By COLEEN DOWNEY and LORI HARMA
Kelly Forbes leaned against the bathroom sink breathless. Her hands were shaking. She was 18. She was single. And a simple test concluded it. She was pregnant.
“I was scared and worried. At five and a half months I decided I would put the baby up for adoption,” Forbes said.
Forbes’ teen pregnancy is not an anomaly. In Utah, 13 single teens get pregnant every day — almost 5,000 a year. Only one in 10 decides to place her child up for adoption.
Sen. Craig Taylor, R-Kaysville, wants to change this. After months of research and interviews, Taylor has developed a plan to encourage single, pregnant women to choose adoption over getting an abortion or raising their child on welfare. After passing the legislature in February, his “adoption assistance” bill received Gov. Mike Leavitt’s signature March 12 to become Utah law.
Originally controversial, criticized nationally and labeled as ‘baby buying’, Taylor’s bill reemerged in 1996 as a clean, innovative piece of legislation that has enjoyed bipartisan support both in the state and nationwide.
“It’s a positive progressive concept — there is no other legislation which does this,” said Larry Jacobson of LDS Social Services.
The new law, which targets single, pregnant women under the poverty line, seeks to provide medical assistance, educational and employment counseling and financial support for women who choose to place their babies for adoption. The support would begin in the third trimester — when a pregnant woman would otherwise qualify for cash assistance through Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) — and extend up to 12 months after the birth.
Although the law earmarks funds directly from tax revenues, Taylor believes the money saved from payments otherwise made to pregnant women through AFDC will more than compensate for the adoption assistance.
Currently, a single pregnant woman on AFDC receives monthly payments of $246 beginning in the third trimester. Following the birth, the cash assistance will increase to approximately $350 per month, indefinitely.
“If we look at the way the welfare system is set up now, when a woman makes the decision to place her baby for adoption, we do nothing for her. We drop her off a cliff,” Taylor said.
Taylor believes the new law will balance a woman’s options, making adoption — a choice Taylor believes will benefit the state, the child and the birth mother — as attractive as keeping the baby. He estimates that money saved from the first year of the program could reach $61,000.
But some say money should not be an issue. In November, when the bill was first introduced as part of a welfare reform package, it ignited a hot debate in which some accused the state of becoming a baby broker. Although many of the bills fiercest critics have since become loyal supporters, including Salt Lake Sen. Ed Mayne, some criticism still remains.
Christine Riley, a sociologist and court advocate for victims of domestic violence, has expressed concern.
“It’s the fact that there’s money involved — a lot of people could abuse the system. It sounds like they’re just trying to get kids into better homes by bribing women.”
But Taylor said this was a knee-jerk reaction and affirmed that in most cases a two-parent home is a better home.
According to his research, 30 percent of children nationwide are born out of wedlock, and 60 to 70 percent of these children will be raised on welfare. In Utah, close to $100 million is spent per year in AFDC payments.
National research estimates that the state will save between $5,000 to $40,000 in social costs for every one of these children placed in stable, two-parent homes.
Forbes, now 33 and an adoption advocate who works with teen-age mothers, argues that the birth mother may be better off.
“A lot of teen moms think it will be easier than it is. They think to themselves, ‘If I keep my baby I can get money for schooling, I can get money for day care, I can get support.’ If they choose to put their baby up for adoption, they can’t get anything.”
But six months later, Forbes said, the young women who have kept their babies realize it’s not that easy.
“A lot of them have said, ‘If I had known it was this hard, I would have given my baby up,'” Forbes said. “But if a girl does decide to give her baby up, she has difficulty mainstreaming. It’s hard for her to find her place again and pick up the pieces.”
The law contains specific goals that each woman who receives financial assistance must agree to. This includes developing a self-sufficiency plan and working toward full-time employment.
The law then requires adoptive parents to reimburse the state for services and support paid to the birth mother. The money returns to an AFDC fund, and payments are based on a sliding income scale.
“We don’t anticipate it (reimbursement) being a burden on adoptive families,” Jacobson said. The adoptive parents will pay approximately $3,000 for the 12-month period while the birth mother fulfills the strict requirements of the self-sufficiency plan, Jacobson said.
The payment will remain separate from other agency fees, keeping the agency independent from the state.
Although the law is obviously untested, Bill Pierce, president of the National Council on Adoption, is encouraged by its potential.
Pierce said family law legislation must be enacted state by state, but agencies like the NCA can be a powerful force in influencing other states to consider it.
“I’m keeping my eye on it,” said Patrick Purtill, NCA director of government relations.
“We’ll just monitor it and see how it works,” Pierce said. “Generally the laboratory of an individual state will test it out and smooth out any unintended consequences.”