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Pregnant Prisoners Offered Adoption Choice: An Act of Love or Exploitation?

An estimated 3-4% of women who enter the prison system each year are pregnant. The American Journal of Public Health has reported that such prisoners face tough choices and, with the help of pro-life organizations and adoption attorneys, some choose adoption to provide a better chance for their babies.

From 2011 to 2016, at least 369 prisoners at the Lowell Correctional Institution in Florida arrived at the facility in some stage of pregnancy.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do with my child,” a former Florida prisoner told WFTV reporter Karla Ray. “I was safe. I knew where I was going to go, but I didn’t know what I was going to do, and it was scary.”

Once an incarcerated woman has a baby, some prison systems allow her to spend 24 hours with the newborn while others provide limited nursery programs. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.34; Sept. 2010, p.18]. After that, the child must go somewhere else. There are only a few options, ranging from a family member taking custody of the child, turning the baby over to state child protection services or putting the infant up for adoption.

Attorney Lynn Lawrence assists with about 10 adoptions from prisoners at the Lowell facility each year. Some describe her activities as a “baby broker business.” The former prisoner who spoke to Ray on condition of anonymity, because some family members were unaware she put her son up for adoption, received $5,000 during the process.

When asked if money could play a role when a prisoner decides to choose adoption, she said, “Definitely, yeah. Because when you’re in prison and have nothing and all these people have stuff, it’s hard. It’s hard to sit with nothing.”

Money, however, was not the driving force behind her decision.

“I want him to know I did it so he could have a better life. I didn’t want him to suffer from my mistakes,” the former prisoner stated. “I was in a rough part of my life, and I did what was best for him at the time. I’ll always love him.”

Lawrence said pregnant prisoners who agree to give their babies up for adoption receive payments so they have money for extra food, clothing and hygiene items. “That’s why they get canteen checks, because I want to make sure the baby is taken care of,” she stated. “It’s not like buying a baby.”

Some organizations, such as Abrazo, a non-profit in Texas, offer adoption services that seek to assist the prisoner as well as their infant. The organization has a program to create, if desired, a bond between the incarcerated birth mother and the adoption parents, which includes the sharing of pictures and maybe even visitation with the child.

While pregnant prisoners are vulnerable to exploitation, for some there are few choices other than adoption – particularly when prison and jail officials make it difficult for them to obtain abortion services. While some critics condemn the practice of providing payments to prisoners who opt for adoption, others note the focus should be on what is best for the child.

“People say, ‘you’re selling your baby, you’re doing this,”’ the former Florida prisoner said, “but I did it for my child because I wanted him safe.”

Some adoption websites contain information specifically for pregnant women who are or will soon be incarcerated, to educate them about the adoption process. 


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