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Adoption billboards raise ethical questions

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Adoption billboards raise questions

DNT

When they found out they couldn't have any more biological children several years ago, Tom and Claire Halverson decided to adopt.

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They waited until their daughter was in her mid-teens to start trying three years ago, but after not finding a child to adopt, they became frustrated.

So they took an unusual route to find a potential birth mother: roadside advertising.

The LaPorte, Minn., couple travels to craft fairs, and while on the road they have put up almost 90 signs across Iowa and Minnesota over the last few weeks, including one in Duluth, advertising that they want to adopt a child.

Some in the adoption industry say that approach raises ethical questions. But it appears to have worked for the Halversons: Only a few weeks after putting up one of their handmade 3-foot-by-4-foot billboards, a pregnant woman in Des Moines responded. The Halversons said she is interested in giving them her baby in November.

Still, they're hoping the signs prompt even more calls. They said a failed adoption earlier this year taught them how difficult the process can be.

"Until the adoption goes through, I'm not convinced it's going to happen at all," Tom Halverson said.

A couple advertising that they want to adopt is nothing new, but Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit research, policy and adoption education organization, said it's typically done more discreetly. Pertman said ads often appear online or in newspapers, but the information is typically vague.

"Forming a family, whether biological or through adoption, is a private, personal act," he said.

Pertman said he's never heard of a family using billboards to advertise they want to adopt, and couldn't find any news story that has featured this before.

"It's apparently unprecedented," he said.

And being so open about wanting to adopt does bring up some ethical concerns, Pertman said.

"One of the reasons this is so startling and discomforting is that we really do think of billboards as selling products," he said. "It's disconcerting to think that suddenly selling a family is equivalent to adoption."

The Halversons don't see what they're doing as unethical, but instead simply want to reach as many people as possible about their desire to adopt a child, preferably an infant.

"Ideally we would like to adopt a baby so we can raise a child on our own," he said. "But we're just hoping for a healthy, normal kid."

Maryjane Westra, director of the Permanent Family Resource Center, a Fergus Falls, Minn.-based agency that is working with the Halversons on their adoption, said she encourages her clients to be creative when getting the word out about their desire to adopt.

"Other families have done things like videos, which we help distribute to other agencies," she said. "Other families send out [information] with their Christmas lists, put it on the Internet. The only way to find a baby is to be creative and more aggressive."

The Halversons said they believe the advertising might also save them money. The average cost to adopt an infant can range from $15,000 to $30,000, Pertman said, with the costs going to agency fees, home studies and lawyers.

The Halversons said that if they find a child on their own they'll end up paying about $12,000; Westra said her agency still will charge the same amount no matter what to cover the costs of interviewing potential birth mothers that either the Halversons or the agency find.

The Halversons' billboards and road signs direct people to their Web site, www.tomhalverson.com, which provides information about their lives and paints an idyllic scene of children living in the country and swimming, fishing, hiking, riding horses and playing with one their five cats and dogs.

But the site provides a piece of information that raises ethical questions about adoption: The Halversons say they would be willing to house a woman until she delivers the baby.

Even Westra, the director of the agency that's handling the Halversons' adoption, isn't comfortable with that idea.

While it's legal to provide things such as housing, food and reimbursement of medical bills, at times adoptive families can walk a fine line between paying for legitimate expenses and appearing to buy the baby.

"Saying that the mother can stay with the family gives off alarm bells," Westra said. "When a judge asks [a birth mother] if she has had any influences, if giving up the baby was a free decision, of course she's going to say yes."

Pertman agreed.

"They think, 'Oh my God, I've made a deal with these folks,' " she said. "Women can feel indebted to them; they can feel guilty if they don't adopt to them."

But the Halversons say they don't believe it would be unethical. They said it would be helpful to a woman looking to give up her baby for adoption.

And Tom Halverson said that for a family like theirs with a modest income, out-of-the-ordinary ideas are needed to help with the adoption.

"We're not like a typical, well-to-do, pay-for-a-baby type family," Halverson said. "If you can get a baby, it's like hitting the lottery."

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