Internet adoption: should children be advertised for adoption over the Internet?
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Echo Issue Outline 2001 / 10
On January 16, 2001, it was revealed that a British couple, the Kilshaws, had paid some $20,000 to a United States adoption agent as a transfer fee for two American twin girls whom they are now attempting to have made British citizens.
It has been claimed that the adoption was legally conducted under Arkansas law; however, this has been disputed by an American couple, the Allens, who had earlier paid the same adoption agent a smaller fee for the same twin girls.
These developments have created a scandal on both sides of the Atlantic. The suggestion has been made that the children had literally been sold over the Internet, and not just once, but twice.
What they said ...
'It's absolutely deplorable that children are traded in this way'
The British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair
'I just want what's best for my girls'
Mrs Tranda Wecker, the mother of the twin girls supposedly adopted twice
Copyright © Echo Education Services
First published in The Echo on-line newspaper information site.
Issue outline by J M McInerney
In the United States private adoption agencies are legal in 47 out of the 52 states. However, it is not legal to sell children as part of the adoption procedure. All an agent is able to do is receive a fee for the facilitating of an adoption. This is not meant to represent a payment for the child.
Critics maintain that regulatory procedures in many American states are so lax that purely commercial arrangements do take place.
It has also been noted that most American states require a cooling down period for both the birth parents and adoptive parents before any change in the child's legal status can be ratified.
However, Arkansas, where the Kilshaws went to have their adoption of the twins legally licensed, is unusual in allowing fast-track adoptions. Yet even Arkansas law stipulates that either the birth mother or the adoptive parents should be resident in the state.
Tranda Wecker, the twins birth mother, has now claimed that she lied to Arkansas authorities about her residency.
In Great Britain private adoptions are illegal. However, British law does recognise adoptions carried out legally in other countries.
Currently in the United Kingdom it is claimed that there are twice as many parents seeking children to adopt, as there are children available. This has led to criticisms that British adoption procedures are too restrictive.
The argument appears to be that with so many couples seeking children and so relatively few available most children would be placed were British authorities not excessively scrupulous in their attitude to adoptive parents.
There are also many children being adopted into Britain and other developed countries from Third World nations. There are complaints that the procedures that apply to such adoptions are either too strict or not strict enough.
With regard to the use of the Internet in such arrangements, there are many private American adoption agencies that promote themselves, and in some instances, the children they are trying to place, over the Net.
In the United States adoption is a state-based matter. Forty-seven of the fifty-two states allow private adoption. The United States Legal Information Institute has an index listing hyperlinks to the adoption laws in each of the states of America. This can be found at http://www.law.cornell.edu/topics/Table_Adoption.htm
The British Independent Television Network, ITN, has produced a series of reports on the Wecker twins disputed adoption.
One report titled, 'Internet adoption: Who benefits?' gives an overview of the Wecker case and outlines the conflicting adoption laws applying in Great Britain and the different states of the United States. The article also indicates that despite these differences, British law recognises as binding adoptions carried out according to state law in the United States.
The report was published on January 17, 2001 and can be found at http://itn.co.uk/specials/Jan2001/0117/0117adopt.shtml
A related ITN report titled, 'Adoption scandal parents speak' was published on January 16, 2001. It can be found at http://www3.itn.co.uk/news/20010116/britain/05twins.shtml
On March 15, 2001, a bill was introduced into British Parliament designed to better regulate the conduct of British citizens seeking to adopt children from overseas. The Adoption and Children Bill has been drawn up in the wake of the Internet twins adoption scandal involving Alan and Judith Kilshaw.
Under the new law, people who bring children into England and Wales for adoption without first being assessed and approved by the relevant British authorities will be liable to a œ5,000 fine or three months' imprisonment.
The British newspaper, The Times, has published a report on the Bill
The article is titled 'Net adoption pair would be jailed under new Bill'. It was written by Tom Baldwin and published on March 16, 2001.
It can be found at http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/0,,11-100248,00.html
The 'Adoption and Children Bill' can be found at http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200001/cmbills/066/2001066.htm
The white paper that was prepared prior to the development of this Bill was titled 'Adoption: a new approach'. It can be found at http://www.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm50/5017/5017.htm
The British Department of Health has a special section of its site supplying information about adoption in Britain. It can be found at http://www.doh.gov.uk/adoption/
The Times newspaper also published an opinion piece by Libby Purves on January 23, 2001. It is titled "the babies bought on sale or return'. It gives an interesting defence of the actions of British social services in taking the twins from the Kilshaws and placing them with a foster family.
It also suggests what changes might be made to both British and United States adoption law to ensure that a case like the twins does not arise again.
The article can be found at http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/0,,253-72333,00.html
Arguments against advertising children for adoption over the Internet
1. Advertising children for adoption over the Internet treats children as a commodity
One of the key concerns of those who oppose the advertising of children for adoption over the Internet is that it encourages what has been described as the virtual sale of children.
The British Home Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, has stated, 'It is illegal, completely illegal in this country (Britain) for people to buy and sell babies or children.'
Behind this prohibition is the concern that once children are treated as though they are commodities that can be bought and sold then the welfare of children becomes a secondary consideration. What becomes important is how much any perspective adoptive parent is able to pay.
The British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, has stated, 'It's absolutely deplorable that children are traded in this way. Adoption should always be about the interests of the child first.'
There is concern that arrangements giving precedence to parents in terms of their ability to pay do not consider the suitability of the perspective adoptive parents. Money, it has been claimed, is no guarantee of successful parenting.
The British couple who appear to have out-bid an American couple for custody of the Wecker twins have since been criticised in the popular press for their parenting of the two children they already have.
2. Such advertisements encourage hasty, ill-considered commitments from perspective adoptive parents
Under normal circumstances in both Britain and Australia, before a child can be adopted there is a careful monitoring of the suitability of the perspective adoptive parents. The whole process takes a considerable amount of time and requires both effort and careful consideration on the part of the would-be parents.
Concern has been expressed that when children are advertised for adoption over the Internet, this encourages premature and ill-considered commitments from perspective parents.
Most children advertised for adoption over the Internet have had their details placed there by independent adoption agents or brokers, usually based in the United States. The regulating of these independent agents varies from state to state.
Many agents claim that they are only acting as facilitators, bringing perspective adoptive parents into contact with women who may wish to give up their children. However, they require service fees and appear to put pressure on perspective adoptive parents to pay promptly.
In the case of the Wecker twins an earlier set of perspective adoptive parents lost their chance to adopt the girls because they did not pay promptly enough.
3. Such advertisements encourage the exploitation of adoptive parents
Adoptive parents who attempt to access children for adoption over the Internet are frequently desperate to acquire a child. In the case of Mrs Kilshaw, she believed she was too old to be granted a child via the adoption procedures that apply in Britain. She had unsuccessfully tried IFV treatment and she had apparently failed to persuade her oldest daughter to act as a surrogate mother for her.
By the time she looked on the Internet for a child to adopt this was her last obvious option as she had exhausted the more orthodox avenues available to her.
Mrs Kilshaw was therefore in a position to be exploited by the agent she contacted and some critics have argued that this appears to be what occurred. The Kilshaws were first told there was a white, female child available for them to adopt. They paid a deposit only to be told the child was no longer available. It was after this they were offered the Wecker twins.
Similarly the Allen family that had first placed a deposit or partial payment toward the Wecker twins then had the girls taken from them, either because they had paid too slowly or because the Kilshaws were able to pay more. Many have suggested that the Allens were treated unjustly by an unscrupulous adoption agent.
The apparent desperation of parents who seek children over the Internet and the informality of the arrangements they enter into with adoption agents make them very vulnerable to fraud and exploitation.
4. Such advertisements encourage the exploitation of birth parents
It would also appear that the agents who advertise children for adoption over the Internet are likely to exploit the birth parents.
It appears that many such agents make use of loopholes in the adoption laws in a number of states in America. They make highly informal arrangements with the parents of the children whom they advertise for adoption. The core of the arrangement appears to be no more than that the agent undertakes to bring together potential adoptive parents and women with children they wish to put up for adoption.
The agent charges a facilitator's fee for this service, but it is unclear how much of this fee is ever received by the birth mother. In the case of Mrs Wecker, though the agent Tina Johnson, has received tens of thousands of dollars from both the Allens and the Kilshaws, Mrs Wecker claims to have received no money at all.
There are those who argue that the arrangement exploits birth parents whether the natural mother is paid or not. Those who hold this view argue it degrades the mothers of children put up for adoption to use the mothers' poverty as the motive for surrendering their children.
Herald Sun commentator, Jill Singer, has made this point. Ms Singer claims, 'The most repulsive aspect of the adoption is preferable ... argument is that smug privileged conservatives are using it without the barest mention of how society might help financially insecure women who suffer unplanned pregnancies.'
According to this position, women who cannot afford to keep their babies should be given financial assistance, not paid to hand them over to someone wealthier.
5. Such advertisements encourage international adoptions that are difficult to regulate
Both Britain and the United States are now considering revising their adoption regulations to make the legal and moral quandary created by the Wecker twins 'adoptions' less likely to occur.
Part of the difficulty appears to be the relatively unregulated manner in which adoption agents can operate in a number of states in America. Another part of the problem appears to be that British law has accepted adoptions by British citizens legally conducted under the laws of another country as legally binding in even if these adoptions would not be allowed under British law.
Thus the British government is faced with the clearly unattractive option of having to accept an adoption conducted under Arkansas law that would not be allowed within Great Britain.
The core of the problem appears to be that in encouraging adoptions across national boundaries, Internet advertised adoptions are likely to stumble over the contradictions between adoption laws in different national jurisdictions.
It is clearly very difficult to arrive at binding international agreements that will remove these contradictions.
Arguments in favour of advertising children for adoption over the Internet
1. There is a great demand for children to adopt, especially in Western countries
Jonathan Este, in a report published in The Australian on January 19 2001, has claimed that there is 'a flourishing trade in adoption from the Third World, Latin America and Eastern Europe.'
A number of commentators have noted that diminishing birth rates in the developed world, fuelled by effective contraception and delayed marriage and parenting, have resulted in a huge demand for children to adopt from Western couples who are unable to have children of their own.
As an editorial published in The Australian on January 20 2001 noted, 'Childlessness is a deep sadness for many couples.' Couples in this position can be seen as deserving of sympathy and, if possible, assistance in gaining the children they so much desire.
Those who support the advertising of children for adoption over the Internet suggest this practice merely makes women who wish to adopt children aware of children they may be able to adopt.
2. There are many children who would benefit from being placed with adoptive parents
It has been noted that war, poverty and social dislocation have created large numbers of orphans or have resulted in parents being unable to offer their children the life they would want for them.
Mrs Tranda Wecker, the mother of the twin girls at the centre of the current adoption controversy, believed herself unable to care adequately for the two baby girls. She worked as a hotel receptionist, was twice divorced and had three older children to look after. Her second husband, whom she divorced while still pregnant with the twins, was a cocaine addict.
Mrs Wecker has claimed that she did not believe she would be able to look properly look after five children. She has said, 'I just want what's best for my girls. I want them to have the best possible parents.'
Robert Lusetich, in an analysis of the case published in The Australian on January 20 2001 has stated, 'Ethicists do not deny Tranda Wecker's right to put her children up for adoption.'
It has further been noted that in the United States there are some 40,000 children available for adoption annually. Supporters of Mrs Wecker's action would suggest that in approaching an adoption agent she was doing no more than seeking the best possible parents for her daughters and may perhaps have wanted her two children settled in a new family as quickly as possible.
There are also those who would claim that there is nothing inherently wrong in a woman such as Mrs Wecker seeking some financial recompense for surrendering her daughters.
With regard to children put up for adoption from Third World countries it is argued that there is an even greater justification for advertising these children on the Internet. As these children have been born within countries where poverty and war makes a comfortable life for them either impossible or unlikely, their best hope of placement in a stable family unit is through overseas adoption.
The Internet brings these children to the attention of large numbers of potential adoptive parents in developed countries.
3. The Internet acts as a point of contact between people seeking to adopt children across national boundaries and adoption agents who can help them do so
It has been suggested that where adoption across national boundaries is being considered the Internet is a very effective means of promoting such adoption.
Over the Internet, pictures of children who are available for adoption can be brought into the homes of people in other countries who might be interested in giving them a home.
This was the claimed position of the Kilshaws who have repeatedly stressed their desire to provide a 'stable home' for the two twin girls they have attempted to adopt.
The Australian, in a report published on January 19 2001 claimed that there were thousands of children whose pictures, age and country of origin had been placed on the Internet in the hope of attracting adoptive parents.
The article notes, 'If you believe the number of hits these websites profess to take, thousands of couples are using this method to find and adopt children from around the world.'
4. The laws of the country where it takes place can regulate any adoption that occurs
It has also been argued that where Internet advertised adoption occurs within a country then the laws of that country should be relied upon to regulate that adoption exactly as they would any other adoption that occurred within that jurisdiction.
According to this line of argument, if there is no cooling off period required under Arkansas adoption law then the problem is with the law. The problem has not been caused by the fact that the adoption agent who promoted the Wecker twins sometimes made use of the Internet.
Similarly, it has been argued that if the laws of many of the states with the United Sates do not adequately control the activities of adoption agents, this too shows a weakness in the laws of these states. Any inappropriate adoptions that are arranged by these agents could have been prevented had the regulations been strict enough.
5. If necessary, international agreements can be reached that regulate cross-country adoptions
It has also been argued that where necessary international agreements can be reached that regulate cross-country adoptions. Australia has such arrangements with a number of other nations.
It has also been argued that where such agreements cannot be reached, the laws of individual nations can regulate international adoptions involving their citizens. This will soon be the situation within Great Britain.
Under the Adoption and Children Bill, which has been drawn up in the wake of the Internet twins adoption scandal involving Alan and Judith Kilshaw, people who bring children into England and Wales for adoption without first being assessed and approved by the relevant British authorities will be liable to a œ5,000 fine or three months' imprisonment.
This is an attempt to ensure that overseas adoptions involving British citizens meet British standards.
It has been noted that this new law makes no attempt to ban the use of the Internet to advertise children for adoption. Instead it attempts to regulate how international adoptions involving British nationals are conducted. The means by which a potential adoptive parent became aware of a child to adopt appears to be irrelevant.
It would appear that the debate surrounding so-called Internet adoption is somewhat misplaced. The impression created in the public mind is that children are advertised over the Internet for virtual sale and then at little more than the click of a mouse are transferred to the custody of an adoptive parent who may not even live in the country where the child was born.
This seems an over-simplification of the situation. In the case of the Kilshaws what appears to have been at issue is the unscrupulousness of the adoption agent and the insensitivity, perhaps even ruthlessness, of the British adoptive parents who were prepared to accepted children who had already been placed with another couple.
Also at issue are the lax monitoring procedures that operated in at least one American state, as neither the Kilshaws nor the Allens appear to have been vetted to determine their suitability to adopt.
The Internet appears to have been no more than the means that brought these various parties together. In fact it is not clear that either the Allens or the Kilshaws even selected the Wecker twins from an advertisement placed on the Internet. The Kilshaws had previously been offered another child for adoption and when that arrangement fell through were then offered the two Wecker girls. The only certain role that the Internet appeared to have in the Kilshaw's attempts to adopt is that they first became aware of the agent, Tina Johnson, through an Internet advertisement for her agency.
None of this is to say that the Internet does not bring unscrupulous agents and desperate people into contact with one another; however, the core of the problem would appear to be that the adoption laws of various American states are inadequate and that British law has previously adopted too liberal an attitude toward adoptions by British nationals across national boundaries.
While the Internet may not be a completely neutral zone, it should be noted that many of the transactions that are conducted through it do not involve the exchange of money for services. For example, there are a number of sites on the Internet that attempt to bring people who have been adopted into contact with their birth parents and birth parents into contact with the children they gave up for adoption. Such services are examples of the sort of group support services that proliferate on the Internet.
Newspaper items used in the preparation of this outline
Available as a press cuttings package (with an issue outline reprint): price: $27.00 (NO LONGER AVAILABLE)
18/1/01 page 9 news item by Nigel Bunyan, 'Trans-Atlantic fight as twins sold on Net'
19/1/01 page 10 news item by Andy McSmith and Nigel Bunyan, 'Twins spur new look at UK law'
20/1/01 page 21 news item by Giles Elgood, 'US twins seized in row over adoption'
23/1/01 page 8 news item by Nigel Bunyan, 'I'm not a witch: twins woman'
19/1/01 page 1 news item by Jonathan Este, '$6000 deposit and monthly payments - the price of life on the net'
19/1/01 page 8 news item, 'Third couple agreed to buy internet twins'
19/1/01 page 8 analysis, 'The tangled legal web'
20/1/01 page 14 news item, 'Net sale twins put into care'
20/1/01 page 16 editorial, 'Internet twins need love, not litigation'
20/1/01 page 19 analysis by Robert Lusetich, 'Honey, I sold the kids'
20/1/01 page 19 analysis by Annabel McGilvray, 'Illegal in Australia'
22/1/01 page 11 analysis by David Leppard, John Harlow and Deborah Colcutt, 'Bartered baby syndrome'
22/1/01 page 11 news item by Robert Lusetich, 'California moves to close net adoption loopholes'
23/1/01 page 13 comment by Angela Shanahan, 'Morality for sale, to the highest bidder'
The Herald Sun
18/1/01 page 5 news item by Bruce Wilson and Darrell Giles, 'Net twins sold twice'
19/1/01 page 11 news item by Bruce Wilson, 'Give them back to me'
19/1/01 page 17 carton y MacMullin, 'World wide web ...'
20/1/01 page 13 news item by Bruce Wilson, 'Twins seized in police raid'
20/1/01 page 24 editorial, 'Shame of sold twins'
21/1/01 page 1 news item by Bruce Wilson, 'So, this is grief'
22/1/01 page 11 news item by Bruce Wilson, 'Twins' parents from hell'
26/1/01 page 18 comment by Jill Singer, 'The rich should give to the poor, not take their babies'