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September 9, 2013 / ReutersInvestigates
APPLETON, Wisconsin – Online, she called herself Big Momma; he went by the name lovethemcute. And in the summer of 2006, housemates Nicole Eason and Randy Winslow were surfing the Internet with a common objective.
Each was looking for children.
Winslow – lovethemcute – was 41, balding and paunchy. He swapped pictures of naked children and would later spend time in a chat room called baby&toddlerlove, where he described himself as a "lil boylover," court documents show. There, he would graphically boast of molesting boys and explain how to keep the abuse quiet: "Just have to raise them to think its fine and not to tell anyone," he wrote in a chat with an undercover federal agent. "What is done in the family stays in the family."
Eason – Big Momma – was about to turn 28. She had moved to Illinois from two states where authorities had taken away her biological children years earlier. In one report, authorities noted that a child she and friends were watching had died in her care.
Living away from her husband, Calvin, and with Winslow in the Illinois town of Tilton, Eason wanted to be a mother again. A few hours on an Internet bulletin board were all she would need to find a new child.
On July 14, 2006, Eason connected online with Glenna Mueller, a Wisconsin mother ready to give up a 10-year-old boy she had adopted. Mueller, 46, was once a licensed daycare provider. Struggling in a second marriage, she largely supported herself by collecting government subsidies for the seven children she adopted. She had taken the 10-year-old about three years earlier. Now, his tantrums were too much, Mueller told Eason.
"I couldn't stand to look at him anymore," Mueller says today. "I wanted this child gone."
That's when Mueller turned to ConsideringDisruptinganAdoption, a Yahoo group for parents struggling to raise the children they adopted. (After Reuters asked Yahoo about the group, which has been active for nine years, the company shut it down for violating Yahoo's terms of service.) Most of the children mentioned on such bulletin boards come from overseas. Mueller's son – an African-American boy – had been adopted out of the U.S. foster care system. On the site, she posted a description of the boy and her contact information. Almost immediately, Eason reached out.
Early that July morning, the two began exchanging emails, and Mueller sent Eason a picture of the boy. "He is ADORABLE!!!!!!!!!!!" Eason replied minutes later. She quickly added: "Randy wants to know if u would like a visit today?"
By that afternoon, Eason and Winslow were heading north, driving five hours from Illinois to Appleton, Wisconsin, where Mueller lived. They met in a hotel parking lot just off the highway, and Mueller brought the boy.
In an email, Eason had told Mueller that they need not involve a lawyer. No child welfare officials were notified, either. Along with the boy's birth certificate, Mueller handed Nicole a note: Eason and Winslow had her permission to care for her son.
Mueller knew little about the couple. She wasn't certain where or if Eason or Winslow worked, or if they were married; she knew nothing about Eason's two biological children having been taken away, or of Winslow's affinity for young boys; she wasn't even sure of their address. She did know they were willing to take a child she could no longer stomach, and that was enough.
"I was desperate and sick to death of it," Mueller says of caring for the 10-year-old, whose name is withheld because Reuters could not reach him. "And I'm like, 'You know what? Take him for a visit. Let me know.'"
After less than an hour outside the Fairfield Inn, Eason and Winslow drove off with a young boy, a commodity in America's underground market for discarded adopted children.
As nations around the world make adopting overseas more difficult for Americans, the U.S. government has taken no measures to restrict informal "private re-homings," custody transfers of unwanted children that often start in online bulletin boards, a Reuters investigation has found.
The unregulated nature of this market makes it especially dangerous. Because the government doesn't oversee the bulletin boards, people like Randy Winslow can easily gain custody of a child, without authorities ever knowing. Scrutinizing those who want children is often left to parents who are eager to get rid of the kids.
"I would have given her away to a serial killer, I was so desperate," one mother wrote in a March 2012 post about re-homing her 12-year-old daughter.
"There's hundreds of people looking for new homes for kids," Mueller says of those who use the online bulletin boards. One participant referred to the re-homing forums as "'farms' in which to select children."
Many of the online posts say the unwanted children have physical or mental disabilities. In the group Reuters analyzed, more than half were described as having some sort of special need. About 18 percent were said to have a history that included sexual or physical abuse.
Such descriptions could serve as a beacon for predators. "If you advertise details of things like their substance abuse or sexually acting out, that's waving a red flag," says Michael Seto, an expert on the sexual abuse of children at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group in Canada.
Especially at risk are children described as troubled and lacking a consistent parental figure, says Eric Ostrov, a Chicago-based forensic psychologist who evaluates sex offenders. Those depictions, Ostrov says, would be a "tremendous lure."
The great majority of children on the bulletin boards fit that profile. Most were adopted from overseas and brought to America. But children born in the United States can end up in the underground child exchange, too. The case of the 10-year-old taken by Eason and Winslow illustrates how easily parents will turn children over to strangers met online.
"Nowadays, people are searching out other people," Nicole Eason said in an interview. "That way, nobody's judging nobody."
In early 2000, six years before picking up Glenna Mueller's son in the hotel parking lot, Nicole Eason came to the attention of child welfare authorities in Massachusetts.
Eason, then 21, had taken her biological baby daughter to a hospital in the city of Pittsfield. Doctors at Berkshire Medical Center determined that the girl, 9 months old, had a broken femur "for which the parents had no explanation," court records show. "A full skeletal X-ray" was done, and "two old fractures were discovered that were in different stages of healing," according to court records. "The parents had never sought medical attention for those fractures."
Rebecca Kickery, a former friend of Nicole's, says she remembers the incident that put the girl in the hospital. She says she told a child welfare worker what she witnessed.
The baby was "chasing her mom in the walker," Kickery says, and Nicole Eason "was cussing at her. She grabbed the tray of the walker and yanked her... When she yanked her, her daughter's leg went one way and her body went the other, and I heard it cracking like you crack a stick. And I just thought, this poor little girl."
In an interview with Reuters, Nicole Eason said no such incident took place.
A report by Massachusetts officials, dated Jan. 3, 2000, documents the baby's injuries. Subsequent court records show that "the child was removed from the parents at that time." Officials cited "neglect."
A month later, on Feb. 5, 2000, Nicole and Calvin Eason were at Kickery's Pittsfield apartment with friends. Kickery had asked her sister to watch her 18-month-old son, Austin.
That afternoon, Nicole later told police, the group was playing cards while Austin and his young cousin took a bath. Nicole said she heard a child crying in the bathroom and "thought that the water might have been cold because God knows how long they were in there."
Nicole went to the bathroom and saw Austin lying face down in the water, the police report says. She alerted Kickery's sister and left the bathroom without trying to pull the boy out. "I just freaked out," Nicole told police.
The report, dated Feb. 14, 2000, indicates that Nicole Eason was the last person to check on the children and the first adult to spot Austin face down in the water.
The child couldn't be revived, and the drowning was ruled an accident. Within days, police determined that there was "no reason to expect foul play but rather this appears to be a case of negligence." No charges were filed; under Massachusetts law, prosecutors must show that a caregiver's actions "went beyond mere negligence and amounted to recklessness," according to jury instructions offered in the state.
Today, Kickery wants authorities to reopen the investigation, but a spokesman with the Berkshire District Attorney's Office says that, absent any new evidence, the case is closed. Nicole Eason says she had nothing to do with the baby's death.
By 2002, Calvin Eason and a pregnant Nicole had moved to South Carolina. That March, Nicole gave birth to a boy.
Massachusetts child protection officials learned of the move and told South Carolina authorities about the Easons' history. They explained that Nicole's daughter was already in the foster care system. "The allegations," a report by South Carolina authorities recounted, "are abuse and neglect." (The couple's parental rights to the girl were subsequently terminated.)
Although the Kickery boy's death had been ruled an accident, Massachusetts authorities also brought Nicole's involvement in the matter to the attention of South Carolina officials. An incident report, dated Feb. 28, 2002 and prepared by the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office in South Carolina, notes that a "child died in Subject's care.
About a week after Nicole's son was born, the state executed an emergency removal of the newborn from the Eason home in Summerville, South Carolina, sheriff's records show. Authorities cited the neglect investigation of the Easons in Massachusetts and the conditions in the couple's South Carolina home.
"The home environment was deplorable for an infant, trash, clothes, stale food and stagnant water," according to a March 27, 2002, report by the sheriff's office. "The parents have an open investigation in (Massachusetts) where their parental rights are being terminated due to physical abuse on another child. Parents have severe psychiatric problems as well with violent tendencies."
In interviews earlier this year at a house they were renting in Tucson, Arizona, the Easons said that both children were still living with them. No pictures of any child hung on the walls, but there were a half-dozen plaques with adages about parenting. One read, "Daughters hold our hands for a little while but hold our hearts forever."
Nicole said South Carolina officials briefly removed their biological son years ago after someone reported that she had killed the boy and stuffed him into a tote bag. But he was returned to them within a few days, she said, after officials determined she had done nothing wrong.
In truth, the Easons never got the children back. The boy was adopted out of foster care, a South Carolina child welfare official said. The girl has either been adopted or remains in foster care; a Massachusetts official would not say which.
Asked last month to explain why officials in two states reported that her children had been permanently removed, Nicole said someone was lying. "I haven't had problems with social services," she said. "That's what I'm claiming."
Her biological children gone, Nicole Eason babysat for other parents.
A neighbor in North Charleston reported to police in 2003 that she suspected Nicole had molested the neighbor's young daughter. The girl, who was 4 or 5, told her mother that Nicole had been showering and sleeping naked with the child, the mother told police. When authorities interviewed the girl, she "had not disclosed any pertinent information for criminal charges," according to a report by the North Charleston police, dated Feb. 27, 2003.
As police investigated the allegations, Nicole was being treated in the psychiatric ward of The Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston for "an unrelated incident," according to the police report.
No charges were filed, but the mother secured a protective order against Eason when Eason left the hospital weeks later. Nicole says she never abused the girl.
In 2005, another allegation surfaced, this time against Calvin Eason.
A young boy who suffered from mental illness told his counselor that Calvin had touched him improperly while bathing the boy. The boy's mother didn't believe the allegation, according to a report by North Charleston police, and no charges were brought. The boy's mother couldn't be reached for comment.
When Reuters first visited the Easons, Calvin wore a sleeveless maroon T-shirt with the words GOOD DADS MAKE A DIFFERENCE. He said he never improperly touched the boy he had babysat, and added: "I've got kids of my own I could already do that to. So why would I even try to do that to another child?"
The Easons bounced between jobs. By the summer of 2006, Nicole moved from South Carolina to Tilton, Illinois. Calvin says she relocated for a job and he stayed behind.
Nicole lived with her friends Randy Winslow and Winslow's brother, according to Calvin. Later, Calvin joined her in the area, and the Easons moved to a different house.
Before Calvin arrived, Nicole had gone online and taken a child through the re-homing network.
'I CAN HANDLE HIM'
In July 2006, Nicole's pursuit of Glenna Mueller's adopted son was accomplished in a single day.
Ten years old, the boy had come out of the Wisconsin foster system small and underweight. He loved babies and animals but suffered emotional and behavioral problems, Mueller says. He would act out, attack other children and show no remorse, she recalls.
A stay-at-home mother in the paper-mill city of Appleton, Mueller was, in essence, a professional parent. Her income came from government assistance for her adopted sons and daughters. She says a Wisconsin child welfare officer told her that if she relinquished the 10-year-old to the state, the move might prompt an investigation that could result in her losing her other children.
Increasingly stressed, she turned to another Yahoo group, called ConsideringDisruptinganAdoption, to find the boy a new home. If she handled the matter privately, she reasoned, the state wouldn't have to know and therefore wouldn't investigate her for neglect or abuse.
Begun in 2004, the Yahoo group was an active online forum for adoptive parents seeking to re-home unwanted children. Mueller posted a description of the boy and asked if anyone was interested.
Nicole Eason responded by email: "OMG Glenna I CAN HANDLE HIM … I HAVE the love, patience and time…"
Mueller was eager to move forward but told Eason she couldn't afford an attorney.
They wouldn't need one, Eason assured her. She sent Mueller pictures of children she described as being "all part of my family" – including a daughter and stepson "from a previous marriage" and another boy and girl whom she described as Randy Winslow's niece and nephew.
Mueller responded by sending Eason additional pictures of the 10-year-old boy. Minutes later, Eason suggested they meet in person. She and Randy, she told Mueller, were willing to drive to Wisconsin that very day. Mueller agreed.
That afternoon, in the hotel parking lot off U.S. Highway 41, Mueller met Eason and Winslow for the first and only time.
Before the couple drove off with the boy, Mueller took a picture of the new family. The snapshot shows a small, lean child between the smiling pair. Winslow, wearing sunglasses, has his arm around the boy.
"I was a little concerned about Randy," Mueller recalls today. "He never said anything. He spent time with (the boy) and played with him but didn't interact with me.... But as long as they were on the up-and-up I was OK with them taking him. It was like, get him out of here.
"In hindsight, it was all wrong. I shouldn't have done it that way," she says. "But I did, you know."
Several months passed before the boy's caseworker in Wisconsin learned that Mueller had given the child to a couple in Illinois. Mueller says the caseworker insisted she take the the boy back. He told her that the transfer violated a legal requirement that authorities be notified when custody is transferred across state lines.
The caseworker "said I could be arrested," Mueller says. "It scared the bejesus out of me."
Mueller called Nicole Eason, who promised to meet her at the state line to give her the boy back. But on the day they arranged to meet, Mueller says, Eason didn't show. Today, Mueller says she cannot remember how the boy got back to her Appleton home. But she says neither Wisconsin nor Illinois authorities took action against her, Eason or Winslow for transferring custody illegally.
When the boy returned to Wisconsin in late 2006, he mentioned that he spent most of his time with Winslow, not with Nicole. "She left," he told Mueller. "I was there with Randy," Mueller recalls him saying.
As Mueller began searching online for another family to take him, Eason and Winslow also were back online, again looking for children.
While Eason worked the re-homing bulletin boards, Winslow spent time in a chat room called baby&toddlerlove. That's where an undercover federal agent named Kevin Laws found him in April 2007.
Laws, who works in the child exploitation investigative unit at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, posed as a single grandfather living in Alaska. He told Winslow he was caring for his two grandchildren, kids he said he would let Winslow molest.
In his messages to Laws, court records show, Winslow shared child pornography and claimed to have experience "sucking boys" who were 7, 9 and 11 years old.
"Its all fun man no matter their age," Winslow wrote in a chat. Winslow told Laws he would come to Alaska and work as the man's housekeeper; in exchange, Winslow would have access to the children. Their chat went this way:
<!-- CHAT -->
Lovethemcute: its a shame they have to feel guilty or schools tell them its wrong
Laws, working undercover: yea but what are you going to do
Lovethemcute: I agree its wrong to abuse a child but we don't abuse them there is a difference
Lovethemcute: just have to raise them to think its fine and not to tell anyone
Lovethemcute: what is done in the family stays in the family
A 'FUN BOY'
When authorities searched Winslow's home and took his computer, the warrant allowed them to look only for items related to the sending and receiving of child-exploitation images and the chats and emails between Winslow and the undercover agent. Nicole Eason was no longer living with Winslow.
Not until he was contacted for this story did Laws, an agent who specializes in protecting children, learn about the Internet groups that facilitate private re-homing. At the time he caught Winslow, Laws says, authorities didn't know to look for anything beyond what was in the chats.
After a reporter told Laws about the 10-year-old whom Winslow and Eason had taken in, the agent re-examined his exchanges with Winslow. Among the items Laws discovered was a photo of the boy, clothed.
Reading from a transcript that wasn't made public as part of the criminal case, Laws says Winslow also described the 10-year-old. Winslow called him a "fun boy" whom he and his ex-girlfriend planned to adopt.
In February 2008, Winslow pleaded guilty in his criminal case and was convicted of sending and receiving child pornography from June 2006 through May 2007. The span includes the months that the 10-year-old spent with Winslow and Eason. Serving a 20-year sentence at a federal prison in Elkton, Ohio, Winslow declined requests for an interview.
After returning to Wisconsin, Mueller sent the child to another home after getting approval from child welfare officials.
The boy turned 18 a few days ago. In an interview, his new foster mother said he is one of 10 children with special needs that she and her husband are raising. She said he is often combative and uncommunicative. He once asked if he could attend a school for troubled children, she said, but she and her husband insist on home-schooling him and don't believe in therapy for children. The couple declined to make the boy available for an interview.
Asked recently whether she knew that Winslow is in prison for trading child pornography, Nicole replied "nope" and said she knew Winslow "for like a couple weeks." She also disputed that Winslow traveled with her to pick up the boy, despite the photographic evidence to the contrary.
In emails that Nicole Eason and Mueller exchanged shortly after the handover, Eason wrote that the boy and Winslow "are perfect together… both playful kids which is what (the boy) needs."
In an earlier interview, Nicole Eason didn't mention Winslow but did refer to the child as "our sex boy." He often behaved perversely, she said: "He would try to walk around butt-naked."
When the boy misbehaved, she said, she had "no problems spanking an ass." Once, she said, she hit him when he insulted a customer at a Walmart.
"As weird as this sounds, I just unnaturally reacted and backhand him in his mouth," Eason said. "You know, busted his lip with his tooth and, you know, he started crying."
By early 2007, the boy had gone, and Nicole and Winslow had parted. She was again living with Calvin. And again, she had connected with two sets of parents who didn't want their children, a Russian boy and an American girl whom the Easons would take.
Big Momma also was becoming a bigger presence in the Internet re-homing forums. Soon, a woman who moderated one of the bulletin boards grew concerned about Nicole – so much so that she drove through the night to the Eason home. She was there to try to take the boy and girl away from them.
(Additional reporting by Ryan McNeill and Robin Respaut in New York)