OPINION: Georgia’s adoption laws evolve, aim to address past concerns

The building that once housed Dr. Thomas Hicks’ clinic is now home to a pizza restaurant on Toccoa Avenue in McCaysville. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

The building that once housed Dr. Thomas Hicks’ clinic is now home to a pizza restaurant on Toccoa Avenue in McCaysville. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Since her first trip in 1988, Jane Blasio has made the 585-mile drive from Akron, Ohio, to McCaysville, the town of her birth, more times than she can count. The early days were fact-finding missions as she tried to piece together details of her birth. Her trips have since come full circle. She has returned to the small town in North Georgia several times this fall to attend signing events for her new book that describes the harrowing journey she has taken to uncover the illegal adoption that once weighed so heavily on her life.

Blasio has become a fierce advocate, not just of Hicks babies — so named for having been sold to adoptive parents by Dr. Thomas Hicks from the 1940s to the 1960s — but for anyone who is the victim of an adoption process desperately in need of reform. Though her experience took place more than 50 years ago, abuses continue to plague the private adoption industry, which remains largely unregulated in the U.S.

“Adoption itself, I call it the A-word because you just don’t know. There are so many difficult circumstances with it,” said Blasio when we talked by phone just a week before she was due to return to Georgia. “Adoption itself starts with everyone involved coming in from loss.”

Federal legislation provides a framework for adoption law and states must comply, but the adoption process is regulated by states and therefore varies widely across the country. For instance, while federal law allows birth mothers to change their minds at any time before birth, each state sets the time period for which a birth mother can change her mind about adoption after birth.

In Georgia, that particular law was updated in 2018 for the first time since the 1990s, reducing the amount of time a birth mother had to revoke a surrender from 10 days to four days. That update also included a broader range of financial assistance that could be provided to birth families and criminalized a birth parent who accepts financial assistance from multiple agencies or entities. It also bans adoption facilitators, the unlicensed companies that match adoptive families with birth families, said Judy Sartain, a Gainesville-based attorney with Stearns-Montgomery & Proctor who specializes in adoption issues.

Additional updates, which took effect in July, lower the age of adoptive parents, offer financial incentives for adoptive parents and expand certain legal protections in court. The changes make it more difficult for bad actors to take advantage of parties involved in the process by adding oversight to the system, Sartain said.

“Georgia has responded by really tightening our adoption laws to try to make sure the horror stories that happen in other states don’t happen here. There are several safeguards against that,” she said.

Sartain said some clients have asked why adoptions in Georgia are so hard. She tells them it isn’t, if they broaden their expectations. “So many people call me like I am Macy’s and think I have babies in my basement. They need to understand, if they want the healthy, white infant straight from the hospital, they will pay $35,000 to $40,000 to an agency and they will wait three to four years,” said Sartain, an adoptive mom of two who also experienced secondary infertility that resulted in a 14-year gap between her biological children.

Since 1997, when Blasio took her story to the local paper in Akron, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other news outlets have covered the sensational story of the small-town doctor, Thomas Hicks, who lost his medical license and was barred from practicing in Tennessee before crossing the state line and setting up shop in North Georgia. There in McCaysville, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Hicks provided medical services to poor copper-mining families while also performing abortions and selling babies. As early as the 1940s and through the 1960s, he took $100 to $1,000 per baby from families who heard about his operation by word-of-mouth.

In her book, “Taken at Birth,” (Revell, $25), Blasio details the events of her adoption as shared by her father in accordance with her mother’s dying wish. Unable to have children after a pregnancy during her first marriage, Blasio’s mom was directed by an aunt to call Hicks. Then they waited. In 1961, they were summoned to the clinic to pick up Blasio’s older sister Michelle. Four years later, they returned for Blasio, who was passed to them through the car window, wrapped in a blanket and still covered in dried blood.

When her mom died in 1988, Blasio put her skills working for a private investigator to use, taking her first trip to Fannin County. A covert look at case files stashed in the hallway of the courthouse offered a glimpse of the man who haunted her childhood. From those beginnings, Blasio would search relentlessly for her birth parents and would eventually connect with some of the nearly 200 children who had their beginnings as Hicks babies.

“I found what I wanted to find and that has put some closure on that for me, but I will never stop thinking about everyone else who came out of the Hicks Clinic,” she said. Blasio eventually found her birth parents through advanced DNA testing and reconnected with extended family members. She believes in reunification of Hicks adoptees, but she is just as concerned about the treatment of birth mothers who may not have known their children were being given away and all the adoptive parents who desperately wanted a child.

“Adoption as a whole is a wonderful thing, but we have to stop placing such a burden on two parties that are already taxed,” she said. “Where was the safety net? Where is the system for open adoption?”

Paul Payne of Hixson, Tenn., was one of about 200 babies who were sold from the Hicks Clinic in the 1950s and 1960s. He was getting his DNA swab sampling in Ducktown, Tenn., only a few miles from the clinic.

Blasio’s experience can’t be dismissed as history. There are so many current stories and so many more ways to provide safeguards for all parties involved in adoption — the birth mom, the adoptive parents and the child.

In some cases, the abuses are emotional rather than financial, making it difficult to offer legal redress. This is the case of a Buford-area woman who for years has deceived adoptive parents across the country by posing as an expectant mother seeking to place her child for adoption. Because no money has been exchanged, there is likely no crime under Georgia law, said the Athens-area attorney who has tracked the case. That’s cold comfort for families who showed up at a hospital near Athens with baby gear in tow, expecting to take home a newborn child.

“My phone rang off the hook and I had to tell them, we have investigated these folks and it is a scam,” said Sartain, who received calls and inquiries about the local scammer. “She wasn’t asking for money. She just wanted to be emotionally abusive. To dangle the prize of a desperately wanted child.”

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