Internet adoption a tangled web of hope and fear

Date: 2001-03-11
Source: LA Times

By Beverly Byette

Times Staff Writer

March 11, 2001

Neal and Cilla Whatcott were thrilled when, through an Internet newsgroup of adoptive parents, they found Nightlight Christian Adoptions of Fullerton, an agency specializing in adoption of children from Russia.

With a biological son and two adopted children from Asia, they were eager to adopt an older child. Nightlight matched them with Inga, a 12-year-old who'd spent her life in a St. Petersburg orphanage. Soon they were on their way to Russia from their home in the Marshall Islands.

It was a decision that was to turn their lives upside down -- one that has left them without the child and, years later, with financial liability for her care.

Just as the Internet led the Whatcotts to Inga, it led Richard and Vickie Allen of San Bernardino County to the twins who allegedly were sold twice -- first to them, then, for double the price, to Alan and Judith Kilshaw of Wales. The 8-month-old twins remain in foster care in Britain, their case in legal limbo.

The highly publicized case has focused international attention on the adoptions process and, peripherally, on how the Internet is changing it. News travels fast on the Internet. It is largely unregulated and an ideal medium not just for making successful matches, but for unethical preying on desperate families. And the Internet has helped make adoption "business with a big B," as one professional says of the now billion-dollar industry.

Adoption fraud and failed adoptions were not born with the Internet, but it has opened another door for birth parents, adoptive families and middlemen, bypassing geographical boundaries.

"Probably 95% of all adoptions go very smoothly and legitimately and properly," says Allan Hazlett of Topeka, president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. "But the awful ones are really awful." And, agree many in the field, there is something rotten in the state of adoptions: money.

Adoption in America is a $1.4-billion annual business, with about 2,000 licensed private agencies, 2,000 licensed public agencies and 500 adoption attorneys, Tampa-based Marketdata found in the first independent study of adoptions services. There also are an unknown number of facilitators -- for-profit "baby brokers" -- many of whom operate on Web sites.

Marketdata estimates that there were 138,000 adoptions in the United States in 1999. (Last year, there were 10,000 in California.) Figures reflect a slight decrease overall since 1990, but an increase in foreign adoptions and those from foster care.

Researchers found a typical adoption costs $15,000 to $30,000 and is complex and loosely regulated, making abuses, bribes and hidden fees common -- especially in adoptions of foreign children.

At Web sites such as Dearbirthmother.com, those wanting to adopt post letters, hoping someone will choose them. Some are decorated with storks and diaper pins or photos of empty nurseries. Almost always, the writers depict themselves as God-fearing citizens living in "Our Town" with faithful pets and doting in-laws.

One couple even posted a letter from their 2-year-old, Megan: "I am adopted . . . I am helping my mommy and daddy look for a baby brother or sister to live with us in our fun, loving home . . . I am so fortunate that my mom can stay home with me."

Agencies, which may charge a one-time fee plus $60 a month for a basic posting and $130 a month for such perks as audio and video, wax poetic. One Web site promises, "Rosebud lips, chubby cheeks, 10 toes that wiggle and a tiny hand to hold . . . we can help make your dream a reality."

Using the Internet to search for a baby, or to advertise a baby, "is demeaning to the whole system," says Reuben Pannor, consultant to and former director of Vista del Mar agency in West L.A. "The case of the twins was an accident waiting to happen."

William Pierce, founder of the Washington-based National Council for Adoption, says people "are getting burned on the Internet at a rate that is inconceivable." He points out that there are no laws to prevent anyone with the ability to post a Web site from "making all sorts of claims, none of which can be verified. They can collect money through credit card, cash or check. Just as there is no enforcement of gambling laws on the Internet, there is no law against gambling on your hopes to adopt."

Assessing the extent of Internet adoption fraud is impossible, he says, because most victims do not come forward, and, when a complaint is filed, prosecutors often say that "they have more important things to do," Pierce said. Would-be parents, eager to find that baby at the end of the rainbow, are easy targets. When stung, they are ashamed -- and they don't want to hurt their chances of still getting a baby.

Patrick Purtill, also with the Council for Adoption, talks of the inherent risk in Internet matchups that bring together people "who just happen to like each other's photos or strike up a conversation because they're both Who fans." As for those "Dear Birth Mother" letters, he suggests that no one is going to say, "I'm overweight, I smoke, and I like to shoot pool."

Although many matches have been made through these letters, less sophisticated people are flirting with danger, says Bill Betzen of Dallas, a board member of the Washington-based American Adoption Congress and longtime adoptions professional. "There have been a lot of crooks claiming to do searches and just taking the money." And, he adds, there is always the specter of a criminal setup in a face-to-face exchange. After the Internet led the Whatcotts to Nightlight in 1997, they visited the agency and saw a picture of the beautiful Inga.

Cilla says Inga, 12, was represented to them as "somewhat delayed because of her history of institutionalization but eager to have a family." But upon arriving at the orphanage, they learned she had been placed twice in Russian homes and returned.

"By then it was too late," Cilla says, so the adoption was finalized and they flew home. At a stop in Honolulu, Inga ran away and the Whatcotts had to call the police. Once home, the real nightmare began. Cilla says, "She started fires in her bedroom, refused to learn English and was very aggressive with other children. She would bite, kick, claw, spit. At one point she stole a knife from the kitchen. She'd wake up screaming, roam the house at night, crawl out her bedroom window."

In August 1998, they sent Inga to a Maryland family who had agreed to temporary custody. After 30 days, Cilla says, "They called, screaming, saying, 'She's got to go.' " A second family took her and "called screeching after 60 days."

About six weeks after being placed with yet another family, Inga was put in a psychiatric facility in Michigan. The diagnosis: reactive attachment disorder, major depression disorder with psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder.

About then a Michigan court charged the Whatcotts, who had moved to Coupeville, Wash., with child abandonment, even though they say they were in regular contact with Inga and had maxed out their health insurance to help pay for her care.

The court garnisheed Neal's wages to help defray the costs of institutionalization, an action they say cost him his job as an aerospace engineer with top-secret clearance. The Whatcotts convinced the court to place Inga with another foster family, promising to take her back if and when she was ready. She never was. Rejected by three more foster homes, she is again institutionalized, with the Whatcotts still helping pay.

They have tried repeatedly to have the adoption annulled through Russian channels and have had no contact with Inga for nearly a year. "I believed that love could heal anything," Cilla says. "I no longer believe that. . . . She nearly destroyed us."

Cilla says of Nightlight executive director Ronald Stoddart, "His enthusiasm for placing orphans superseded his wisdom."

Stoddart says a psychological evaluation of Inga had uncovered "some problems" of which the Whatcotts were advised, but in Russia "it's not as though you can go in and pull out their files and go through the records."

"Everybody who had anything to do with Inga's life shares some of the blame," Stoddart says. "The Whatcotts didn't bring her out to do that to her. It's a tragic case." Just as the Internet has contributed to problems in adoption, it also has helped bring together children in need of a home with adoptive families. And it has fostered connections that might otherwise never have been made.

When attorney Steven Levine, 42, and his partner, Lane Schickler, 44, a Hebrew school teacher, posted a letter on the Independent Adoption Center Web site, they decided to work only through the agency, not directly with a for-profit facilitator. Schickler says, "If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it is a duck. If it feels like you're buying a child, you are buying a child."

For this El Segundo couple, patience paid off. Last week, 16 months after they began searching, they brought home a healthy African American/Latino son born March 3 in Monterey Park to a 19-year-old. The birth mother had chosen them after reading copies of the "Dear Birth Mother" letters faxed to her from the Independent Adoption Center in Pleasant Hill.

Levine and Schickler, a gay couple who have been together for six years, had had a few nibbles up until then. Schickler says, "With us, [birth mothers] say, 'Oh, great' -- or, 'Forget it.' " A few told them they liked the idea that they would "always be the only mother."

Schickler will be a stay-at-home dad to the infant they've named Yonathan Israel Mashal and will call Yoni. Once the adoption is final, the parents plan to change their last names to Mashal, an acronym in Hebrew for the Schickler-Levine family. Nancy Ashe contracts with About.com from her home in Greece to run an adoption information Web site with some 8,000 adoption links. The site, a clearinghouse for adoption information, flags practitioners it believes to be unethical. "We're talking about children here, not about buying a book," Ashe says. "I don't think the business of adoption belongs on the Internet."

On the plus side, Ashe says, the Internet makes it easier to find out who's good and who's bad and "to send an e-mail to the district attorney's office."

When an adoption goes awry, online chat rooms are abuzz. In March 1999, Adoptionline.com was quick to report the case of a New York attorney and his client who used the Internet to find the highest bidder for her infant. Tipped off by a Minnesota couple who have since adopted the baby, the attorney was caught in a sting operation after being handed $60,000 for the child.

One of the more notorious Internet adoption fraud schemes was devised by Philadelphia facilitator Sonya Furlow, who, operating as Tender Hearts Family Services and under other monikers, duped no fewer than 43 victims between 1997 and 1999, netting more than $200,000, according to prosecutors.

"She matched them with fictitious birth mothers," says Bernadette McKeon, an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia. Furlow sent adoptive parents photos of babies who were not up for adoption. "Some of the prospective parents were getting e-mails from alleged birth mothers who didn't exist." And they were sending money directly to Furlow.

Furlow, now 45, pleaded guilty to mail fraud and is serving time in a federal penitentiary. McKeon says some of the victims were referred to Furlow by Tina Johnson of El Cajon, the facilitator in the twins case.

In California, where a first offense for adoption fraud can be a felony, the extent of fraud is hard to determine. The attorney general's office says it does not keep a record of complaints against adoption service providers.

Sometimes it is the birth mother doing the scamming. Internet chat sites are awash in warnings about young women collecting money from three or four families while keeping all of them on a string, and of young women who fake pregnancies then suffer "miscarriages." It is legal in California for birth mothers to collect "reasonable and necessary" pregnancy-related expenses from the adoptive parents. But some young women are bargaining for under-the-table money for cars and college tuition. As late as the 1960s, 80% of adoptions went through public agencies and typically might cost $1,500. Today, 80% are private and pricey -- in rare cases, as much as $50,000.

Those who can afford it -- most of whom have computers to aid in their search -- are competing for healthy white infants, at home or abroad. Last year, there were 18,539 foreign adoptions, triple the number a decade earlier.

Those who cannot pay the high fees are adopting from public agencies, where virtually all children are classified as special needs -- drug babies, sibling groups, the mentally or physically impaired.

L. Anne Babb of Norman, Okla., adoptive mother of seven and author of "Ethics in American Adoption" (Greenwood, 1999), says, "If you don't have $15,000 to $20,000, you're going to the state." Although since the early 1990s these adoptions have doubled -- to 46,000 in 1999 -- there are more than 100,000 children nationwide in foster care eligible for adoption.

The perception that there is a shortage of babies has helped create a money-based adoption class system. Jane Nast, president of the American Adoption Congress, links money to corruption. "The minute you take money out of it, you go back to ethical adoptions."

What caused these changes in the adoption system?

Certainly birth control pills, legalized abortion and the lifting of the stigma on unwed mothers were factors. Once young women didn't have to sign over their babies to an agency and pretend the birth never happened, they began wanting to choose the adoptive parents. When agencies were not quick enough to embrace open adoptions, says Betzen, facilitators moved in to connect birth mothers and waiting families. Today, 72% of adoptions are open, although an adoptive family -- which may have found the birth mother over the Internet -- may mislead her. Says Betzen, "She places her baby a thousand miles away and, bingo, all of a sudden the adoption becomes closed." He condemns adoption agencies that want to scare people into paying outrageous prices for perpetuating what he calls "the myth of 40 families waiting for every baby."

Many set out to adopt, he says, but drop out upon learning of fees above $10,000 or because they resist open adoption.

Betzen says qualified prospective parents working with an ethical, established professional should be able to adopt a healthy newborn within a year. Those willing to adopt a mixed-race infant will have a shorter wait.

Aaron Britvan, who chairs the New York State Bar's committee on adoption, agrees that there is no shortage of children available -- including much-sought-after healthy white newborns -- "without having to buy a baby."

The Internet, he points out, has been a handy vehicle not only for scammers but for adoptive parents "looking for instant gratification" at any price. "I don't feel sorry for those who know they're doing wrong. What they're doing is nurturing the market."

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