A need for uniformity

January 30, 2001|By Ellen Goodman

WASHINGTON -- I'm wary when an ad pops up on my screen saying "Click Here for Adoptions!"

I'm uneasy with a Web page promising "Your Avenue to Love." And I'm more than a bit uncomfortable with the online picture of the blonde toddler or the site called www.heavensentchildren.com or the pink and flowery pitch of LifeTime Adoption: "work with us to build your family."

Nevertheless, I can't put the banner headline "Internet Twins" over the girls who have now been moved to their fourth home on two continents in six months of life. They were not spawned by software or christened Dot and Com.

Indeed, the saga of two Missouri babies shipped, shuttled and maybe sold, has less to do with a Wild West Web than with a worthy adoption world that needs taming.

The tale of these twins begins in that icon of the old economy: the Yellow Pages. Last spring, Tranda Wecker, a pregnant 28-year-old mother of three in a deteriorating marriage, dialed A Caring Heart. She found Tina Johnson, an unregulated, unlicensed private matchmaker for birth mothers and adoptive parents.

It was Ms. Johnson who posted the ad on those pages and placed the girls with a couple from California for a "service fee" of $6,000. It was Ms. Johnson who accompanied -- encouraged? -- the mother when she took the babies back under a state law allowing the birth mother in private adoptions 90 days for second thoughts.

We don't know if Tranda's second thoughts were about the children or their resale value, but she and Ms. Johnson "placed" the twins again for another "service fee" of $12,000. And in Arkansas -- the Reno of adoption -- the girls were swiftly handed off to another couple from another country for another check.

Again, it wasn't the net but the old-fashioned lurid British press that turned the twins' origins into a scandal. The couple had sneaked the babies in; the British mum was enough to lift the hearts of scandal sheet mongers and TV hosts. It didn't take long for social services to walk in with alarm and walk out with twins.

Today the "Internet sale" and "resale" is an international custody dispute from California to Missouri to Wales. The babies, sought by parents across electronic, biological and national borders, are in state care. "It hasn't got them off to the best start,`' says a London adoption worker with masterful British understatement.

Anyone for Solomon.net? Adam Pertman, a colleague at the Boston Globe and author of "Adoption Nation," says ruefully that this aberrant tale hits all the bad stereotypes: "That birth mothers are unscrupulous and adoption practitioners are baby-sellers and adoptive parents are pathetic, vulnerable creatures who will do anything to get a family." It also creates an image of adoptive children as products in an unregulated marketplace targeted to parent-consumers.

But for all its once-in-a-lifetime bizarreness, the twins' fate points out wider problems. Especially in a time when up to 40 couples wait for each infant and half the adoptions in our country are private.

Baby-selling? With or without a sales receipt, you can see the corrupting influence of money. Any "facilitator" can hang out a shingle -- or a Web page -- without a license. Will they act in the best interest of the child or the business? Who makes sure?

Baby selling is illegal here and in Britain, but there is a fine line between paying a private agent for "services" and paying for the baby. There is another fine line between helping a birth mother with medical care or pregnancy support, and buying the newborn. Such fine lines need wider guidelines.

In this case, the birth mother, the broker and the Brit mother may all have violated existing laws. But the tangled web of these laws that made it tempting to state-shop and easy to "resell" has left our smallest citizens in British social service. Why not statutes that are consistent, if not identical?

What a story these twins will find on the Internet when they are old enough to surf that landscape. This week, a court in Missouri gave custody to the biological father. A court in Birmingham gave custody to the British government. After all this, we are left with two girls still in need of a place to call home.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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