Nila Carter3.JPG

Nila Carter (center) waits with lawyers Ronnie Richter and Scott Mongillo before her hearing in front of Judge Deadra Jefferson in Charleston County Circuit Court. Carter is suing Lowndes & Barrett LLC for legal malpractice related to the adoption of her biological children in 2014. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Thirty-five years ago, South Carolina was known as the nation's "baby-buying supermarket."

The state's laws were so lax back then, it wasn't uncommon for adoption lawyers to fly pregnant women into South Carolina to give birth so their out-of-state clients could whisk in and quickly claim a baby.

"You really don’t see that happening, not the way it used to," said Laurie Goldheim, adoption director at the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys.

But in the early 1980s, the demand for babies encouraged this practice. In fact, couples outside South Carolina who wanted to adopt often placed classified advertisements for infants in this newspaper.

"Happily married couple desires to adopt white newborn," read one ad placed in The News and Courier on a Sunday in 1984.

On the same day: "Loving California family wishes to adopt healthy newborn white baby."

All told, there were two dozen classified ads placed by prospective parents in The News and Courier on that single Sunday. Nearly all the families lived outside South Carolina and desired a white baby.

"Nobody knows how many babies leave the state every year in the arms of adoptive parents," wrote Margaret O'Shea, a former reporter at The State newspaper, in a series of articles on the practice. Her articles were later submitted as part of a 1984 hearing in the U.S. Senate on fraudulent adoption practices.

"(South Carolina) has become a national clearinghouse for babies — one of the last hopes for childless couples from states with long waiting lists or more stringent adoption laws," she wrote. "Under the state's lenient laws, almost anything goes — including child buying."

O'Shea, now retired from journalism, said the series generated a lot of discussion but prompted few substantial changes in state law.

"Children were traded for a cow, or $10 or whatever," O'Shea said. "It became really, really clear that some lawyers in some counties were making a hell of a lot of money doing adoptions."

She wrote that one Charleston lawyer named Thomas Lowndes helped out-of-state couples adopt South Carolina babies by teaming up with an attorney in New York.

When his New York counterpart was implicated in a 1980 book called "The Baby Brokers," Lowndes told O'Shea he was phasing out of adoption law.

"I've been in it 13 years, and that's long enough," he told the reporter.

Lowndes still practices adoption law in Charleston and is today considered one of the preeminent adoption lawyers in South Carolina.

He remembered O'Shea's series. He called it a "hatchet job."

"I damned near sued the (State) newspaper for it," he said. "That was history."

Five years ago, when Nila Carter, a 25-year-old mother in Myrtle Beach, needed help finding someone to adopt her children, she used Google to find an adoption lawyer. She landed on Lowndes' homepage.

She filed a legal malpractice case against the law firm this year because she claimed Lowndes' law partner failed to explain, among other things, that open adoption agreements are not legally enforceable in South Carolina. Such agreements, in other states, allow birth parents to maintain a relationship with their children after they are placed with an adoptive family. 

Lowndes and law partner Emily Barrett have denied all the allegations made in the lawsuit. The case is ongoing. 

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Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.