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Adopting an Attitude

Since private agencies took control of adoption in colorado, costs have gone up. For would-be parents, so have the heartaches.

Every time Joley Cole hears one of her neighbors say "Joley did it the easy way--she adopted," she wants to spit. Four years ago the Denver woman and her husband spent more than $12,000 and what felt like a lifetime answering personal questions and being examined in order to adopt a baby boy from Nebraska. They started out thinking they were doing a good thing--helping out a pregnant teenage girl, putting everything they had into their commitment to love and nurture a child. Then the trouble started.

What turned the Coles' dream into a nightmare is Colorado's "privatized" adoption system. Unlike close to 90 percent of the states in the U.S., Colorado requires virtually everyone who adopts a child to do so through one of a handful of state-licensed but privately owned adoption agencies. While the state created the monopoly these agencies hold on adoptions, however, it maintains little control over their activities.

That combination of unchecked and unchallenged power has given rise to an industry that charges sky-high prices for services required by law; has a financial stake in the outcome of the parental evaluations and counseling it provides; uses no set standard of criteria for judging adoptive parents; engages in aggressive recruiting tactics to ensure pregnant women give up their children to specific agencies; and can legally accept thousands of dollars from desperate couples and then place a child with a different, competing couple.

In all but six states in the country, "independent" infant adoptions--those that don't require an adoption agency's participation--are the rule rather than the exception. Get an attorney, hire a counselor, find a pregnant mom who wants to give up her child and plead your case before the judge. Judicial oversight is the check and balance. Not so in Colorado. Here state statute requires anyone seeking to adopt a child to first pay for both a homestudy, in order to determine their fitness as parents, and for "relinquishment counseling"--a series of one-on-one sessions in which advisors are supposed to make sure that birth parents grasp the ramifications of their decision to give up their child. And the only place a would-be parent can get those two services is an adoption agency.

Years ago, both the homestudy and the counseling could be done by any licensed mental-health professional: social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist or adoption agency. But after statutory changes in 1986, only county social services departments or licensed private adoption agencies retained that privilege. Since that time, increasing workloads and decreased funding have effectively limited county involvement to those cases where children are considered abused or neglected (except for a minimal number of rural adoptions). That has left 42 private agencies--some for-profit, some religiously affiliated, all of them essentially unfettered by state regulation--the only places potential adoptive parents can go to meet the letter of the law.

"If you want to adopt a baby, one that hasn't been abandoned or abused, and thus is outside the control of Social Services," says Denver family-law attorney Pamela Gordon, "as a practical matter, the law requires you to hire a private adoption agency. Period." According to the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS), last year 2,039 adoptions were filed in district courts statewide. Seventeen percent of those were Social Services adoptions. The rest, unless they were filed by stepparents, required at some level the involvement of an adoption agency.

It's a requirement that comes at no small cost.
"Before all this agency involvement," says Boulder attorney Jim Downey, "counseling cost $500, homestudies were around $800, usually less, and legal fees went for about $500." The total adoption, excluding birth-mother expenses, cost less than $2,000.

Now the average cost of adopting in Colorado is about $10,000, with some agencies, like the fastest-growing one, Small Miracles of Englewood, charging closer to $15,000. "Few people," Gordon says, "have any idea how hard--and expensive--it is to adopt in this state."

Gordon and a number of other attorneys and adoptive parents have a problem with that. Because, they say, while Colorado state law cements the private agencies' lock on adoption, it does virtually nothing to oversee how they conduct business. And that lack of oversight, they say, is showing.

Joley Cole knows the pitfalls of the Colorado system all too well. After years of fighting infertility, she and her husband decided to adopt. They located a pregnant mother themselves, without ever having called an agency. A family relative had a young, pregnant daughter. The birth mother was delighted to have someone she knew adopt her child. The Coles were ecstatic to finally have some luck in becoming parents. But even though the couple had located the baby themselves, Colorado law forced them to use a private adoption agency to legally transfer the parental rights. It was a requirement, says Joley, that almost lost them the baby.

"It was about four months away from the birth of the baby," says Cole, who, like the other adoptive parents quoted in this article, asked that her real name not be used. "And we went to Professional Adoption Services and they said they could do the homestudy--but they couldn't promise that they'd place the baby with us. The baby we found."

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