With blind trust and good intentions, amateurs broker children online
With blind trust and good intentions, amateurs broker children online
By Megan Twohey
Filed September 10, 2013
[part 3 of a 5 article series here The Child Exchange: Inside America's Underground Market for Adopted Children ]
GO-BETWEEN: Megan Exon moderated a re-homing bulletin board from her home in North Carolina. She came to regret introducing two sets of parents to the Easons. "I felt like we were participating in something that was getting out of hand." REUTERS/John Adkisson
Part 3: A woman thought she was helping find better homes for unwanted adoptees. Duped by one couple, she tries to rescue a Russian boy and an 8-year-old girl.
HICKORY, North Carolina – When Megan Exon began moderating an Internet bulletin board in 2007, she viewed her effort as a way to help kids find better homes.
The group was called adoption_disruption, and it drew parents who were struggling to raise children they had adopted.
The North Carolina woman wasn't a licensed social worker or an adoption specialist. She was a 41-year-old mother who had taken in a child herself less than two years before. Her husband had noticed a Taiwanese boy advertised on the Internet, in one of the online forums that support America's underground market for unwanted adopted children.
The parents who were giving up the boy told Exon that the 4-year-old's feet were too big and his ears looked funny. If parents could discard their adopted kids so callously, she reasoned, maybe she could help children find new families by moderating one of the Internet sites.
"We were just introducing people," Exon says of the online group, where parents sought new homes for unwanted children in a practice known as "private re-homing."
"The only thing we facilitated," she says, "was bringing people together."
Well-intentioned as that seemed, Exon would come to regret her role in the re-homing network, a collection of Internet forums where people seeking children can find one quickly. They are able to do so without involving the government and sometimes with the help of middlemen whose activities can be naïve, reckless or illegal, a Reuters investigation has found.
Exon grew alarmed on April 5, 2007, when she took a phone call from Lynne Banks, a woman in South Dakota who followed the activity on the online adoption boards. Banks warned of an Illinois couple using the Internet to obtain children. The woman sometimes called herself Big Momma. Her real name was Nicole Eason.
In her conversation with Exon, Banks said she believed that Eason and her husband, Calvin, were lying about being approved by the government to take in children. While surfing the Internet, Banks also came to suspect that a man who'd been living with Nicole was possibly a sex offender.
Exon knew of the Easons. They already had sought children on the Internet group. She had introduced them to two families. One lived in California. They had recently sent their daughter, an American-born girl who was about to turn 8, to live with the Easons. The other had sent them a teenager, Dmitri, a boy who had been adopted in Russia.
"I was absolutely stunned," Exon recalls. She also was terrified.
"I felt like we were participating in something that was getting out of hand," she says today. "We weren't doing background checks. We didn't have any way of knowing who these people were.… I felt sick to my stomach."
Even then, Exon had no idea what sort of parents the Easons had been: Child welfare officials had taken away Nicole Eason's two biological children, a son and a daughter, years earlier. A report by authorities who removed the Easons' newborn son characterized them as having "severe psychiatric problems" and "violent tendencies." And the man Banks had mentioned – the one who had been living with Nicole – had been trading pictures of naked children online.
After she got off the phone with Banks, Exon felt she had to act fast. That night, she and a friend would pack their children into a van and drive about 650 miles northwest, to a baby-blue cinderblock house that the Easons rented in Danville, Illinois.
"Oh my God," she told the friend, "we've got to get those kids."
'THE WAY THE INTERNET IS'
For prospective parents, the draw of re-homing is obvious: They can bypass some of the most basic but time-consuming government safeguards meant to protect children.
To legally take custody of a child through the U.S. foster care system, prospective parents undergo criminal background checks, home inspections, and in most states, dozens of hours of training. After placement, social workers visit the family regularly to ensure the child is safe. In many private re-homings, none of that happens.
The online bulletin boards have emerged as a do-it-yourself way for parents to quietly end adoptions. The groups not only attract parents but also appeal to do-gooders like Exon who delight in the chance to help find needy children better homes.
On one bulletin board, Adopting-from-Disruption, Reuters found dozens of advertisements for children that appear to be posted by middlemen. Few were licensed child welfare workers. Some had taken in or re-homed children themselves. Yahoo took down the group after Reuters told it what was going on there. The company also took down five other groups that Reuters brought to its attention.
One relatively new re-homing group is a Facebook page called Way Stations of Love. It was founded last year by Tim Stowell, a 60-year-old father of four adopted children who works at a Tennessee boarding school for boys. Facebook says activity on the page is "a reflection of society."
Stowell says Way Stations serves a dual purpose: to support distressed parents to avert re-homings, and to help find new families for children if necessary. "Every time a child moves from home to home," Stowell says, "it puts a dent into their psychological well-being."
A 9-year-old Liberian girl was passed among four families in a year through the Yahoo bulletin board Adopting-from-Disruption.
Today, the group has about 275 members. Its Facebook classification is "secret," meaning only members can see it; others need Stowell's permission to join. He says he also keeps a private list of people willing to take in children from failed adoptions. But like most go-betweens, Stowell says he leaves the vetting of prospective parents to families offering a child.
In some cases, he says, parents meet on the site and exchange private emails to arrange custody transfers. "And then I never know what happens to them," Stowell says of the children. "Some people want the children as far away from them as possible."
On Way Stations of Love, intermediaries regularly offer assistance. "Posting for a friend," a North Carolina woman wrote in June. "8 Year old Guatemalan female Resides in North Carolina with her family Adopted at 8 months into current family…"
Many advertisements for unwanted children skirt a patchwork of state laws that define who can place children and how. In some form, 29 U.S. states have laws that govern how children can be advertised for adoption. In many of those states, those helping to arrange an adoption must be licensed to do so.
In Tennessee, no law prevents Stowell from advertising children for adoption, or from helping parents find available children. But Stowell says he isn't certain whether other middlemen who facilitate such transfers online are breaking the law. "They may be," he says. "I don't know that state laws have kept up with the way the Internet is. I'm hoping that people will obey the laws of their different states, whatever they may be."
Idaho is a state that does restrict who can advertise adoptions. There, a statute prohibits those without a state license from advertising children for adoption or from conveying "the ability to place, locate, dispose or receive a child or children for adoption."
One online roster of available children is kept by an Idaho-based non-profit organization named Christian Homes and Special Kids, or CHASK. The group has been helping match children with new parents for almost a decade. It has no state license or contract.
"We're just trying to help families," says Tom Bushnell, a lawyer who founded the group with his wife, Sherry.
Most of the children listed by the group for re-homing come from failed international adoptions, and a disclaimer on its website reads: "CHASK should be considered a 'last resort' avenue for finding a new adoptive home for a previously adopted child."
Initially, regulators were unfamiliar with CHASK. After Reuters inquired more recently about the organization, a spokesman with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said late last month that the state attorney general began a review. At issue: "the scope of CHASK's activities and if they are complying with Idaho law," the spokesman said.
Tom Bushnell says CHASK isn't violating Idaho's law on advertising children for adoption, in part because the computer server the group uses is located in another state.
THE LITTLE GIRL
When Exon became a moderator of adoption_disruption, the re-homing group on Yahoo, she was essentially its gatekeeper. Moderators review prospective members and are often the first to see ads for unwanted children. They can orchestrate connections between participants and control the group's settings, including whether to make messages public or private.
Exon says she just wanted to help improve children's lives. She had helped run summer camps and afterschool programs while working for a school board in Florida. Moderating the group seemed like another opportunity to serve.
In 2007, Exon came across Nicole Eason for the first time. Eason's posts in the re-homing group seemed sincere. Nicole explained that she and her husband had taken in children through the U.S. foster care system, Exon recalls. Eason also wrote that Illinois officials had confirmed that they were suitable parents.
Like moderators on other re-homing sites, Exon didn't see vetting prospective parents as her responsibility. After initial connections were made on her bulletin board, it was up to the two families to do due diligence.
"We always reminded people, 'Get an attorney,'" Exon says. "And obviously people didn't always do that."
She and Nicole Eason spoke on the phone a few times, and she says she could tell the Easons badly wanted children. Exon understood that passion to parent; she also saw many adults on the bulletin board who wanted to get rid of kids.
One was the California couple who turned to adoption_disruption in early 2007. The parents were eager to find a new home for their adopted daughter. Exon suggested they connect with Eason.
"I can tell you for a fact that I was the one who introduced them," she says today.
For Nicole Eason, acquiring the girl was easy. "I seen three pictures of her, talked to her on the phone twice, and spent an hour with her before she was all mine," she said in an interview.
CRAZY DAY: Dmitri, now 20, recalls the day Megan Exon showed up at the Eason place. He had no idea who she was but went with her anyway. "I knew I wanted to leave but … it was really crazy." REUTERS/Tami Chappell
Adoption_disruption was also where Eason connected with William and Victoria Stewart, an American couple living in Scotland. The Stewarts were looking to re-home Dmitri, a 14-year-old they'd adopted from Russia 11 years earlier.
Dmitri, now 20, says his relationship with his adoptive parents had broken down after the Stewarts had three children of their own. He recalls he was constantly getting in trouble. William Stewart says Dmitri was emotionally detached and would grow enraged easily.
The family had moved to Scotland from Florida, Stewart says, to avoid child protective officials there who had investigated him and his wife for allegedly abusing Dmitri. They weren't charged, but the experience made them reluctant to reach out to government social services after concluding they could no longer raise Dmitri. Stewart says he stumbled upon the adoption_disruption Yahoo group while surfing the Internet.
Of the bulletin board, Stewart now says this: "There was some crazy stuff going on. People weren't who they said."
Stewart had never reviewed any records attesting to the suitability of the Easons when he flew to Illinois in March 2007 to drop Dmitri with the couple. He says Exon was the "total middle person" in the transfer, and he was relying on her recommendation.
NO DOOR: Dmitri Stewart, then 14, smoking at the Eason home. The couple bought him cigarettes, he says today, and his bedroom had no door. "I like to watch you sleep," he says Nicole told him. REUTERS/Handout
The 8-year-old girl from California was already there, recalls Dmitri. (The girl's name is being withheld because she is a minor.)
The house in Danville didn't resemble the description in a "home study" that Nicole once posted online: "The home is tastefully furnished," the document reads, "and housekeeping standards are good."
"It was really decrepit," Stewart says, adding that he "was really torn" about leaving Dmitri there.
As Dmitri recalls, the rented cinderblock house had almost no furniture and the sink was piled with dirty dishes.
Strangely, none of the bedrooms had doors. Dmitri asked Nicole why. "I like to watch you sleep," Dmitri says she told him. Her answer, he says, made him feel "really weird."
Dmitri had no idea how long the 8-year-old girl, with shaggy brown hair and a wide smile, had been living there. He didn't know where she had come from, either. He says that she slept in the Easons' bed.
The Easons never made him go to school, he says, so he sat home and smoked cigarettes they gave him. A picture taken in Danville shows Dmitri perched on the front steps of the house, a cigarette and a water bottle in his left hand. He wears a striped soccer jersey, dark pants and a blank expression.
In an interview, Nicole Eason took issue with Dmitri's account. She said his bedroom had an accordion-style door, that she never bought him cigarettes, and that the girl living there never shared the Easons' bed.
On April 5, 2007 – a few weeks after Dmitri was dropped there – a police officer knocked on the Easons' door. Lynne Banks, the woman who contacted Exon about the Easons, had called authorities.
Browsing the Internet groups, Banks came across posts from Nicole Eason. They didn't add up, Banks thought: Eason referred to children she didn't have and others who she claimed had died.
Banks says she began reaching out to parents who'd been contacted by Eason. Later, she came across the home study Nicole circulated. As far as she could tell, the Easons had simply typed information into a sample document that was posted on the Internet. She also found that a man named Randy, who had posted a profile on an adult sex site, may have taken a child with Nicole. (That man, Randy Winslow, was later convicted of trading child pornography.)
"Red flags were popping up," Banks recalls. She reached out to Exon to relate what she had found. Then, Banks called the Danville Police.
The officer who visited the house spoke briefly to the children, and "both indicated that there were no inappropriate contacts or abuses," the police report says. The Easons also produced "Authorization of Legal Guardianship of Minor" documents for both children, and insisted they were treating the kids well.
The police took no further action. Exon did.
'YOU'RE NOT SAFE HERE'
Exon says that after talking to Banks, she couldn't stop worrying about Dmitri and the girl. She reached out to both sets of parents, and says they gave her permission to retrieve the children.
Within hours, Exon was heading to Illinois. Behind the wheel of the red van was a friend Exon had met through the Yahoo group who had recently taken in two children through re-homing. The two brought their children along on the 10-hour drive.
Before leaving, Exon got Nicole Eason on the phone and announced she was coming for Dmitri and the girl. Nicole seemed willing to turn them over, Exon says.
Still, as Exon arrived at the small house the next morning, she didn't know what to expect. She had never met the Easons, not in person.
Exon knocked on the door. A burly man answered. At around 6-foot-2 (1.9 meters), Calvin Eason stood more than a foot (30 cm) taller than she did.
Behind him, Exon saw a young girl with greasy hair and filthy clothes, and a teenage boy with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Something – a mouse? – lay on the floor. It was covered in bugs, she remembers. Nicole wasn't around.
Exon composed herself. She was here for the girl, she told Calvin Eason.
Then she turned to Dmitri. "You're coming, too," she said. "You're not safe here."
Neither child had seen her before.
"You're on private property," Eason recalls telling her. "I'm gonna have to ask you to leave."
"Well, I'm not leaving without her," she replied, Eason says. "I'll have the authorities come here and escort her out."
Calvin relented, and Exon says he told the children to grab their belongings. Dmitri was reluctant to go. He didn't know this woman or what she wanted with them.
"It was all very sudden," Dmitri recalls. "I knew I wanted to leave but … it was really crazy."
Exon thought fast and remembered something Dmitri's adoptive father had told her. She promised to buy the boy a hamburger if he came along. It worked.
Just before Exon left, Calvin tried to get her to take a puppy he and Nicole had gotten for the girl, a pit bull that the 8-year-old named Cinderella. Exon refused.
None of these custody transfers were valid – not the Easons taking in the children, or Exon and her friend keeping the kids without involving state officials. Each step violated the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, which requires authorities to sign off when custody of a child is transferred across state lines.
In the weeks after Exon picked up the children, the Stewarts and the 8-year-old's parents made clear they didn't want their kids back. Exon's friend from the Yahoo group took Dmitri to her home in Georgia and cared for him for a short time, before handing him over to the Georgia child welfare system.
Dmitri was placed in a government-approved foster home. William Stewart says today he and his wife were allowed to disown Dmitri after agreeing to pay for the boy's care until he turned 18. Dmitri left the foster home this year. He still uses the last name Stewart.
As for the 8-year-old girl, Exon couldn't give her up. She has since gone to court to legally adopt the girl, and says the adoption is almost final.
Exon says she stopped moderating the re-homing bulletin board immediately. "After what happened with the Easons, I felt like maybe we were doing something wrong," she says. "I didn't want to be a part of it anymore."
The Easons became more involved. Within months of Dmitri and the girl leaving, Nicole Eason established her own re-homing group on Yahoo. She called it abig_hug_needed. Instead of Big Momma, she now took the screen name momma_bear2000.
"Did You ever imagine this day would come, where you have no other choice but to disrupt the adoption you longed for," Eason wrote. "This group is for support, resourses or just plain chat. Tell your experiences, Post a message looking for a new home for your special child or Ask a question about disruption. We learn by sharing of thoughts, experiences, and our feelings."
A few weeks later, two new girls would pass through the Eason household. Both had been born overseas. Both had been advertised on an Internet bulletin board.
By 2009, the Easons would also take custody of a 5-year-old boy born in Guatemala. This time, the boy's adoptive father wasn't simply a distraught parent looking to end an adoption.
He was a cop.
(Additional reporting by Ryan McNeill, Robin Respaut and Blake Morrison in New York)
Next, Part 4 - The Failures: ‘It could have been Hannibal Lecter’
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