the hospital.
A professional on staff recognized the urgency of the situation for Mary and contacted a local agency for information and guidance.
Adoption Facilitator vs. Adoption Agency
There is no federal regulation of the U.S. adoption industry. Any laws related to adoption are managed at the state level and vary greatly, including how birth parents give their consent in adoption.
An adoption facilitator is an unlicensed, unregulated marketing company that matches prospective adoptive parents with expectant parents. This is their only legitimate service.
Private adoption agencies, on the other hand, must be licensed by the state’s licensing authority and provide a defined scope of services that include delivering counseling to expectant parents, adoption placement services, and home study and post-placement services to prospective adoptive parents.
Ethical, licensed agencies offer thorough all-options counseling (parenting, adoption, kinship care, or termination) as the first step for expectant and birth parents considering making an adoption plan, before connecting them with prospective adoptive families.
Brokering Human Lives
Internet advertising has opened the door for unlicensed facilitators to take advantage of expectant and birth parents in crisis for financial gain. With beautiful websites and heavy search marketing budgets, they attract expectant parents considering adoption and those to grow their families through adoption.
Adoption, however, has legal, emotional, and financial implications that last a lifetime. To have a facilitator leading the process is a great risk to the well-being of all involved.
And, a great cost. Facilitator fees can reach $20,000 without guarantee of a completed adoption (no refunds). This does not include legal services, background checks, home study, expectant parent life or medical expenses, or the necessary counseling or emotional support that should be provided to expectant parents and prospective adoptive parents as they move through the process.
This summer, California became the 29th state to ban the use of adoption facilitators, following a January 2023 Sacramento Bee investigation into one such facilitator that had collected $245,000 from nearly two dozen families awaiting adoption without placement. In many other states, facilitators have sidestepped this type of spotlight for far too long.
And, while facilitators may be banned in certain states to operate, they continue to advertise and attract families from all states.
Supply and Demand
We are talking about human beings being treated as a commodity.
With ‘supply’ – births – down in much of the country, and ‘demand’ – interest from adoptive families – up, facilitators capitalize on the emotions of everyone involved, and with devastating impacts.
When the social worker from the story arrived at the hospital, she counseled Mary on her options. As a result, Mary chose to sign Maryland consents, providing her 30 days to fully and confidently decide if she wanted to parent or make an adoption plan for her baby.
This time allowed Mary to recover from the birth, talk with family for support, and fully explore her next steps. This crucial intervention prevented a hasty choice Mary may have regretted for a lifetime and gave her the chance to make a thoughtful choice based on really understanding adoption.
It’s important for the public to know that facilitators engage in practices we consider unethical – often coercive or threatening to expectant and birth parents. In addition, they are ill-equipped to support adoptive families in this intense, emotional process.
Facilitators are also known to use state laws to their advantage, even suggesting moving adoption processes to other states with shorter revocation periods or other leniencies, such as minimal or vague laws for notifying birth fathers.
Basically, the fewer people involved, the shorter the revocation period, the higher likelihood of an adoptive placement, i.e. ‘success rate,’ allowing them to more easily draw in paying families.
Legislation and Other Potential Solutions for Change
Adoption professionals and agencies witness this highly active underbelly of today’s adoption industry daily, often acting as the soft landing for women like Mary and prospective families falling prey to these deceptive practices.
Steps should be taken with urgency to move this system into a safer, healthier and more ethical position focused on awareness, regulation, and transparency:
- A federal list of licensed adoption agencies in each state.
Recently, Reps. Anne Custer (D-NH) and Doug Lamborn (R-CO) introduced a bipartisan bill, the In Good Standing Adoption Agencies Act of 2023, requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to maintain an annually updated list of licensed adoption agencies.
This move would empower expectant parents and adoptive families with essential information, educating them on the risks associated with facilitators, and guiding them towards reputable agencies. This sends a clear message that our society values ethical adoptions and will not tolerate the exploitation of vulnerable individuals.
- Federal regulation of the adoption industry.
In the U.S., an expectant parent can change her mind any time before birth. After birth, each state handles various adoption laws differently, opening the door to gaming the system for profit. (A 2020 TIME article goes into detail, ‘The Baby Brokers: Inside America’s Murky Private Adoption Industry.’)
On Nov. 3, Reps. Anne Custer (D-NH) and Doug Lamborn (R-CO) also introduced the bipartisan Adoption Deserves Oversight, Protection and Transparency (ADOPT) Act that would protect adoptive families, children and expectant parents from exploitation by unlicensed adoption intermediaries.
While achieving true federal oversight will take time, critical improvements can be made now such as tracking of adoption data and legal representation for birth parents.
- Awareness and transparency in the fabric of adoption organizations.
As adoption agencies, professionals, advocates, adoptive families, adoptees and concerned citizens, we have an opportunity to shed light on these practices to educate our communities and push for more stringent regulations.
If you are personally navigating the adoption process, attempting to find a service provider, it might be tricky to determine who is an adoption facilitator versus an agency. Check the company’s website to ensure they are licensed by their state licensing board. Also, if a company indicates they can work in all 50 states, there is a good chance they are a facilitator…no one agency is licensed in all 50 states. Finally, ask to see their fee sheet for ALL services. If they only provide information and it is one large lump sum, they may not be a licensed agency.
With these steps, we can begin to create a system that upholds the highest standards in every adoption, ensuring every child ethically finds their way to a loving, secure home.
*Pam Hoehler, LCSW-C, LICSW, MSW, is the Director for Placement Services for Adoptions Together, a program of Paths for Families, an adoption and family well-being organization serving Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.