When Sharon Pierce learned that her son had gotten someone pregnant, she knew the situation wouldn’t be ideal.
The future parents were teenagers in high school.
Pierce still embraced having a little one around, and at least initially, so did her son. But his girlfriend wasn’t ready, so she sought an adoption agency’s help.
What happened during the months leading to the birth of Pierce’s granddaughter would leave her and her son frustrated, confused and overcome with sadness — emotions that critics of private adoptions think should prompt a closer look at the attorneys and agencies who operate in that field.
Some of them blame South Carolina laws that first attracted notoriety in the 1980s, when Charleston became known as a haven for couples nationwide seeking easy adoptions.
As Pierce set up a nursery in her James Island home, she said attorneys and the adoption agency started pressuring her son. They convinced him and his girlfriend that they were too young, that they couldn’t care for a child. A pre-adoptive couple from Spartanburg paid the expectant mother’s expenses.
Days after the girl was born in January 2007, she left a West Ashley hospital. Across the street, she was handed to the Spartanburg couple’s representatives outside a Lowe’s Home Improvement store.
But Pierce’s son mounted a challenge to the adoption. During that time, Pierce and her family cared for the girl for a few weeks until they gave in. Her son eventually signed over any claim to the child — a move he later regretted.
“They wined and dined (the parents) into hating us and believing that we were not good enough to raise this child,” Pierce said. “Now we see it happening to other families.”
The adoptive parents’ attorney said Pierce’s claims of coercion and deception were unfounded and that she and her son willingly agreed to settle. But the battle over 4-year-old Veronica and a new dispute over a 4-month-old named Desaray have stirred talk of similar accusations being rampant in other private adoptions. Both of those cases center on children with American Indian blood and the federal law that makes them more difficult to adopt.
But the larger issue, according to skeptics, is the allegation that some birth mothers, agencies and attorneys conceal adoptions and prevent birth fathers from asserting parental rights.
When it comes to Indian children, legal observers said attorneys have been emboldened by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that Veronica’s father hadn’t helped her mother during pregnancy and therefore couldn’t use the Indian Child Welfare Act to gain custody. Desaray’s case could be the first one that tests that precedent.
Many of the private agencies operate with a Christian-themed mission to provide a future for babies born to parents who cannot properly care for a child.
Couples looking to adopt in such situations often pay birth mothers’ medical and living expenses — the cost of a private adoption can range from $5,000 to $40,000 or more. Precise statistics today are difficult to come by because of laws that shroud adoptions in secrecy.
But the payouts also raise outsiders’ suspicions of the role money plays in adoption.
Several of the contentious adoptions have included the same cast of characters — many of whom have been in the business for decades and some of whom have gained notice during their careers.
James Fletcher Thompson of Spartanburg, the attorney for the couple who adopted Pierce’s granddaughter, has represented Matt and Melanie Capobianco of James Island in recent litigation regarding Veronica. He said Pierce’s accusations were disproved during litigation.
“That birth mom is very positive about her experience,” Thompson said. “She speaks to other birth moms about how adoption was the right decision.”
Lately, attorney Raymond Godwin has borne the brunt of the scrutiny as the attorney for the Capobiancos and for the couple seeking to adopt Desaray. He also is married to the director of the private agency that handled Veronica’s adoption.
Much of the critical barrage, Godwin said, results from ignorance of the law. States like South Carolina give few rights to unwed fathers not profoundly involved with the child and the mother.
Godwin and other adoption attorneys often prevail in court.
“There is a misconception that a birth father must sign a legal document in order for an adoption to be accomplished,” Godwin said. “Just because the birth father is a sperm donor and has that biological link does not under the law establish his parental rights.”
Laura Beauvais-Godwin thinks any struggling pregnant woman should determine her child’s fate.
As director of the Greenville office of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, Beauvais-Godwin steers women toward what she considers one of the best options — adoption — over one she doesn’t support — abortion.
Of the 10 states nearest to South Carolina’s population, only one — Oklahoma — has fewer private adoption agencies, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Oklahoma has nine, compared with South Carolina’s 10.
But a 2002 survey by the National Council for Adoption listed the Palmetto State as seventh for the number of private-agency adoptions. They accounted for 620 of 1,648 domestic adoptions that year.
Nightlight finds mothers through websites, word of mouth and advertisements in the Yellow Pages. It provides counseling and teaching, home studies of prospective adoptive parents or, as in Veronica’s case, background checks of the birth mothers. The agency had no role in Desaray’s adoption, Beauvais-Godwin said.
The agency collects fees for its services from the adoptive parents, who also are permitted by law to pay the mothers’ expenses.
“If she decides to parent, she’s going to be living in a life of poverty,” Beauvais-Godwin said. “Oftentimes, birth fathers do not support them or their children.”
Those costs include down payments on housing or a vehicle, rental fees, food and utility bills, Beauvais-Godwin said.
Allegations of forceful tactics, in which agencies convince mothers that they don’t have the resources to care for the child, that have given rise to complaints of such “shotgun adoptions.”
In online reviews, former clients of some Christian adoption agencies commonly complain of lies and manipulation.
One reviewer from California alleged that she paid $4,000 to the group Beauvais-Godwin founded 15 years ago, Carolina Hope Christian Adoption Agency, to facilitate her adoption of a South Carolina child. Nightlight absorbed Carolina Hope in 2009.
“Our birth mom felt so bullied by them that eventually she refused to take their calls,” the woman wrote on AdoptionAgencyRatings.com. “We paid for that, financially and emotionally.”
The adoption, she said, eventually fell through, and she was out the $4,000 and another $14,000 she had spent for travel to South Carolina.
Nightlight has fared better in other critiques.
One reviewer praised the agency, which has offices in four states, for making “our dream of a family a reality.”
When adoptions fall through, Beauvais-Godwin said, clients can feel wronged. But some of the criticism recently has perplexed her.
“I don’t even know where it’s coming from,” she said. “We don’t steal babies. We have to be honest, but people don’t have to be honest on blogs and Facebook.”
In the adoptions of Veronica and Desaray, critics say dubious circumstances are at the heart of their concerns.
In denying the Capobiancos’ first appeal, the S.C. Supreme Court noted the birth mother’s apparent attempts to conceal the adoption.
Christina Maldonado first indicated on a form her hesitancy to identify the father, Dusten Brown, because of his ties to the Cherokee Nation. When she went to an Oklahoma hospital to give birth, Maldonado was on “strictly no report” status, preventing inquirers like Brown from learning that she had been admitted.
Brown didn’t find out about the adoption until four months later. By then, he hadn’t helped the mother. His earlier attempts to marry Maldonado weren’t sufficient under state laws to establish paternal rights as an unwed father.
Similarly, Jeremy Simmons wanted to marry the woman who gave birth to Desaray in May. But she disappeared shortly after getting pregnant, according to Simmons’ attorney, and later resurfaced married to someone else. Simmons didn’t have a chance to support her, the attorney said.
But state laws have high standards for an unwed man to achieve fatherhood.
The couple could marry, the man could live with the woman for six months before birth, or he could handle prenatal expenses.
“Once these agencies and lawyers get the birth mother on the hook ... they tell these birth moms not to answer any calls from the dads,” said Shannon Jones, the Charleston attorney who represents Simmons and Brown. “Of course, then they argue the dad is a deadbeat.
“It usually wins the day.”
Success with that argument is apparent for Godwin and other South Carolina attorneys who specialize in adoption.
In 2006, Godwin successfully appealed an order blocking a South Carolina couple’s adoption of an Illinois girl.
The birth mother refused to name the father when she signed documents consenting to South Carolina’s jurisdiction. The father later pursued custody, as did the mother when she changed her mind. She argued that she consented to the adoption before a 72-hour waiting period after the birth, which is required by Illinois law, had elapsed.
Unlike most states, South Carolina has no waiting period. Birth mothers can sign over custody at any time and can retract their consent only if they prove coercion.
In another case five years later, a teenage would-be father offered the teen he impregnated $100, bought her some clothes and fixed her car. But he didn’t go far enough in supporting the teen, the S.C. Supreme Court said, and couldn’t block an adoption.
Adoption attorneys insist that the law is on their side.
Birth mothers, Godwin said, are referred to him by pastors, hospitals, attorneys and businesses that advertise for pregnant women.
He then offers the services of his wife’s agency. The financier is typically a pre-adoptive couple.
In Veronica’s case, the Capobiancos paid for Godwin’s fees, Nightlight’s services and the birth mother’s attorney. A judge signed off on it.
Having an attorney working with the birth mother and the adoptive couple runs contrary to ethics guidelines of some state bar associations. In an informal opinion in 1989, the American Bar Association also said an attorney independent of the agency is a “key component to an ethical adoption.”
But the S.C. Bar has no such requirement.
Though most of his adoptions are “emotional roller-coaster rides,” Godwin said, they are often finalized without a hitch.
“It would be easy for the average couple who are looking to adopt to draw conclusions that ... most adoptions are filled with land mines after reviewing (recent cases),” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Godwin defended Desaray’s removal from Oklahoma, where the girl’s father and the Absentee Shawnee Tribe have challenged the adoption.
Godwin noted that the mother agreed to South Carolina’s jurisdiction when the girl was born in May. The Irmo couple trying to adopt Desaray has followed state laws, Godwin said, even though they didn’t secure the same interstate compact approval that the Capobiancos got before leaving Oklahoma with Veronica.
Critics, such as Shawnee attorney Charles Tripp of Owasso, Okla., have argued that the baby was removed secretly, that neither the tribe nor the father got proper notice of the proceedings. An Oklahoma judge has since ordered Desaray’s return to the Sooner State, but Godwin is fighting the move in South Carolina.
“You have to wonder how wide this practice is,” Tripp said. “After the U.S. Supreme Court decision (in the Veronica case), maybe people see South Carolina as some adoption safe haven to get children to.”
To Thomas Lowndes, Tripp’s gripe rings a bell.
The Charleston attorney has worked in adoption law for 47 years, so the Veronica case wasn’t the first in which he stumbled across controversy. He represents the girl’s guardian ad litem, who supports placement with the Capobiancos.
His business partnerships 30 years ago helped South Carolina earn its name as an adoption mecca.
In the late 1970s, New York adoption attorney Stanley Michelman was indicted on 192 federal charges. Newspapers referred to him as the “kingpin in the baby-selling business.”
But Michelman was acquitted, and he later partnered with Lowndes to handle private adoptions.
Michelman’s clients often would fly to South Carolina so they could adopt children here, where laws were considered favorable. Lowndes would handle the New Yorkers’ court obligations here.
A 1984 Time magazine article referred to Charleston as a “notorious baby bazaar ... a welcome haven for couples anxious to secure a child.”
But Lowndes said his adoptions then and now were done “by the book.”
State laws are sound, he said, when it comes to guarding the rights of everyone involved, including fathers. If a pregnant woman shuts a would-be dad out of her life, Lowndes said, he should file with the state’s putative father registry in which men can assert parental rights over any child resulting from their sexual relationships.
Critics of private adoptions see a need for reform. Tripp, the Shawnee attorney, and an Oklahoma state representative want an investigation.
As a childhood adoptee, Tripp supports the concept, but he called for more transparency among attorneys and agencies.
“If they’re not doing anything wrong, then I don’t think they would have a problem letting people see what they are doing,” Tripp said. “But I see them actively trying to go around the law.”
To University of South Carolina law professor Marcia Zug, laws governing the termination of a father’s rights, she said, make an adoption here “easier than in many states.” She also noted the need for a waiting period after a birth in which mothers can revoke their consent.
“I don’t like this back-door, don’t-tell-him-about-it approach,” Zug said. “And there’s just a whole bunch of those cases.”
As executive director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, a New York-based nonprofit, Adam Pertman said laws should add more openness.
Shutting out people with a stake in an adoption only creates more problems that drag out adoption proceedings — something that Pertman said isn’t in a child’s best interests.
“It’s a system that deep-sixes the rights of birth moms and dads,” said Pertman, himself an adoptive parent. “We give lip service to the best interests of the child, then we do things that constantly prove that the adoptive couple are the only people we’re concerned about.”
More than six years after Pierce’s granddaughter went to live in the Upstate, she still sees the effect that the adoption had on her son.
They’ve seen the girl “once or twice,” she said, since the adoption. The visits lasted about an hour — too short to be meaningful, she said.
Pierce still clings to the toys that the baby once played with and the clothes she once wore.
Her son dropped out of high school after the adoption. He never graduated.
“To this day,” she said, “we still can’t get over it.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.