9 Investigates uncovered another claim of attorneys trying to get the rights to babies born to inmates in the country's largest women's prison.
Investigative reporter Karla Ray first exposed a baby broker business inside Lowell Correctional near Ocala almost two years ago. Now another inmate has come forward to share her story of the pressure she and many face behind bars to make this choice.
“River is in my arms, and I’m clean and sober, and God worked it all out,” Melissa Smith said about her son.
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This time last year, Smith was pregnant while serving a 9-month sentence for a probation violation inside Lowell Correctional in Ocala.
“I got my mail, and it said Lynn Lawrence on the return address, and it had ten stamps. It said, 'I heard about your situation, and I heard you might need my assistance,'” Smith said.
That is the first contact Smith says she received, unsolicited, from attorney Lynn Lawrence, who openly admits to 9 Investigates that she, and other attorneys, regularly work financial deals with expecting inmates at Lowell to adopt out their babies.
“The devil was in my head, playing with me. I was 5 months pregnant, I didn't know who was going to get my baby,” Smith said.
Smith gave us a receipt that shows Lawrence was putting hundreds of dollars into her canteen account, before she made a decision about adoption.
Florida law allows for adoption entities to pay the actual prenatal care and living expenses for a birthmother, defined by rent, utilities, phone service, food, toiletries, clothing, transportation and insurance. However, a judge only has to review those expenses if payments exceed $5,000. That’s the total amount Smith and other inmates tell us they were promised if they gave up their babies.
“I am not a high-pressure person, I’m not aggressive in any sense,” Lynn Lawrence said.
Lawrence spoke to us for a second time at her home about thirty miles from the prison, and denied soliciting clients. Florida Bar guidelines call for unsolicited mail to be clearly marked as an advertisement.
“I don’t believe anybody has received mail from me unsolicited,” Lawrence said.
“I think it’s taking advantage of our vulnerability,” Smith said. “Like hanging a carrot in front of a rabbit.”
Previous coverage: 9 Investigates: Prison baby 'business'
Smith has her son, River, today, thanks to a woman who was once a stranger. Debra Morel had already been approved by Florida Department of Children and Families contractor Kids Central once to care for another inmate’s son, when that woman chose not to pursue adoption. That inmate connected Morel and Smith, and after a second approval, she cared for River until his mom’s September release.
“The women in there have no say so, or control, and money sounds really good while you’re inside,” Morel said.
Morel told 9 Investigates she is expecting to take in even more babies over the next few months.
The other alternative for inmates at Lowell is the child welfare system. That’s something the Department of Corrections has partnered with DCF contractor Kids Central to help reduce. Since 2014, more than 200 babies born to inmates at Lowell were diverted away from the child welfare system, but it’s unclear how many of those were private adoptions and how many were placed with friends or relatives.
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