California has outlawed the use of unlicensed agents to broker adoptions — facilitators known to have engaged in unethical practices to match prospective parents with pregnant mothers.
There are more than a dozen of these baby brokers currently listed in the state, but they’ve come under scrutiny of late, with advocates alleging that many operate with little oversight, charge exorbitant rates to potential adoptive parents and take advantage of poor and struggling pregnant women.
Under a trailer bill accompanying the California budget for the coming fiscal year, all adoption facilitators such as these must cease operations by Jan. 1. The Department of Social Services will enforce the new law by referring offenders to law enforcement agencies, and beginning next year, private adoptions must be overseen only by licensed agencies or attorneys.
Youth and family advocates hailed the new restriction.
“This is a huge win for California,” said Kelsey Vander Vliet Ranyard, director of policy and advocacy for Ethical Family Building. “We’re ecstatic that the state is stepping up to stop a practice that is completely exploitative, financially and emotionally.”
Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a $311 billion budget bill, tamping down on most new spending given the state’s sizable deficit, while making some notable investments in housing and college scholarships for foster youth.
Buried amid the voluminous spending allocations and policy changes are new guidelines significant to a sizable but often unrecognized group of Californians — vulnerable parents and children being considered for adoption.
Most adoptions nationwide originate from the foster care system, a process that can drag on for years before being finalized and often does not guarantee a particular outcome. Adoption facilitators work privately outside the court system, promising a quicker and cheaper way to take in babies from birth mothers — many of whom struggle with poverty.
Unlike heavily regulated adoption agencies, facilitators in California are not required to be licensed, but their names and basic information are listed on a publicly available state registry. Fifteen names are currently listed, facilitators based in cities from Temecula to Walnut Creek. But they face little oversight or repercussions for unscrupulous behavior, child and family advocates say, including false advertising, a failure to provide birth mothers with support services, and requiring upfront cash payments that can total tens of thousands of dollars.
Family Connections Christian Adoptions, a licensed agency in Carlsbad, highlighted concerns with adoption facilitators in a letter to state legislators earlier this year in support of Senate Bill 807, a bill that aimed to limit their ability to operate and advertise to birth mothers.
Adoption facilitators, the organization notes, prey on low-income women facing unplanned pregnancies and in dire financial situations, often through online advertising. These operators sometimes encourage expectant mothers to disregard legal issues, such as the rights of birth fathers, payments for living expenses, post-adoption contact and the requirement to acknowledge Indigenous lineage to ensure adoptions comply with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.
“They are told things like, ‘Just say you don’t know who the father is,’ and ‘Just say you don’t have any Native American Heritage,’” the letter reads.
California has grappled with the issue of adoption facilitators before. In 2005, state authorities shut down a Napa Valley adoption firm run by a facilitator who defrauded adoptive parents of $1.1 million. The following year, the Legislature held a hearing to explore the issue, but lawmakers did not pursue legislation that would have required facilitators be licensed. Instead, they were simply required to register with the California Department of Social Services and meet a $25,000 bond requirement.
The renewed focus on oversight of adoption facilitators in California was sparked by a January 2023 report in The Sacramento Bee. The newspaper’s investigation found that Little Angel Adoptions, a Sacramento-area business run by adoption facilitator Jennifer Shimabukuro, allegedly collected $245,000 in upfront fees from at least 21 families after promising to place children with them.
Despite assurances from Shimabukuro, matches with expectant mothers repeatedly fell through. The article notes that California’s lack of oversight leaves parents with no way to know if an adoption facilitator has had past success in placing children into adoptive homes. After shelling out large sums of money, they also have little
recourse through the state when
“We’re ecstatic that the state is stepping up to stop a practice that is completely exploitative, financially and emotionally.”— Kelsey Vander Vliet Ranyard, Ethical Family Building
A 2021 New Yorker article also examined the case of an unlicensed adoption broker in Michigan, who swindled 160 families in 24 states by promising the same baby to several parents and matching them to expectant parents who didn’t exist. The broker, who was later the target of an FBI investigation into adoption fraud, recruited women from methadone clinics as well as those who were homeless, in prison or recently out of lockup. She was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
The Sacramento Bee article inspired SB 807, legislation introduced this year by California state Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R). By May, the bill had merged with a similar effort being pushed through the budget process to end the use of non-licensed entities in adoption.
California is the 29th state to ban the use of adoption facilitators, said Ranyard of Ethical Family Building. The decision also applies to operators in other states who wish to adopt children in California.
Ranyard’s organization, which tracks the issue across the country through the website adoptchange.org, found that just two states — Pennsylvania and South Dakota — allow unlicensed facilitators to operate, though 16 more allow these intermediaries to practice with little or no guidance.
Audrey DeGraaf, executive director of the Fair Oaks-based adoption agency The Family Network, initially opposed SB 807, saying that some facilitators provide valuable support to organizations like hers by supporting birth mothers through a trying process.
She also expressed concern about how quickly the bill came together, noting that the bill will require further legislative effort later this year to clarify some details. Additionally, families that have already contracted with adoption facilitators may be in limbo.
While DeGraaf acknowledged the need to root out shady facilitators, she is also skeptical whether banning them will bring an end to misconduct and unethical practices in the private adoption world. She hopes the state will pursue further reforms, like potentially capping the amount of money that expectant mothers can be paid, and ensuring they have better access to supportive services and health care.
“The bill was an attempt to fix a part of the problem, but I think it missed a lot,” DeGraaf said. “There’s always been shady attorneys working in this field, and this does very little to address the role of money in coercing women into adoption.”