Does an expectant mother who is placing her baby for adoption really need her own, separate attorney? At first consideration, adding another lawyer to the mix may seem like overkill. After all, it’s not like the adoptive parents and the expectant parents are adversaries. Because hey, in an adoption, everyone’s working toward the same goal, right? The expectant mother has clearly made her wishes known – she has fallen in love with a wonderful couple and wants to place her unborn baby for adoption with them. The adoptive parents’ feelings are mutual and they are very excited about the match. Since their initial meeting, they’ve been spending time together, building trust and anticipating baby’s arrival. All good! Why should we then force everyone to lawyer up? Isn’t that just a waste of money? Adoption is expensive enough. Should the adoptive parents be required to pay yet another professional? Besides, if we throw another lawyer into the mix, isn’t he or she just going to stir up trouble in adoption paradise?
When a birth mother signs a relinquishment for adoption, she is agreeing to permanently sever her legal relationship with her child and voluntarily deprive herself of the fundamental right to the care, custody and control of that child. Once the consent paperwork is signed and her revocation period has expired, that right is gone forever. Ironically, in the majority of adoptions in this country, the adoptive parents are the only ones who have to have an attorney advising them about their legal rights. The adoptive parents, who are typically college-educated, financially stable and on average, 15-20 years older than the expectant mom, are usually the only ones in an adoption who have a legal advocate protecting their interests and advising them about their rights and responsibilities under the law.
When an expectant mother who doesn’t have her own attorney has a question about the legal process, she has three very problematic options: she can ask her social worker, ask the adoptive parents’ attorney or ask Google.
Some of the questions we commonly hear from our expectant mother clients are:
1. Should I tell the birth father about my pregnancy?
2. How can I be sure the adoptive parents will abide by our contact agreement? What will happen if they stop communicating with me?
3. If I accept living expenses from the adoptive parents will that affect my right to continue collecting welfare?
4. In an interstate adoption, which state’s laws will apply to the adoption? How do the laws differ?
5. When will my consent to the adoption become permanent?
6. What happens if CPS gets involved after my baby is born?
7. What happens if the adoptive parents change their mind about wanting to adopt after my baby is born?
8. Will I be given a copy of my adoption paperwork?
While most adoption attorneys and agency social workers I know strive to be ethical in the way they practice adoption, they create a conflict for themselves when they allow an expectant mother to proceed through an adoption unrepresented.
When an agency social worker is required to advise the expectant mother about legal issues such as the ones noted above, she is engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, a crime in most states. She is also acting in violation of the National Association of Social Worker’s (NASW) Rules of Ethics which stress that those not legally certified should refrain from interpreting the law as it applies to another’s situation.
When an attorney is representing the adoptive parents, his duty is to advocate for his clients’ best interest, not for the expectant mother’s. Allowing an expectant mom to go through the adoption process without her own separate attorney creates a clear imbalance of power which puts the adoptive parents (and the entire adoption) at risk. Best practice (and basic common sense) dictates that all parties in an adoption should have access to separate legal representation.
Attorney Celeste Liversidge has been practicing exclusively in the field of adoption law since 2001. She is a fellow of both the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys and the Academy of California Adoption Lawyers and a member of the National Association of Counsel for Children, Christian Adoption Legal Services, National Council For Adoption and the North American Council on Adoptable Children. Celeste earned her law degree from Pepperdine University School of Law and her undergraduate degree from Westmont College. She has served on numerous boards and as an adjunct professor at Pepperdine School of Law. Celeste is a frequent guest lecturer and speaker on a variety of adoption-related issues.