SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Over two months last year, two women with remarkably similar stories sought refuge at a Sioux City homeless shelter. Their stories were about being pregnant and relocating to Iowa for adoption.
Patsy Scallions, director of the Sioux City Gospel Mission Women’s and Children’s Shelter, says she had never heard anything like it.
“There were two cases right along. I didn’t pay much attention until then,” she said.
The women, who had met before only in passing, told each other, and Scallions, that they had lived in the same Sioux City apartment complex, at 3738 Glen Oaks Blvd. The women said they relocated from across the country to give birth in Sioux City and place their children for adoption.
Both of the women talked about how they had recently given birth and decided afterward to use their legal right to back out of the adoptions. And both arrived at the shelter a few days after those decisions.
So what happened at this apartment complex?
One of the women, Christine Kilmer, 41, formerly of Bradenton, Fla., says the complex is used by adoption lawyers to house expectant mothers who come to Sioux City to place their children for adoption, often to adoptive parents from other states.
What the mothers get, she says, is a free place to live, Wal-Mart gift cards to buy essentials, and, if they complete the adoption, a thank you and goodbye.
Local lawyers, along with out-of-town adoption facilitators, can split tens of thousands of dollars in adoption fees per baby, say couples that were offered the opportunity to adopt from women in Sioux City.
This pattern of adoptions raises questions about who, if anyone, is monitoring these transactions to protect the interests of the people involved. It also raises questions about how public money is spent, because some of the women use food stamps and Medicaid.
A related concern is that paying living expenses may attract some women who are more eager to have a roof over their heads than they are to be part of an adoption. This can lead to heartbreak if the mother decides to keep the baby, say prospective adoptive parents. Some of those stories will be presented on Tuesday.
All of this is legal. The placement of children for adoption is conducted through court-approved procedures and completed only with the signature of an Iowa court judge.
Sioux City lawyer Maxine Buckmeier represents some of the prospective adoptive parents and has overseen the arrangements for paying living expenses. Other local lawyers are involved as counsel for the pregnant women, though the prospective adoptive parents say they pay the fees for all sides.
Buckmeier, 43, says relocation for adoption is “extremely common,” especially by lawyers in California and Utah, because some women have unstable lives at home, or no home at all. She says she handles two-to-five relocations per year, a small share of the 70-to-80 adoptions she handles annually.
There are no statewide statistics available to show how many women are relocated. Disclosure is required by the courts only if prospective adoptive parents are paying for the move. But this record is sealed, as are nearly all adoption records.
What that leaves is individual stories. A reporter spoke to three women who were relocated to Iowa last year, and learned of another five who were relocated to Iowa over the last three years.
Buckmeier says she offers relocation because she wants to prevent abortions and help place children in stable families.
“This is so not a story,” she said, near the end of an hourlong interview in her downtown Sioux City office.
But many adoption professionals and commentators disagree. They argue that relocation should be rare.
The largest nonprofit adoption agency in Iowa, Bethany Christian Services, avoids relocations. Agency officials declined to comment other than to describe their own policy.
“We’ve made it very clear at Bethany that we will not get involved in situations where birth moms are being shipped in from other states and then shipped out. … We’re here to look after the best interests of the birth moms and the child,” said Kim Scorza, director of the agency’s Orange City branch.
According to Buckmeier, the women relocated to Sioux City sometimes plan to stay in Iowa after the birth and only leave if, and when, they choose.
Recalling lonely days
Christine Kilmer says she was attracted to Sioux City by the prospect of not having to worry about expenses during the final months of pregnancy and a desire to be part of an adoption.
But she says the reality was intense loneliness.
“You’re like a caged animal. You just sit between the walls and watch basic cable TV. Or you sit in the yard all day because you can go nowhere — no money, no nothing,” she said.
She spoke to a reporter for the first time in November, sitting at a picnic table outside the Sioux City shelter. She had given birth in early September.
The other woman at the shelter was Kim Pounds, 36, who gave birth in early October.
“Why did I go to Iowa? ‘Cause these people were going to adopt a baby in Iowa,” Pounds said, speaking by telephone from New Mexico, where she moved after leaving the shelter.
Her journey started in California, where she remembers being pregnant, homeless and alone. She says she phoned an adoption agency she picked out of the phone book, which started a series of contacts that ended with her coming to Glen Oaks Boulevard to be part of an adoption handled by Buckmeier.
But Pounds says the adoption never happened because she decided to keep the baby, which is her legal right.
Buckmeier says that housing for the women is contingent on being part of an adoption plan because the prospective adoptive parents are paying the bill. This means the payments end if the woman backs out of the plan.
“If she would have paid the apartment management one month rent, she would have been able to stay,” Buckmeier said, about the circumstances that led to Kilmer leaving.
Details of Kilmer’s time in Sioux City will be examined tomorrow.
Practices called ‘creepy’
While people may disagree about whether relocation is a good thing, there is no doubt that Iowa law allows it, along with the paying of living expenses.
State law allows the paying of rent and other essentials, with no dollar-value limit as long as the payments are made directly to the merchants and a list of the payments is filed with the court handling the adoption, says Iowa City adoption lawyer Lori Klockau, who is not involved with the Sioux City adoptions.
The paying of certain expenses is banned, such as transportation for nonmedical purposes, Klockau says.
Prosecutions for violation of this law are rare and would be handled by county attorneys, says a spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. Woodbury County Attorney Tom Mullin says he can’t recall his office ever handling a case involving alleged improper payment of expenses.
Adoption lawyers cannot offer to pay a pregnant woman’s expenses in states such as Maryland, which bans nearly all of these payments. Several states have chosen a middle ground, allowing the payment of living expenses, but with a limit on the total dollar value, such as the $1,000 limit in Wisconsin.
Aside from legal considerations, lawyers also must follow ethical standards or risk being sanctioned by the Iowa Supreme Court. Court records show that Buckmeier has never been sanctioned.
Speaking in general about Iowa law, Klockau says there is little anybody — other than lawmakers — can do to stop adoption lawyers from using relocation and the payment of living expenses to attract expectant mothers from outside the state.
“It’s not illegal. It’s creepy, but it’s not illegal,” Klockau said.
Building used repeatedly
Buckmeier says she places women in the Glen Oaks Boulevard building because the building management is “pro adoption” and has been flexible in making apartments available. She explains that she offers this setup because the women may have bad credit or couldn’t get apartments on their own.
The building is owned by Broadmoor Development Co. of Omaha. A company employee in Sioux City declined to comment for this story.
As for the use of public assistance, Buckmeier says the women are free to get jobs and support themselves, and they are free to apply for Medicaid and food stamps.
The complex, which sits on a hilltop near the north outskirts of town, has six buildings and 144 apartments.
One of the residents, Scott Utech, who has lived there four years, says he knows nothing about adoptions related to the complex. But he has noticed that pregnant women move in, then abruptly leave a few months later.
“Up here, we see a lot of mothers with one child, an infant. And they’re pregnant. And they’re never here long,” he said.
Kilmer says she was never introduced to the other women by Buckmeier. But she got to know one of them, who had relocated from Mississippi, after their daughters met on the playground.
The Mississippi woman had an almost identical setup in the complex, according to Kilmer. A reporter tried several times to contact the woman over the months. She answered the phone in late December, while she was still living in the complex.
“I have nothing to say. If you’d like, you can call Maxine Buckmeier,” she said, then hung up.
The placement of pregnant women in Sioux City and the adoptions that follow have received seemingly little outside attention.
Sioux City Police Capt. Doug Young says he’s knows of only one complaint involving a woman who appears to have been relocated for an adoption.
In 2004, he heard about a Maryland couple that had been planning to adopt a baby from a woman in the city. The woman, who had been relocated from North Carolina to a Sioux City apartment building, abruptly left the Iowa before giving birth and the couple said they lost thousands of dollars. They had no legal recourse.
The Maryland couple contacted a Baltimore television station, WBAL, which did a story a year ago about the national market for adoption, traveling to Sioux City to do some of the filming. Buckmeier was identified as the attorney for the adoptive parents.
A television reporter went to the apartment building where the North Carolina woman had lived and found another pregnant woman, identified only as Brittany, who was planning to place her child for adoption. Brittany said she had relocated from the West Coast and was glad to have a few months in which she wasn’t sleeping in the streets.
“I’m kind of scared because I’m away from home. So, if anything does happen, nobody knows where I’m at,” Brittany said, quoted from a text version of the broadcast.
Young, the police captain, recalls that he was surprised to learn this was happening in Iowa.
When asked who in the city would be in charge of monitoring this kind of activity, he replied, “Nobody.”
Dan Gearino can be contacted at (515) 243-0138.