By Bonnie Miller Rubin
A simple online search for adoption turns up dozens of ads by for-profit agencies promising "a beautiful newborn" and a process that is "easier than you think."
But such ventures are illegal in Illinois, and on Monday, Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit that experts said will help keep money out of adoption and weed out operators that circumvent state requirements that protect children and prospective parents.
"This lawsuit is historic," said Bruce Boyer, director of the Civitas ChildLaw Clinic at Loyola University Chicago.
The defendant, the Adoption Network Law Center, is a California-based, for-profit adoption provider that matches prospective parents with birth mothers and is one of the first websites that come up in any Google search exploring adoption.
The company accepts compensation for its services and is not approved by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to place children, the lawsuit alleges.
The attorney general's office said it sent cease-and-desist letters to several similar organizations after a Tribune story in December highlighted a report about fraud and exploitation in adoption services. Despite the warnings, some organizations continued to advertise in Illinois, prompting Monday's lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court, the attorney general's office said.
The online providers allegedly lure couples desperate for a child by promising to fast-track the lengthy process and regulations of traditional agencies.
"This lawsuit seeks to enforce important safeguards enacted in Illinois to ensure our adoption process truly protects the best interests of the children," Madigan said. "We want to send a message to out-of-state, for-profit entities that they cannot operate in Illinois and ignore our laws."
Kristin Yellin, an attorney for the defendant, said she has received "no information from the attorney general's office regarding any potential lawsuit and, therefore, cannot offer any comment."
There are about 30 profiles of Illinois couples on the Adoption Network Law Center website seeking to become parents. The company is one of at least a dozen online brokers operating in Illinois and has gone further by marketing directly to state residents, with links such as "Click here to learn more about our unplanned pregnancy help in Illinois" and "click here to learn how to find and adopt a baby in Illinois," according to the lawsuit.
The Illinois Adoption Reform Act, which took effect in 2005, was designed to drive out unscrupulous operators and take the profit motive and aggressive marketing out of adoption. One birth mother was offered kitchen appliances to place her child for adoption, said a Glen Ellyn couple trying to adopt.
"(The lawsuit is) a long-awaited step in making the promise of our eight-year adoption reform law a reality," Boyer said.
The number of healthy infants available for adoption has dwindled during the past two decades, ushering in an era of fraud and "growing commodification of adoption on the Web," according to a report last year by the Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national not-for-profit devoted to improving adoption policy and practice.
State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, is taking a closer look at the Internet and dubious adoption practices with a hearing Tuesday in Chicago.
But for now, the lawsuit is a good start toward keeping adoption about children, not profits, said Julie Tye, executive director of The Cradle in Evanston.
"Today is a really good day for Illinois adoption," Tye said Monday. "Hopefully, other states will get some intestinal fortitude as well."
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