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The state of Illinois has filed suit against an online adoption agency. The Web-based agency is for profit, which Illinois law prohibits. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports the case may test the Internet's expanding influence in this sensitive area.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: The Adoption Network Law Center is based in California. But when someone in Illinois searches adoption on the Web, up it pops right near the top.

LISA MADIGAN: They're very specific in directing their advertising and marketing to people in Illinois.

LUDDEN: Even though, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says, they're not licensed in the state. In fact, she notes the group is not licensed anywhere, yet a huge advertising budget means people searching across the country often find them first. And with customized ads, they can even appear local. Madigan's office sent a cease and desist letter to a dozen online adoption providers early this year. She says the Adoption Network Law Center was the only one that refused to comply.

MADIGAN: We are going to be very diligent in ensuring that we weed out, potentially, you know, bad actors and bad operators in the adoption area. It's very, very disturbing that this agency seems to continue not to believe that the law applies to them.

LUDDEN: The Adoption Network Law Center declined comment. But in a response to Illinois in March, their lawyer basically said because their online ads don't originate in Illinois, they're not bound by Illinois law. The center also cited a 1975 court case that found a state cannot restrict advertising for something which may not be legal there but is elsewhere.

Madigan points out not all online adoption agencies are bad actors. In fact, a Web-based adoption can hold great appeal for all sides. Birth mothers may want to place a child far away or find a family of a certain religion or race. For prospective parents, a wider national search may mean they find a child sooner. But adoption experts say some unlicensed operators seem in it for the profit not the welfare of children and parents.

JOAN JAEGER: It's a transaction-based approach.

LUDDEN: Joan Jaeger is with The Cradle, a traditional adoption agency in Evanston, Illinois.

JAEGER: You know, how much is it going to cost? How long is it going to take? Can you do it quicker if I pay you more? We hear that kind of feedback from people calling us, saying, is that really how it works?

LUDDEN: Adam Pertman of the Donaldson Adoption Institute worries about a coercive approach to pregnant women who may be in crisis, unsure what to do.

ADAM PERTMAN: And she sees an ad on the Internet, come fly to California. We'll give you free housing, a swimming pool. We'll take great care of you and we'll help you make that decision.

LUDDEN: Of course, banning targeted ads in one state won't keep such online agencies from operating, which is why if Illinois' lawsuit succeeds, Pertman hopes other states will follow its lead. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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