Black Market Adoption


  Kansas City Star
August 9, 2000

Tiffany Stasi case a doorway to world of black-market adoptions

By Donna McGuire

Susan Durham grew up thinking she was born in Phillipsburg, Kan., a small town 60 miles north of Hays. At least that's what her birth certificate said.

But later she learned that wasn't true.

Joe Soll, who lives north of New York City, grew up thinking his birth parents had died in a car crash. At least that's what his adoptive parents told him.

That wasn't true, either.

Both Durham and Soll consider themselves former black-market babies -- people whose adoptions were, in one way or another, illegal.

They can relate to the teen-ager whom Kansas Citians know as Tiffany Stasi. According to Johnson County prosecutors, Tiffany's adoption as an infant 15 years ago not only was illegal but also was facilitated by a man who allegedly killed her mother, Lisa. The adoption paperwork, prosecutors said, was falsified. They have found no evidence an attorney was involved.

Last month, they charged John Edward Robinson Sr. with aggravated interference with parental custody for removing Tiffany from Kansas and concealing her location. A conviction carries a prison sentence of one to five years. Robinson also faces six murder charges and possibly the death penalty.

Tiffany -- who lives in another Midwestern state under her adopted name -- learned about her hidden past much sooner than Durham or Soll. Her parents have declined to discuss how they obtained Tiffany, other than to say that they thought the adoption was legal.

"This young woman is going to need a lot of help and support to deal with this," said Soll, 60, who discovered at 42 that he was part of New York's infamous Bessie Bernard baby-selling ring of the 1940s.

Durham, a former Kansan who lives in Delaware, was about 30 when she discovered that her adoptive parents had hidden unorthodox aspects of her adoption. Durham, now 50, feels sympathy for Tiffany.

"I'm sure she's got a number of things going through her mind," Durham said. "Let her know she is not alone."

Tired of waiting

In the black market, couples tired of waiting years for a legal adoption -- or unable to gain approval for one -- pay excessive fees to get a baby.

Compared with a legal adoption, which can run $8,000 to $20,000 in Kansas or Missouri, black-market adoption costs can be double that or more. To meet demand, dealers sometimes steal babies or coerce young mothers into giving them up.

About 50,000 adoptions of newborns by nonrelatives take place each year in the United States. Nearly all are thought to be legal.

Experts say no hard numbers exist on the number of black-market adoptions, though they agree there probably are thousands. One Tennessee case alone involved hundreds of children.

"We've never really had really good data on the black market," said Joan Hollinger, an adoption expert and law professor at the University of California-Berkeley. "We're not sure of any kind of increase or even steady rate of illegal sales of children."

An obstacle to determining the number of illegal adoptions is that adoptive parents don't want to tell authorities about them.

There is no doubt that the black market flourished in the 1930s and 1940s in Tennessee, New York and elsewhere. A U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1955 heard testimony about rings in Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Wichita.

Those hearings were convened partly in response to the misdeeds of Georgia Tann, the director of a respected children's home in Memphis, Tenn. Authorities discovered in 1950 that, for more than a decade, hundreds of the homes' children had been part of adoption-for-profit schemes.

Some newborns were stolen from mothers who were told that their babies had died. Older children were taken from poor families after a corrupt judge terminated parental rights.

Tann died of cancer days before the investigation was completed, but the state later won a civil lawsuit against her estate.

Though states have since tightened laws to curb baby selling, reports of under-the-table payments and occasional baby-ring prosecutions suggest that a black market still exists.

Only a year ago, federal prosecutors accused two Long Island women and a prominent lawyer near the Arizona-Mexico border of baby smuggling. At least 17 Mexican infants allegedly were sold to adoptive parents in the New York area for $20,000 or more. Their birth certificates were fake.

Courts are responsible for making sure adoptions are legal. In Kansas and Missouri, laws require parties to account for all money involved. Unreasonable fees are not allowed.

"In most states nowadays, the courts are extremely sensitive to this issue of money being paid," Hollinger said. "Many states require accountings and expect people to be honest in their accountings."

In Johnson County, the district attorney's office occasionally is asked to investigate whether adoption fees were excessive -- sometimes grossly so.

"If you didn't have those laws, people would get in bidding wars over babies," District Attorney Paul Morrison said. "People who wish to have children, but who can't, oftentimes are very vulnerable...because they want a child so badly. That desire to have a child overrides common sense sometimes."

Sometimes, adoption facilitators circumvent the courts by using false paperwork. And sometimes illegal adoptions do not involve money, which experts say makes them more of a gray-market case.

`Dr. Mary's' story

Most consider Durham's case an example of a gray-market adoption.

She was born in early 1950 -- or so she thinks. It was a time when unwed mothers were ostracized and abortion was illegal. There were seven homes for unwed mothers in Kansas City at one time.

Durham's birth certificate shows she was delivered in Phillipsburg by Mary Townsend Glassen. "Dr. Mary," as the north-Kansas community called her, was known for her generosity, long hours and knack for correctly diagnosing medical conditions.

In the late 1970s or early 1980s, Durham returned to Phillipsburg with her adoptive mother, who lived in nearby Norton. At her mother's home later in the day, Durham remarked how strange she felt in Phillipsburg, as if she had passed her birth mother on the street.

"You didn't," her mother replied.

Her mother went into a bedroom, where she retrieved a hardcover book about Dr. Mary. The doctor had died a few years after the book was published in 1970.

"You might want to read this," she told Durham.

One chapter told how Dr. Mary had helped unwed mothers, hiding their pregnancies or facilitating adoptions. Details of the adoptions were few.

Durham later coaxed what she could out of her adoptive parents, who gave this account:

Following Dr. Mary's instructions, they had gone to a hospital in Lincoln, Neb., where they were to ask for a specific doctor. He later returned with a baby. The baby's teen-age mother apparently had stayed nearby until the delivery. Dr. Mary filled out the birth certificate and told the new parents not to seek a legal adoption.

Durham, who has launched an online registry for black-market adoptees, researched Dr. Mary in depth and even called some of the doctor's relatives. She has been unable to find her birth mother, but she did conclude that Dr. Mary did not sell babies.

One of Dr. Mary's surviving sisters, Naida Smith, agrees.

"She would give the children to whoever needed them," said Smith, 86, who still lives in Phillipsburg and said she sometimes took in pregnant girls. "I can remember one family that got three children from (Dr. Mary)."

Dr. Mary did not keep records, said Smith, who was her sister's office manager. Smith has no idea how many adoptions took place. Dr. Mary delivered more than 4,000 babies.

For years, Dr. Mary dodged state law by listing the adoptive parents as the birth parents on birth certificates. Then, and now, Kansas required the original birth certificate to have the names of the birth parents. Amended certificates also were required, listing adoptive parents.

Durham checked. No amended certificate exists for her in Kansas. The certificate signed by Dr. Mary is considered the original.

Though frustrated by the mystery of her birth, Durham does not feel bitterness toward Dr. Mary.

"She provided a baby to a family that wasn't going to have one otherwise," she said. "In that respect, what she did was the right thing and the good thing."

Every day, hundreds of grown-up black-market babies nationwide struggle to unlock secrets behind their adoptions.

Soll, the former black-market baby from New York, has given up hope of solving his birth riddle.

Soll's sister revealed one day that the story about his birth parents' deaths in a car crash was not true. Upset, he confronted his adoptive mother, who admitted that the story was fake.

He gathered what paperwork still existed and began attending adoption support groups. One day he showed his papers to the group's leader. She recognized the Bessie Bernard name on his papers and started crying. Soll wanted to know why.

"She (Bernard) sold babies," she answered.

In Bernard's ring, unwed mothers in the Miami area were paid for their babies, which were resold -- at 10 times the cost -- in New York and surrounding states. Bernard was charged in 1949 with baby selling, sentenced to one year in jail and fined $2,500 -- slightly more than she got for each baby.

Soll said he needed years of therapy to deal with the pain of being unable to trace his roots. In his heart, he believes he was stolen from his parents.

He has dedicated the last 18 years to black-market adoption issues and conducts monthly support group meetings attended by about 200 adult adoptees and birth parents.

"I don't know what else to do with my anger," Soll said. "I've yearned for my mother all my life, even when I thought she was dead in a car crash. It's a horrible loss.

"People say, `Well, you've got another family.' Well, yes, I do, but what is the expense? I still lost a mother."