Theresa Hardesty Adoption Career Featured By Leading Lawyers Magazine
Written by Maria Kantzavelos
The Peoria lawyer represented the couple in adopting five children: two girls with special needs from Korea; a biracial girl and a biracial boy; and a boy from Ethiopia. The children make up the couple’s family, along with their three biological sons.
“It’s been a wonderful way for our family to grow,” Getz says.”When you’re going through all this… It’s like having a good doctor-you want somebody who’s seen this before and can guide you through it,” Getz adds. “She’s [Hardesty] very reassuring; her experience is invaluable.”
Getz recalls an especially complex situation leading up to the adoption of the Peoria couple’s biracial daughter. The expectant mother was homeless in Louisiana when another family in Springfield took her in.
“Here we were, more than willing to take this child, but how, legally, do you make this safe and sound? She [Hardesty] guided us like a shepherd and made trips with us to Springfield, and really went above and beyond the call of duty. And we’re forever grateful.”
With thousands of adoptions under her belt, Hardesty is inspired to press on because of clients like the Getzes. After nearly 30 years in a practice area, she has “no burn-out factor.”
For Hardesty, whose law practice is unique in Central Illinois because of its exclusive focus on adoptions, the most relished part of the job inevitably unfolds in the courtroom, at the often emotional moment of a final hearing on a case.
“No matter what the circumstances of the adoption are, it’s just very joyful,” Hardesty says. “It’s rewarding in every adoption I do. You just see these people who are realizing their dreams, and the child is going to have love, and stability, and permanency.
“I think every judge that I’ve ever appeared before makes some kind of statement. They feel that same degree of satisfaction with being a part of it. It’s a real contrast to the everyday courtroom stuff. It is a privilege, really, to be part of that.”
What transpires in those final hearings is “sort of the opposite of what you see in juvenile court, where it’s all tragic and traumatic,” Hardesty adds. “This is the good side; this is the flip side of that. And, sometimes, the same children are involved. Or, just the kids who are removed due to abuse or neglect. This is the happy ending. What could be better?”
But Hardesty concedes that it is “certainly not all roses and lollypops” for those adoptive parents whose cases never make it to that final hearing, cases in which a birth mother- as it is within her rights, Hardesty points out- has a change of heart.
“That is difficult,” says Hardesty, herself a mother of six.
That’s where her wealth of experience and college background in psychology can kick in.
“I can help adoptive parents to steer around some of those adoptions that are not going to be successful, because I can see the red flags,” Hardesty says of the niche practice she considers to be a reflection of her “family, pro-life, and religious values.”
“I’m attuned to the kinds of things that signal potential problems and can help people avoid those pitfalls.”
Finding Her True Calling
Hardesty, 58, has had a hand in about 3,000 adoptions since 1981, when a friend serving on the board of a local adoption agency learned that the organization was seeking new counsel and recommended Hardesty, then a new lawyer who had hung out her shingle in a general law practice in Peoria.
Armed with an undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Illinois, Hardesty couldn’t see herself in the role of a therapist. She also “didn’t really have the brain for the research or statistical side of psychology.”
Influenced by her college political and social sciences professors in the early 1970s, she embraced her strengths in verbal and writing skills and decided to pursue law as a vehicle for working toward reforming the criminal justice system.
A 1977 graduate of DePaul University College of Law, where her 711 license sent her to the courtroom as an extern alongside criminal defense lawyers, Hardesty was among about five female members of the Peoria Bar Association when she landed a position with the insurance defense firm of McConnell, Kennedy, Quinn & Johnston. A few years later, still longing to delve into criminal defense work, she opened up her own shop.
But Hardesty soon had a revelation about criminal defense work.
“The reality of [representing criminal defendants] was just so different,” she recalls. “I still enjoy the legal aspects of criminal law, but I learned that my calling was not to represent defendants.”
Around that same time, when the friend recommended her as the local adoption agency’s new counsel, Hardesty found her true calling.
“I went and researched what it was,” she says. “When you’re a young lawyer who has just hung up your own shingle, you’re going to say ‘yes’ to everything. That’s pretty much what I did.”
Hardesty was married for a time to prominent Peoria divorce attorney Drew Parker; they divorced in 1985 but have remained friends. Parker remembers when Hardesty launched her adoption practice from her home in 1986.
“She was seeking something unique that fit her interests better than the traditional areas of practice. …Her first love was children. I encouraged her to do it, but I thought it would take, perhaps, years to begin to thrive, and instead, she became an instant hit with that particular practice,” Parker says. “She very quickly became, really, the epicenter of adoption work in Peoria.
“She had no mentor for this area of law; her background was completely different. It didn’t take her long, though. She’s just so smart. This was a perfect fit for her personality and her interests.”
Hardesty entered the practice at a time when open adoption-in which the identities of birth and adoptive parents are exchanged and, in some cases, contact of varying degrees between the parties is encouraged- was new, especially in the Midwest.
“It was changing from the traditional closed model of adoption to birth parents choosing the family,” Hardesty recalls. “That became the more progressive approach, and it was so much more appealing to birth parents-that they had some control and the opportunity to know how the child was doing and to have that peace of mind after the fact. Whereas, before, it had been a sealed adoption, with no information going to the mother.”
Hardesty’s private adoption practice evolved from her early agency work, which included inter-country adoptions from South Korea. When the 1988 Olympics were held in Seoul, bringing the media spotlight to focus on the high incidence of Korean children being adopted in the United States, the Korean government shut down its adoption program for a few years.
Adoptive parents of Korean children who had been planning to adopt from there again turned to the Peoria lawyer for help.
“All these clients whose first children were adopted in Korea came looking to me, saying ‘What now?'” Hardesty says. “I had all these families whose needs weren’t being met by the agency, because there had been a source of children in Korea that suddenly was no longer there.”
She researched the law, picked the brain of a California lawyer, and spoke to support groups of adoptive parents about private adoption-until it was time to “stop reading and start doing it.”
“That’s how it started,” Hardesty says. “I was doing the agency cases, as well as helping couples advertise and network to find a birth parent who wanted to place their child.”
Seeing the Whole Picture
Today, the bulk of Hardesty’s cases come to her through referrals from the host of Central Illinois adoption agencies she represents, such as Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria, which honored her in 2007 with its first Friends of Adoption Award for going “above and beyond in the adoption field,” says Chris Kelly, who coordinates the organization’s adoption program.
“She’s a great advocate for the adoption process,” Kelly says. “She’s very much an advocate for her clients, but she also looks at the whole picture. She can look at the whole system and makes sure everybody’s rights are respected through the process.
“When we have a difficult legal case, we don’t hesitate to refer to Theresa because we know our clients will be in good hands and will be taken care of.”
A significant portion of Hardesty’s caseload also comes from foster parents wishing to adopt children who have been removed through the child welfare system. And, in addition to handling stepparent adoptions, and interstate and inter-country adoptions in private cases, Hardesty handles subsidized adoptions involving children with special needs in her role as a panel attorney approved by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
“I’m very inspired by the people who adopt the kids nobody else wants. Those people are amazing,” Hardesty says. “I’ve represented some families who adopt well over the capacity of their foster license. They just keep taking in kids with Down syndrome or cerebral palsy-any condition you can think of-and those kids just need love and need a home.”
Hardesty, who likes to take adoption cases pro bono for such groups as Haitian Hearts, a Peoria-based non-profit organization that provides medical care to Haitian children, has been a fellow of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys since 1993.
Kirsten Bays, a Charleston, Ill. adoption lawyer and a member of the academy, has worked with Hardesty on cases in an area where, Bays notes, it takes far more than mere knowledge of the law to be successful.
“Sometimes, it’s just very heartbreaking and sad, and Terry is a very compassionate and qualified attorney to manage those special stresses that go with those cases,” Bays says.
“This is about building families. Adoptive families have a lot of emotions they’re going through; birth families have a lot of emotions they’re going through. There’s a lot of heartbreak in adoptions, potentially, on either side of that equation,” Bays adds. “You have to be not just a qualified attorney; you have to have the right kind of compassion to handle the stresses and heartbreak that are potentially present in your clients’ lives. You have to be the kind of attorney who can help your client get through those pieces. Terry is fabulous at that. She’s a qualified attorney, and she has the heart and the compassion.”
Here’s how Parker, the Peoria divorce lawyer, sums up the qualities that distinguish his friend and former wife from other lawyers: “She goes all out. She’s frequently talking to people after hours, in her home. She goes the extra mile. When they’re delivering a baby, she frequently is there. She’s not pursuing it just from a business perspective, but she’s pursuing it because she’s really driven to help families and children.”
Peoria County Associate Judge Katherine S. Gorman Hubler recalls a recent occurrence during a final hearing in an adoption case in her courtroom-one she had never witnessed before.
“There were two sisters, and between the two of them, they have adopted 12 children,” Gorman Hubler says. “They presented her with a plaque for helping them. She’s the first lawyer I know of that’s been presented with a plaque by her clients.”
Hardesty and her husband, Mark, are raising six children in their Peoria home, which also serves as Hardesty’s law office. One of them, Rob Parker, is a recent graduate of St. Louis University School of Law. He plans to be a litigator in practice with his father, Drew Parker.
But there may be a budding adoption lawyer in the family.
“I’ve got four younger children under him,” Hardesty says. “I’m hoping one of them will get the bug.”
Published in Leading Lawyers Magazine, July 2009