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A Cautionary Tale Born of Babies and Bureaucrats

This is a very contemporary story with a happy ending, though the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services first turned it into an old-fashioned bureaucratic ordeal for everyone concerned.

Lisa Beckel of Los Angeles is now the legal mother of Charlotte and Annie Beckel, 15-month-old twins born last year after her husband, Graham Beckel, contributed the sperm with which the fertile eggs of a surrogate mother from Temecula were artificially inseminated. Lisa Beckel is infertile.

The Beckels signed a contract with the surrogate mother, who gave up all rights to the babies, and Graham Beckel obtained a prebirth order from a Riverside court declaring him the natural father and allowing the Beckels to take the little girls home from the hospital.

The next step was for Lisa Beckel to undertake a stepparent adoption to become the twins’ legal mother.

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That happened last week before San Fernando Municipal Judge Juelann Cathey, who, in the wake of a liberalizing March 10 Orange County surrogacy ruling of the state Court of Appeal, terminated months of delays in just 10 minutes by signing the maternity order.

“Today, she’s the mother, absolutely,” said a smiling Cathey.

The Beckels looked relieved. Cathey’s signature cut short a procedural snafu created by the county’s bad bureaucratic behavior.

It had taken 10 months of dealings with Children and Family Services, and several rejections of paperwork, for the Beckels just to get to the formal

interview stage of the adoption process.

Controversy is nothing new for the department, the largest adoption agency in the nation. Its own PR man, Schuyler Sprowles, says:

“The department is an easy hit, a very easy hit.”

Like many government agencies, in fact, it is overwhelmed with work. Its budget is inadequate.

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But that’s a poor excuse for what the Beckels were put through: The unsigned rejection letters, with no one listed to call for an explanation. The contradictory advice on whether a lawyer was necessary. The unwillingness to tell them clearly what should be contained in the required documents.

Indeed, when I first asked about the Beckels’ case, a week before Judge Cathey intervened, Sprowles’ reply tacitly conceded past delays.

“Pulling this up out of cold storage,” he said cheerfully, “I find that conditional approval has been granted on this case. It’s moving on.”

Superior Court Judge John L. Henning, supervisor of the county’s adoption court, warned me, however:

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“Be careful before you hold the department to too high a standard.”

Surrogacy cases, he said, are “a whole new ball game. . . . Court decisions are coming down all the time. . . . I require that all the parties have counsel.”

And, to Henning, it is obvious that in designating a child’s parents, the paperwork must be correct “so somebody doesn’t come out of the woodwork later.”

No one would quarrel with the judge, even though lawyers report he too has sometimes become impatient with the department’s pace.

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Lori Shafton, the attorney the Beckels finally hired to try to expedite matters, says she often is stretched to explain to clients why it is taking so long for the department to respond to their applications.

“It’s a big, black hole,” she said of Children and Family Services. “There is no one even for me, their lawyer, to call. They will sit on paperwork for three or four months.”

Lisa Beckel was particularly frustrated when, after laboriously obtaining a certified copy of the couple’s marriage certificate from New York City, she found it rejected by the department as “illegible,” while a dash struck through a question about prior marriages was rejected as not a sufficient indication there had not been any.

The Beckels at last found the name of the 30-year departmental veteran handling their case, Irv Grace, and phoned him twice.

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“He was grandfatherly,” said Lisa Beckel. “But he wouldn’t tell us what was wrong. He simply said, ‘Send back the forms.’ We’d send them back and then, much later, we’d get a rejection. We got four of them.”

Finally, Graham Beckel acknowledged, he lost his temper with Grace after Grace misplaced some of the couple’s papers, only to find them on his desk after sending back half of them.

I tried to reach Grace myself, but was unsuccessful.

His supervisor, Bill Thomas, defended him, however, as “very conscientious.”

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“He and another worker handle all the stepparent cases,” he said. “He checks out all the paperwork.”

Stepparent adoptions of all kinds amount to about 200 a year, of which Thomas said only six to eight involve surrogacies.

So it’s a small part of the department’s total adoptions, which are running more than 2,000 annually. But it is a sensitive area.

Why had Grace been so standoffish with the Beckels as to what they had to do to provide correct paperwork?

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Thomas said it is against policy for departmental representatives to give any “lawyerly” advice.

How to fill out the forms should have come from the Beckels’ lawyer, he said, and Sprowles remarked, “It would have been better had they had a lawyer earlier.”

But when the Beckels at the outset asked if they needed a lawyer, they say they were told by a clerk they didn’t.

Thomas said the department will not proceed with a personal interview in stepparent adoptions until all the paperwork is in order.

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Perhaps it should unbend enough, then, to advise the parties how to put it in order. Even the much-maligned state Department of Motor Vehicles will do that.

Reich can be contacted with your accounts of true consumer adventure at (213) 237-7060, or by e-mail at ken.reich@latimes.com.


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