Pregnant with her seventh child, Leanne Dees answered a classified ad in an Arkansas newspaper and, according to a Los Angeles woman, entered into a non-binding agreement to let her adopt the child.
The excited adoptive mother-to-be, Debbie Freeman, brought Dees and her husband, Frankie, and their 1-year-old daughter to Van Nuys and paid $9,400 to support them for six months in a furnished apartment, she said. She said she took them shopping for food and clothes on Sundays and accompanied Leanne Dees on every visit to the doctor.
But a month shy of the baby’s due date, Freeman said, her hopes for adopting the child fell apart when she discovered that the Deeses were quietly negotiating for financial support with other people hoping to adopt the same child. When confronted with the accusation, the Deeses promptly cleared out of the apartment, Freeman and police said.
“They were as sincere as can be,” a dejected Freeman said last week. “I basically had a family to support for several months and then they disappeared.”
Los Angeles police are investigating the incident and trying to determine if other would-be adoptive parents gave the Deeses financial support in hopes that the newborn would be theirs. Police said they have uncovered a web of broken promises in which many people hoping to adopt a child have been misled emotionally, if not financially, by the Deeses.
But police said there are few laws that specifically focus on adoption issues such as these. The Deeses have not been charged with any crime, and police said they may only face a misdemeanor violation of accepting money under false pretenses.
Meanwhile, the baby boy Debbie Freeman thought would be hers was born Dec. 7 in Las Vegas as yet another couple hoping to adopt the child waited in the delivery room, according to the doctor who delivered the baby. But the Deeses, who police said have given up five previous babies for adoption, did not turn the child over to them either. The Deeses’ exact whereabouts are not known.
Those familiar with the case say the Freeman/Dees case is a rare example of what can go wrong in the world of private adoption.
In California, private adoption is regulated by the state Department of Social Services and local children’s services authorities. According to local attorneys who specialize in adoption cases, about 90% of adoptions in the state are handled privately. The attorneys say it has become the predominant method of adoption because it is faster than adoption through public agencies and allows adoptive parents and birth parents more freedom in choosing each other.
Although adoptive parents cannot pay to receive a child, it is legal to provide birth parents with financial support--considered an act of charity--in the form of living, travel, legal and medical expenses.
It is illegal in California to use newspaper advertising to seek or give up a baby for adoption. So residents of the state seeking to privately adopt children routinely advertise in newspapers in 36 other states where it is legal.
It was into this process that Freeman, 39, a single West Los Angeles psychotherapist, stepped earlier this year.
Freeman said she placed ads seeking a child to adopt in several newspapers across the country, including the Jonesboro Sun in Arkansas. About two weeks later, she said she received a call from Leanne Dees, who said she was pregnant and willing to give up the child. Dees, 27, her 37-year-old husband and their 1-year-old daughter, who suffers from Downs syndrome, were in Las Vegas and had been told of the Jonesboro ad by relatives, Freeman said.
After Freeman interviewed the Deeses in June and found them acceptable as birth parents, she brought them to Van Nuys, and the couple signed a letter of intent under which Freeman would be allowed to adopt the unborn child. The agreement was non-binding as required by law, meaning that the birth parents could back out at any time.
Adoption attorneys say that was a risk Freeman and all adoptive parents have to take to get a child. They say that is why adoptive parents and their attorneys must carefully screen potential birth parents.
“Screening for persons whose motives are not pure is essential,” said Lynne Francis Mann, an attorney who did not handle the Freeman case. “There is so little protection for adopting parents. But there is a lot of protection for birth parents.”
But in screening the Deeses, Freeman and her attorney, Randi G. Barrow, did not come across anything that dissuaded them from pursuing the agreement. However, some warning signs about the couple--passed among other attorneys in the adoption field--never reached them.
Stanley Michaelman, an attorney in Pearl River, N.Y., who specializes in adoptions, said the Deeses are known among many adoption attorneys in the East for answering adoption ads but not following through with promises.
“I have been telling people this is a bad-news couple,” Michaelman said of the Deeses. “They have been traveling all over the country. They call people and ask them to wire money and then they disappear.”
Freeman said she did not suspect the couple of any deception until Nov. 5, when Barrow got a call from Mann. Mann reported that she represented a couple looking to adopt a child and that they had been contacted by the Deeses about adopting Leanne’s child.
“The word leaked out,” Freeman said. “Randi called the Deeses up and said, ‘What’s going on?’ They hung up on her. I went to the apartment. The security guard let me in and they had vanished. They had cleared out in less than two hours. I couldn’t believe it.”
But the Deeses left behind a briefcase that contained a notebook with 11 names and phone numbers written in it, Freeman said. By calling the numbers, Freeman said, she discovered that they all belonged to people who were seeking to adopt babies and had placed ads in Arkansas newspapers. Freeman said the people she contacted all said they had begun to negotiate with the Deeses to give them financial aid. One Syracuse, N.Y., couple had already sent $200 to the couple for bus fare to New York.
“Each one had been solicited money to begin adoption procedures,” Freeman said. “You know, ‘We need a place to live, can you send us some money, can you fly us?’ It became very clear what was going on.”
Freeman called police and turned over the notebook. Although she recognized that the Deeses had the right to back out of the agreement, Freeman claimed that the record the couple had made of contacting other adoptive parents and taking money from at least one couple showed their intent to take Freeman’s financial support but not turn over the child after its birth.
“I don’t think they ever intended to give me the baby,” she said.
Police Detective Mel Arnold said he retraced Freeman’s steps and confirmed what she had found, including that a New York couple had sent the Deeses $200 for bus fare. “Most of these people really thought they were going to get the baby,” he said.
Arnold said he received a letter from one woman who gave no money to the Deeses but believed that the child Leanne was carrying would be hers to adopt. The woman, whom Arnold did not identify, was familiar with Freeman’s plight and offered her condolences.
“Please express to Debbie that she is in my prayers,” the woman wrote. “I’ve waited a long time and it is still like a dream. Debbie’s child is out there in the world somewhere. Don’t give up.”
Although the disappointment of potential parents such as Freeman is traumatic, Arnold said that because the Deeses had a non-binding agreement, their actions may only be a minor violation.
State law makes it a misdemeanor to receive financial considerations for an adoption agreement without the intent to honor it. But Diane Michaelson, chairwoman of the Academy of California Adoption Attorneys, said that as of Jan. 1, the law will be strengthened to make it a felony to abrogate an adoption agreement in that way a second time.
Arnold said that the investigation of the Deeses is continuing and that he is attempting to locate other people who may have had dealings with the couple regarding adoptions.
After a story on the Freeman case aired this week on the television program “Hard Copy,” police learned from a Las Vegas doctor that Leanne Dees gave birth Dec. 7 to a boy.
Dr. Richard Groom said in an interview that when the Deeses came to his office three weeks ago, they told him that they were willing to put the baby up for adoption. His office contacted a local couple looking to adopt a child and they were in the delivery room when the child was born. They had given no money to the Deeses. But last week, Leanne Dees left the hospital with the child and disappeared.
“When she left the hospital, she told them the baby would be theirs,” said Groom, who has not been paid for the delivery. “Apparently, she changed her mind or never intended to give up the baby.”
Arnold said Leanne Dees became aware of the publicity surrounding her and called him from Las Vegas on Thursday. She told the detective that she and her husband had named the baby Dalton and planned to keep him.
Arnold said the woman refused to reveal her location, and he declined to discuss other aspects of the conversation. The detective said he will present the case to prosecutors for the possible filing of charges later this month.
Meanwhile, Freeman says she is undaunted by the turmoil resulting from being so close to adopting a child and coming away with nothing.
“More than ever, I want to adopt,” she said. “It’s a matter of getting on your feet again and starting over.”