March 12, 2002 -- When a couple seeking to adopt a white baby is charged $35,000 and a couple seeking a black baby is charged $4,000, the image that comes to the Rev. Ken Hutcherson's mind is of a practice that was outlawed in America nearly 150 years ago — the buying and selling of human beings.
The practice, which is widespread among private adoption facilitators, of charging prospective parents different fees depending on the race or ethnicity of the child they adopt is one that Hutcherson is fighting to change from his Redmond, Wash., church. The Antioch Bible Church has established its own adoption agency, and is lobbying state legislators to change Washington's laws.
"I've got championship Rottweilers. I sell them by supply and demand," Hutcherson said. "I raise thoroughbred racehorses. I sell them by supply and demand. I'm not going to let people sell children by supply and demand. What's the difference between that and slavery?"
The campaign to change the law is directed at Washington state legislators, but Hutcherson said he would prefer to see the federal government step in and create one set of regulations governing adoption, rather than leaving the issue to the states to decide.
Current Washington law bans payments to a birth mother for placing a child for adoption, but does not address payments for arranging an adoption or the fees that may be charged.
"I think it's an issue that Americans have not looked at closely enough, because if they had, things wouldn't be the way they are," he said.
He hopes to get attention around Washington with a billboard campaign as soon as he can raise the $70,000 to $80,000 he needs. The billboards will feature a white baby, a latino baby and a black baby and next to each, the fees some adoption facilitators might charge for them: $35,000, $10,000 and $4,000.
He said that besides putting a price on children, the practice discriminates against white babies and people who seek to adopt them — an issue he said has been overlooked because white people, particularly those who can afford the high adoption fees charged, are not used to considering themselves victims of discrimination.
"I know about discrimination," said Hutcherson, who is black. "I don't care who it's against, it's wrong. Tell me that if it was black babies that cost $50,000 and white babies that cost $4,000, people would be screaming their heads off."
Disparity in Fees
Some adoption professionals said the reason for the difference in cost for adopting white babies as opposed to babies of other races or ethnicities is that there are fewer white infants available and there is more demand for them.
"Often the justification may be that children of some ethnic groups are more difficult to place," said Gregory Franklin, an attorney who said that 90 percent of his business is providing legal representation for people involved in the adoption process.
"Obviously, any time that somebody brings up the word discrimination, everybody's going to take notice and draw attention to the issue, whether or not there's an issue there," said Sean Lance, the director of American Adoptions, which has a fee structure that results in prospective parents paying more to adopt white babies than to adopt black babies. "It's not set up as discriminatory. The difference is in the cost of the process — living expenses, medical expenses. Our agency fee for all adoptions are identical."
He said that minority mothers often qualify for Medicaid or other financial support that pays their expenses while they are carrying their babies, and sometimes will cover the cost of the delivery, whereas white mothers often do not, so those costs are paid by the prospective parents of the baby.
In some states the birth mother's living expenses can also be passed on to the adoptive parents, and that can create a disparity in cost for different adoptions. If a birth mother does not have other support, laws in some states allow the cost of her rent, maternity clothes and food to be passed on to the couple seeking to adopt her child.
One Web site for a licensed, non-profit adoption agency says it will wind up costing prospective parents about $19,000 to $35,000 to adopt "non-African American (i.e. Caucasian, Hispanic, Native American etc. or any non-African American combination of races) healthy newborns and infants" through the "Traditional Programs."
In the "Minority Program," prospective parents can expect to pay an average of $8,000 to $15,000.
The difference between the costs for black and non-black babies is explained by the "subsidies to help offset the costs of these adoptions" and because more advertising is needed to find non-black babies.
There is also a difference in cost depending on whether a family is willing to wait nine to 18 months for a non-black baby ($19,000-$24,000) or wants an infant in three to nine months ($27,000-$35,000).
"The fee difference results from higher living expenses and medical expenses for the birth parents," the site explains. "Also, because there are fewer familes that can afford these higher cost adoptions, the waiting times are significantly reduced."
Hutcherson and some adoption experts said the range and disparity of fees seen on the site are representative of the fees of many private adoption agencies as well.
‘Money Should Not Be Driving Factor’
Every state prohibits the buying and selling of children, but agencies and facilitators are allowed to charge fees that are deemed to be reasonable.
Only four states — Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts and Minnesota — ban adoptions by independent facilitators or attorneys, though Connecticut, Massachusetts and Minnesota will all waive the requirement that adoptions be done through an agency if the child's interests are better served by an independent adoption.
"It is interesting that states have never looked at why the fees for a white newborn might be $30,000 and why the fee for a black 5-year-old with slight retardation should be $2,000," Adoption Insitute executive director Cindy Friedmutter said. "The costs of adopting either child shouldn't be any different.
"The laws are in some cases not strong enough and in some cases are not enforced well enough," she added. "Money should not be the driving factor."
Some states allow independent adoption agencies, facilitators or even families who want to adopt to place advertisements in newspapers, magazines, on the Internet or other means to find birth mothers who want to give up their babies. Unscrupulous facilitators will sometimes try to pressure pregnant young women into giving up their child for adoption by holding out the promise of money for their "product," Friedmutter said.
"For poor families, for young, unwed mothers, that creates untoward pressure," she said. "That's not the way adoption is supposed to work.
"When money's involved, ethics go out the window," she added.
Is High Cost a Guarantee?
Friedmutter said she draws a distinction between facilitators or agencies that charge prospective parents more or less depending on the race or ethnicity of the baby that they want to adopt, and those who charge on a sliding scale based on the family's income.
She said charging people according to what they can afford is a way for agencies to make adoption a viable choice for more families, and still let them balance the books.
But she rejected the argument put forward by some facilitators that charging higher fees for healthy white babies — who are in short supply and high demand — allows them to charge less for youngsters who are not in such high demand.
She said that practice could create a sense in parents who spend more money on an adoption that they are buying a product with an implicit guarantee — that this child will be everything they want in a child.
"The thing that is scary to me is that children aren't perfect," she said. "People who are willing to pay high fees for healthy kids don't always get perfect children. If you pay $50,000, it doesn't mean that child is going to be healthy, gorgeous and smart."
According to Hutcherson, the answer is to take money out of the equation. The adoption agency he started at his church is run by volunteers and funded by contributions, and that is the model he would ultimately like to see adopted nationwide.
"When it comes to adoption, America needs an enema and I'm hoping God made me the chocolate laxative," Hutcherson said.