[Article by: Ellen Labrecque as published in the Winter 2013 edition of Ursinus Magazine]
Sam Totaro is naturally compassionate and warm-hearted. Yet to do his job well, he has to distance himself emotionally from his clients. And this doesn’t come easy considering he and his wife, Andrea adopted two children of their own, Juliana and Christopher. They know too well the emotional terrain of adoption that families must weather.
“When friends and clients find out I have adopted children, everybody asks is this why I went into this field,” says Totaro. “I handled a couple hundred adoptions before my wife and I adopted. But my own life does affirm my decision to work in this field and makes me happy to know how much I am helping people.”
Totaro didn’t plan to become a lawyer after graduating from Ursinus with a degree in science. His career began in the chemistry lab, but the outgoing future litigator soon realized he wanted more day-to-day interaction with people. He went to law school at the University of Memphis and graduated in 1974. His first job landed him back in Philadelphia as a law clerk in an Orphan’s Court, which handled adoptions. After he finished his clerkship, the firm Sutton and Lewis hired him to continue his adoption work.
Totaro’s father, who was a minister in The Assemblies of God Church, instilled in his son the importance of helping people. Local church leaders soon realized they could trust and rely on Totaro when young women in their congregations, who were unexpectedly pregnant, sought advice on adoption.
“Most of these women were going through a difficult time and it was great that I could ease the burden of their journey for them,” Totaro says, now an Elder in his Presbyterian Church.
Totaro works for Curtin and Heefner in Doylestown and also does extensive work for non-profit organizations, such as the Silver Springs Martin Luther School, a private residential treatment facility for emotionally disturbed and challenged children, where he is chairperson of the Board of Directors.
“Sam has such a level-headed mind and he listens and cares about each and every person he works with,” says Bob Madonna, a Silver Springs board member who turned to Totaro for the adoptions of his own two children.
In the late nineties, Sam and Andrea co-founded the adoption agency, ANA Adoptions, where Andrea is the Director and Sam serves as legal counsel. Around the time ANA Adoptions opened, Totaro took on a case that became nationally known and eventually the subject of the 1998 Lifetime movie, A Change of Heart.
Totaro was helping Keith and Kimberly Lussier adopt a little girl, Brittany, from Korea in 1994. Kimberly was being treated for uterine cancer at the time of the adoption but was in remission. The couple welcomed Brittany in February, and the adoption was scheduled to be finalized in August. But in July, Kimberly died suddenly from the cancer. Keith called the adoption agency after his wife died and told them he still wanted to go forward with the adoption. The agency did not do single-parent adoptions and, as a result, took Brittany away and placed her with another family.
Totaro took Lussier’s case to court to help him fight for his daughter.
“Keith was from Buffalo and the court case took place in Bucks County so the poor guy, who just lost his wife and had his daughter taken away from him, was sleeping in a hotel room,” says Totaro. “My wife and I decided to have him move in with us during the trial. As a result, we became like brothers.”
“There is no façade with Sam,” says Andrea. “He is down-to earth, compassionate and is guided by his faith. says Andrea. When somebody needs him, he’ll be there for them. That is the principle in which he runs his career and his entire life.”
The court ruled in Lussier’s favor and the judge stated that Brittany had to be returned within 72 hours to Keith. But the adoption agency appealed the ruling, which put a stay on the entire case.
“Keith said to me, if this was going to go on for a year or so, he couldn’t rip Brittany from her new home,” says Totaro.
A local newscaster, who had been following the case, tracked down the couple who had been given Brittany and told them her story. When they learned about who the baby was, they volunteered to give her back to Keith. The agency withdrew their appeal after a lot of public pressure and Lussier got his daughter back.
“It was the most amazing day to reunite this father with his daughter,” says Totaro. “It made everything I do worth it. Today I’m still good friends with Keith and Brittany is a thriving young lady.” Although many of Totaro’s cases aren’t as high profile, he still makes a difference in each and every one of his client’s lives. He works on many “standard” adoptions, but he also specializes in adoptions gone wrong.
Totaro was lead counsel on the Gibbs vs. Ernst case, in which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court established the right of adoptive parents to be compensated for failure of adoption agencies to fully disclose all relevant information to the adoptive parents before adoption. The case was cited by over 20 Supreme Courts in other states.
“Sam is extremely well-regarded and is the perfect blend of competence and compassion,” says Karen Burrill, a 1969 Ursinus graduate and Director of the Child and Home Study Associates Adoption Agency, who has worked with Totaro on countless adoptions. “He is the one of the most sought-after lawyers in the adoption world.”
Totaro is working on another high-profile adoption case that has led him back to the talk shows. But whether in or out of the spotlight, he simply wants to do the work he feels called to do.
“Helping these people is our life,” he says about he and Andrea. “And, I wouldn’t want to be living any other way.”