In the weeks after Calista Flockhart attended the New Year's Day birth of the baby boy she would name Liam and is now in the process of adopting, the country's adoption network buzzed with activity—much of it agitated, even angry. At New York City-based Adoptive Families magazine, editors were bombarded with scores of e-mails and phone calls, most of them "with a definite edge," says publisher Susan Caughman, a mother of two daughters, one biological, the other adopted in China. The Flockhart adoption "exacerbated already-existing suspicions," says Caughman. "People wondered how celebrities adopt. Is it easier, is it less expensive? There is a sense that it must be simpler for celebrities—that they must have some other route."

Do they? As adoption has become more visible among the rich and famous—the list includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone, JoBeth Williams, Diane Keaton, Kate Jackson, and Connie Chung and Maury Povich—questions about preferential treatment have dogged the stars. Charges fly that celebrities "buy" babies by tossing around unseemly amounts of money, that they cut in line, that they skirt the laws and that they have greater access to the pool of babies in highest demand and lowest supply: healthy white infants.

Interviews with dozens of adoption agency officials, attorneys who specialize in private adoption, and adoptive celebrities themselves reveal a far different scenario—one in which the stars, like other adoptive parents, undergo intense scrutiny and often endure long waits and disappointment before realizing their dream. In fact, experts agree, when it comes to adoption, there is only one unequivocal benefit to being famous: money. "Celebrities may have an economic advantage in that they can hire lawyers on two coasts and network better," says David Radis, an L.A. lawyer who has handled many celeb adoptions. Beyond that, he insists, stars have no advantage. "It's a myth," he says. "They have just as many problems, if not more, adopting."

That was certainly true for Rosie O'Donnell, 38, who between 1995 and 2000 adopted three infants—Parker, now 5½, Chelsea, 3, and Blake, 1—and last summer became foster mother to Mia, 3½. "Being a celebrity in America makes everything happen easier—except for going to the mall," she says. "But anybody who has the money to go to a variety of agencies has a better chance of adopting quickly than someone who has a limited budget." As an outspoken champion of adoption, O'Donnell speaks with unusual candor. To locate birth mothers, she says, "I retained five lawyers and paid them anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 each." Some had their own network of birth mothers; others worked closely with private agencies. "It was a broad spectrum of ways to go."

Even so, it took O'Donnell a year to locate her first child, working with attorney Steven Sklar and the Children of the World agency in Verona, N.J. Four years later, when the media reported that she had adopted a third baby, letters to the editor arrived at PEOPLE with messages such as, "Gee, wouldn't it be nice if real people could adopt children as easily and quickly as the rich and famous can?" and "Yet again, Rosie adopts a healthy Caucasian infant. What an injustice." In fact, Blake is biracial, like Parker, while Chelsea is white. Her family's ethnic blend is something O'Donnell stresses when asked how to speed up the adoption process. "I didn't have any preferences as to gender or the baby's race in terms of the father," she says. "People wonder how I got three kids in five years. Because I am open."

Indeed, contrary to the perception that the rich and famous swoop in and scoop up the limited supply of healthy white infants, adoption lawyers and agency directors say that prominent prospective parents are unusually receptive to a wide variety of possibilities. "Celebrities are more likely to take a child of a different background or one where they don't have a lot of information about the birth father," says Santa Monica attorney Karen Lane. Michelle Pfeiffer's daughter, for example, is biracial. Bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard (The Deep End of the Ocean) adopted two Hispanic children. And while most people want newborns or infants, actress Valerie Harper's daughter was almost 4 when they first connected.

Attorney Lane has also found that celebrities are more accepting of birth mothers who "might not be what we would think of as perfect, or who might have a little bit of drug usage in the past." It is a point that adoption attorneys and agencies emphasize. "If you are looking for an infant whose birth mother got prenatal care from the second she found out she was pregnant and stopped smoking and never touched alcohol again," says Julie Tye, president of the Cradle, a Chicago area adoption agency, "you are being unrealistic."

In any event, you should be prepared to wait. Spence-Chapin, one of New York City's oldest agencies, cites an average nine- to 12-month wait for white, black or mixed-race babies—and by many accountings, that is an optimistic estimate. Actress Suzzanne Douglas, 43, who appeared in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, wanted an African-American baby of either gender. "I wanted educated [birth parents] because I figured the greater the education, the greater the prenatal care, the better the health care," says Douglas, who worked through Spence-Chapin. Her daughter Jordan, now 5, has a West Indian background, which complements Douglas's physician husband Roy Cobb's Caribbean roots. That the adoption took 14 months "was fine by me," says Douglas. "It allowed us to emotionally prepare ourselves."

Most prospective adoptive parents, however, prefer swifter channels, and many look outside the U.S. (18,539 children were adopted from abroad last year). When CNN anchor Judy Woodruff, 54, and her husband, Wall Street Journal executive Washington editor Al Hunt, 58, who have two biological sons, first began exploring adoption, they quickly decided to go the international route. They were put off by agencies' warnings that the wait for a white American child "was going to be three or four years," says Hunt, and inspired by a friend's adoption of several Asian children. Korean-born Lauren's adoption in 1989 took seven months.

Also of concern to waiting parents is the length of time in which a birth mother may change her mind about giving up her child. Particularly attractive to adoptive parents are states like Texas, which gives a birth mother as little as 48 hours to reclaim her baby. In California, by contrast, relinquishment is revocable up to 90 days after custody shifts from the birth mother to the adoptive parents, while New York allows her up to 45 days.

Despite the complex variations in state adoption laws, however, there are certain hurdles that must be cleared by all adoptive parents, no matter what their job or income. Wealthy celebrities—just like the close to 70,000 couples and single parents who in 1999 adopted American children with no biological connection to them—must complete a home study, prepared by a licensed social worker, that attests to their fitness to be adoptive parents. They must also be fingerprinted for a criminal check, undergo a medical examination (to rule out, say, drug abuse or a life-threatening condition), provide financial records, obtain references from employers and produce letters of recommendation from friends. And once an adoption takes place they must wait an average of six months, depending on the state they reside in, to finalize the procedure in court. In short, says O'Donnell, "you have to go through the whole process."

Sometimes a celebrity's standing may prompt even tougher scrutiny. Actress-singer Nell Carter, 52, a single mother of one biological daughter and two adopted sons, both now 11, believes her home study in 1989—understandably rigorous, given her history of drug abuse—was all the more thorough because of her fame. Unlike most prospective parents, who receive one home visit from a social worker, her caseworker turned up at her Beverly Hills home several times. "She investigated the hell out of me," Carter says.

Whether a client works through an attorney or an agency, the cost of an adoption typically ranges from $5,000 to $35,000, and sometimes higher. Fees for the birth mother's medical expenses, for example, can vary from $5,000 to $15,000, the upper end covering cesarean births; $3,000 to $6,000 for living expenses, which might include room, board, clothing and lost wages; $5,000 to $7,000 for legal fees; and $3,000 to $9,000 for agency services, among them the home study, counseling for the birth mother and parenting classes for the adoptive parents.

States also make serious efforts to ensure there is no "buying" of babies. All expenses are supposed to apply directly to the birth mother's and unborn child's health care and the adoption process, not the birth mother's future comfort. In Illinois, for example, prospective parents who are pursuing an adoption independently and not working through a licensed agency must have a birth mother's living expenses approved by a judge. When L.A. Law actress and single mother Susan Ruttan, 52, adopted her son Jackson in 1993, her $14,000 tab included putting up his birth mother in an apartment for two months prior to the delivery. "You can give them maintenance—food and clothing," says Ruttan. "But they can't take your credit cards and go shopping at Neiman's. You have to account for everything."

Still, according to some in the field, abuses occasionally occur. Elizabeth Vanderwerf, executive director of Abrazo Adoption Associates in San Antonio, charges that some adoptions are "washed through sloppy agencies and unscrupulous lawyers." She recalls a single Jewish actress who, eager to please a birth mother, pretended to be part of a Christian couple, and another actress who scooped up several children, then returned those she was not satisfied with. William Pierce, founding president of the nonprofit National Council for Adoption in Washington, D.C., who has been approached by-several stars to help locate lawyers or agencies, recalls one celebrity who "told me he would build a wing on our organization if I helped him find a healthy Anglo infant." (Pierce declined the offer and chose not to help.)

As for a hidden fast track for celebs, experts largely agree it doesn't exist. Connie Chung and Maury Povich tried in vain for two years before adopting son Matthew in 1995. "You don't get to cut the line," says O'Donnell. "To think that a celebrity is getting a child who was supposed to go to a couple in Minnesota is a fallacy."

Basically an adoption search is about making the right connections. Just as celebrities can cut the waiting time by using their money to pursue multiple avenues (as O'Donnell did), they may also benefit by networking within the adoption-savvy Hollywood community. "Contact with the right people," says Gloria Hochman, director of communications for the nonprofit National Adoption Center in Philadelphia, "can introduce you to the people who can help you." Susan Ruttan met Los Angeles attorney Radis through a friend who had adopted and within a month was introduced to a birth mother. Four months later she brought her son home from the hospital.

Other celebrities can be helpful as well. O'Donnell, for instance, had recently adopted Parker when she was approached at a 1995 party at Carrie Fisher's house by a tearful Kate Jackson. Then 47, the former Charlie's Angels TV star was a thrice-divorced breast cancer survivor, facts adoption experts say would not stand in the way of her adopting. Nevertheless, Jackson had spent five years searching for a child. O'Donnell, who had never met Jackson before, was eager to help. "I said, 'You're in luck,' " she recalls. "That day I got a call from a lawyer who had an [expensive] adoption because of the mother's lack of health insurance or whatnot. He asked if I knew anyone who was well-off." Within weeks, Jackson, who is currently single, brought home her son Taylor, now 5.

While attorneys deny charges of preferential treatment, some clients believe that a dash of glitter may gain them attention. Lawyers may feel greater confidence that celebrities will be able to meet the costs of adoption and, says actress Valerie Harper, 61, "with celebrities, lawyers trust you a bit more because they know you, or think they do." Birth mothers may also be influenced by a prospective parent's fame. In this age of open adoption, in which birth mothers and adoptive parents know each other's identities—according to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, the two sets of parents have some contact in 72 percent of all adoptions—it is the birth mothers who decide whom their babies go home with. In the case of a starry-eyed pregnant teenager, that may work to a celebrity's advantage. "People perceive celebrities as living exciting lives, having lots of money and being able to provide a child with an almost royal existence," says David Keene Leavitt, a Beverly Hills attorney who has handled many celebrity adoptions. "The glamor does rub off and influence some birth mothers."

In fact, birth mothers who have spent years reading about a particular star, or seeing her on TV or in movies, may feel a personal connection. That perceived bond, says Jamie Lee Curtis, 42, who with her husband, actor-director Christopher Guest, 53, has adopted two children, Annie, 14, and Tom, 4, "may aid some people in feeling more comfortable than they would with a perfect stranger." Years of unsuccessful fertility treatments and several miscarriages led actress JoBeth Williams, 52, and her husband, director John Pasquin, 55, to attorney Radis in 1986. He advised the couple, now parents of two adopted sons, Will, 13, and Nick, 10, to put ads under Pasquin's name in midwestern newspapers. Within a month they got a call from a 17-year-old who had just given birth; they had her and the baby flown to L.A. the next day. Though the girl had seen Williams's films Poltergeist and The Big Chill, "I don't think she picked us because she recognized me," says Williams. But, she adds, "I think it didn't hurt." On the other hand, Williams recalls, "one of the concerns she expressed was will he be brought up just around show business people. We did everything to reassure her we would be leading normal lives. I think that convinced her."

Interestingly, attorney Karen Lane has found that the birth mothers "whose eyes light up at the idea of a celebrity are also the ones who are very open to a single parent." That perhaps explains why many single stars, such as Flockhart, 36, have completed adoptions domestically. Other single women often find overseas adoptions a quicker, more certain route.

But while a high profile may help a celebrity get noticed by a birth mother, "that only gets you through the door," warns Lane. "They still have to like you." A variety of factors may influence a young woman to choose one prospective parent over another. "Sometimes it's 'Oh, their home looks like the suburb I grew up in,' or 'We had a dog with the same name,' " says Tye of the Cradle. Rarely, she notes, is money or fame a deciding factor. "I am so amazed by the maturity of decision making," she says. "This may be a birth mom with a nose ring and 10 earrings in one ear, but when it comes to articulating what she wants in a family, she will be amazingly perceptive."

Trisha Winter, 23, is typical. Now nearing her delivery date, the L.A.-area birth mother says that when she approached attorney Leavitt about finding adoptive parents, "I had no idea what any of his clients were like." That some were famous failed to sway her. "I'm looking for certain qualities," she says. "A happy family, a couple who can't have children, who have decent jobs." After looking at resumes and photos of prospective parents, she settled on a couple from the South. "I got that warm feeling inside when I read about how they are," she says. "They're not rich. They're normal."

Then there are those birth mothers who want no postadoption contact with the new parents and avoid celebs for fear of unwanted publicity. "Celebrity seekers might make it their inappropriate business to find out exactly who the birth family is and broadcast it," says Chicago attorney Kathleen Hogan Morrison.

Some celebrities are equally wary of birth parents. Valerie Harper and her husband, TV producer Tony Cacciotti, 61, feared that contact with a birth mother might cause trouble down the road. "Tony didn't want some uncle coming out of the woodwork years later saying, 'My niece. is over with Valerie Harper,' " she explains. To make sure that didn't happen, they found an older child whose birth mother didn't want to know the adoptive parents' identity. In fact, though open adoption is increasingly common, many birth mothers do not know that their children are being raised by stars. In Florida, where Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman adopted their older child, Isabella, now 8, a birth mother surrenders all rights as soon as she signs the adoption papers. Boca Raton attorney Charlotte Danciu, for one, declines to name her clients if they happen to be famous. "Even if the birth mother is a sweetheart, the people she surrounds herself with may not be," she says. "The celebrity could be a sitting duck for blackmail."

Nell Carter had a taste of that. A few years after adopting her sons, she brought home an infant girl and named her Mary. Ten days later, the adoption papers not yet signed, the birth parents showed up at her door asking for money. "I had a funny feeling," Carter says. "I knew that birth father knew where I lived and that he could always come back." Hard as it was, she chose to return the child to them. Carter made one more attempt to adopt, this time taking a pregnant woman into her home, only to have her skip town with the baby after the delivery. "Some people will try to take you for money," she says. "I think celebrities end up paying more."

The larger adoption community, however, has benefited from celebrity involvement, which has helped lift the stigma that was once attached to nonbiological families. "Michelle Pfeiffer and Rosie and others doing it has made it something that seems within reach—and okay—for the ordinary woman and man," says author Mitchard. Attorney Hogan Morrison agrees. "More people are aware of adoption as a good thing," she says.

Celebrities have also become activists for adoption and its related issues. Steven Spielberg, 54, and Kate Capshaw, 47, are the parents of seven, including five biological kids plus two African-American children adopted through the public Child Welfare System. The couple are deeply involved in an L.A.-based campaign to find permanent homes for the 120,000 adoptable children nationwide currently in foster care—a process that is often faster and far less expensive than private adoption. Jamie Lee Curtis, whose 1996 children's book Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born is virtually required reading in adoption circles, recorded a public service announcement about adoption that recently ran when CBS's Touched by an Angel aired an episode on the subject.

No one, however, has promoted the cause more energetically—and effectively—than O'Donnell. In conjunction with New Jersey's Children of the World she has created an outreach program called Rosie Adoptions, and at the end of her TV show each day lists a toll-free number (800-841-0804) for birth mothers and prospective parents. To date O'Donnell has helped place 39 babies with waiting parents, only one of whom, Kate Jackson, is famous. She is also funding a home for pregnant women in New Jersey, a facility she hopes to replicate in Florida and California after she leaves her hit talk show next year.

As for those who continue to attribute her growing family to her fame, O'Donnell says, "When I got my foster child, nobody said to me, 'Look, she has a 3½-year-old biracial foster child. How did she get that one?' I always want to go, 'Hold it. There are millions of kids out there. You want one? Don't judge by what you interpret to be how long I waited or Calista Flockhart did, or what her terms were. Just do it.' "

Jill Smolowe
Joanne Fowler and Joseph Tirella in New York City, Michelle Caruso, Johnny Dodd, Meg Grant, Mary Green, Maureen Harrington and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles, Michelle Bowers in San Francisco, Trine Tsouderos in Chicago, Gabrielle Cosgriff in Houston, Siobhan Morrissey in Miami and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • Joanne Fowler,
  • Joseph Tirella,
  • Michelle Caruso,
  • Johnny Dodd,
  • Meg Grant,
  • Mary Green,
  • Maureen Harrington,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Michelle Bowers,
  • Trine Tsouderos,
  • Gabrielle Cosgriff,
  • Siobhan Morrissey,
  • Macon Morehouse.