Despite ‘grave danger,’ government allows Internet forums to go unchecked
Despite ‘grave danger,’ government allows Internet forums to go unchecked
By Megan Twohey
Filed September 10, 2013
[part 4 of a 5 article series here The Child Exchange: Inside America's Underground Market for Adopted Children ]
TENSE NIGHT: Anna Barnes was 13 when her parents gave her to the Easons. "Please don't send me," she recalls saying. Now 18, she says she was made to share a bed with Calvin and Nicole Eason. REUTERS/Richard Rodriguez
Part 4: Parents bypass weak laws and authorities don’t enforce them. A police officer gives away his adopted son. ‘It could have been Hannibal Lecter.’
TUCSON, Arizona – Tom and Misty Mealey brimmed with hope as a battered purple pickup pulled up to their Virginia home.
It was July 5, 2009, and their houseguests had arrived – a husband and wife who had driven from upstate New York to the Mealey residence just outside of Roanoke.
Until that day, the Mealeys hadn't met Calvin Eason, then 40, or his wife Nicole, 30. Both were "shabbily dressed," and they didn't immediately impress, Misty Mealey recalls. Still, if all went well, the Mealeys were prepared to give the Easons one of their children: a 5-year-old boy they had adopted from Guatemala months earlier.
The boy suffered from a condition called reactive attachment disorder, which makes bonding with caretakers difficult. He had grown increasingly violent, breaking windows, hitting the Mealeys' three other children and urinating on their toys. At night, the Mealeys locked him in his room to keep their family safe.
After months of therapy and other attempts to get help, the Mealeys did what distressed parents across America continue to do: They began advertising their unwanted adopted child online.
The Easons responded quickly, stressing in emails and phone calls that they would be excellent parents. Then they drove more than 600 miles to make their case to the Mealeys in person.
The Easons shared meals and went bowling with the family. They also seemed to bond with the 5-year-old. He crawled on their laps and they played with him. He even "spontaneously started calling them Mom and Dad," Misty says today.
"They seemed very comfortable around children," she recalls.
Before week's end, the Mealeys were convinced, and Calvin and Nicole Eason headed back to New York with the 5-year-old.
Like others who find new parents for their child on the Internet, the Mealeys had been distraught. They, too, didn't involve child welfare authorities in the custody transfer, and they knew little about the parents taking their child.
For all their similarities to previous parents who gave children to the Easons, the Mealeys were unique. Tom Mealey was trained to spot deception.
He was a police officer.
The story of how the Easons acquired boys and girls through the Internet exposes almost every way in which authorities fail to crack down on those who use America's underground child exchange, a Reuters investigation has found.
Without involving government officials, parents transfer unwanted children – often foreign adoptees – to virtual strangers they meet online. No law explicitly covers the practice, a type of "private re-homing." The primary safeguard that does exist is a feeble deterrent – an agreement between U.S. states called the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC).
Although the ICPC has been adopted as law by each state, some states attach no penalties to violations of the pact. In others, violations are considered misdemeanors, but even then officials almost never prosecute offenders. Many police are unfamiliar with the ICPC. Authorities who do understand the compact say they are focused on helping children rather than enforcing the law.
"Speaking honestly, we wouldn't be that concerned about the penalty for the person who violated the compact," says Harry Gilmore, deputy administrator of the ICPC in Oregon. There, a violation is a misdemeanor.
For parents who know about the compact but choose to ignore it, any legal risk is outweighed by the need to remove a troublesome child. When the underground network is used, a transfer will likely go unnoticed by authorities, minimizing the chance of getting caught. The only people vetting a child's new family are the adoptive parents themselves – the very people looking to get rid of the boy or girl.
Two families who gave their children to the Easons – the Mealeys of Virginia and Gary and Lisa Barnes of Texas – came to realize the dangers of handling such transfers themselves.
"It's horribly embarrassing," Tom Mealey says of being misled by the Easons. "The thought that I spent a career dealing with people like this is even more embarrassing. I wish we had done more."
"We're thankful that it was just the Easons," he adds. "It could've been Hannibal Lecter."
'A USED CAR'
In August 2008, almost a year before taking the Mealey boy, the Easons found a new child online to join their household. Anna Barnes was 13. She had already been re-homed once since she was adopted in Russia and brought to the United States at age 7.
THE WARNING: Gary and Lisa Barnes learned troubling facts soon after giving Anna to the Easons. REUTERS/Richard Rodriguez
Her second set of American parents, the Barneses of Tolar, Texas, had come to regret adopting Anna. They had talked with her original adoptive parents before taking custody. But the Barneses quickly suspected that they hadn't been told enough about the emotional and behavioral problems Anna brought to America.
"This is a bad analogy, but it's sort of like selling a used car," Gary Barnes says of why he and his wife weren't told more. "If you tell someone it breaks down every day, nobody's going to buy it."
The Barneses, who breed miniature horses for a living, found Anna to be defiant. Counseling proved too expensive and inconvenient. A home for troubled kids told them she wasn't a good fit for its program. If they turned Anna over to the state of Texas, the Barneses say they were told, they would be considered unfit parents and have to pay child support until she turned 18.
"We spent the first year trying to help the child and fix the problem," Gary says. "Then a light comes on and you realize you can't fix the problem, that you need to get away from the problem."
The Barneses wrote an ad about Anna and posted it online, in a Yahoo forum called Respite-Rehoming.
Nicole Eason, who was going by the name Momma Bear online, replied. In emails with the Barneses, she pledged that she and her husband were prepared to care for Anna.
"We will love her no matter what mistakes she makes in life," Momma Bear assured the Barneses. She promised to buy Anna her favorite candy – Heath bars – and give her a puppy, an inducement the Easons had used before and would use again.
"I gotta tell you, you're hitting a home run with everything that you're offering up to her," Lisa Barnes replied. The "puppy thing was a good idea… It will give her something to focus on instead of thinking all bad or 'poor me' thoughts."
To help clinch the deal, Nicole shared a fictitious "home study" she created. In it, a social worker purportedly vouched for the Easons' parenting skills.
It was September 2008. The Easons, then living in Westville, Illinois, headed south to collect Anna. They flew some 900 miles and drove to the Barnes's farm in Tolar, population 700.
As the five of them ate dinner at a local chain restaurant, Anna studied the Easons. They made her nervous.
"I couldn't stop (crying).… I just kept telling them, 'Please don't send me to them. Please, I'm begging you. I will get down on my knees,'" Anna, now 18, recalls of the handover.
When the Barneses sent Anna home with the Easons, no lawyers or government authorities were involved. No one carefully checked out the Easons or the home study they presented.
The Barneses and the Easons also didn't inform child welfare officials that Anna was being sent from Texas to Illinois. That failure to involve authorities is a violation of the ICPC. Texas considers violations a misdemeanor. So does Illinois, although an official there says the state hasn't prosecuted anyone for breaking the law for at least 15 years. The Barneses say they had never heard of the requirement.
In an email to Nicole shortly after the handover, Lisa wrote of the day they gave their daughter to the Easons: "When we left Gary said 'what do we do' … I said 'get in the car and go' and don't look back."
Lisa added: "I hope she's okay."
When Anna arrived at the Eason place, she says, puddles of urine and piles of feces spotted the floor; two puppies had been left alone in the trailer. Anna says the Easons showed her pictures of a young boy and girl who they said had once lived with them. She asked what became of them.
ON THE MOVE: The Easons moved out of this home in Arizona recently; the property manager says he found five dogs inside. REUTERS/Megan Twohey
"Their answer to my question was, 'Sometimes kids just die, and they both had died,'" Anna recalls. Nicole says she doesn't remember which children she showed Anna that day.
When Nicole encouraged Anna to pick out a movie, Anna says she found pornographic films when she opened a cabinet. Nicole says there was no pornography in the house.
Anna realized she had no bed of her own. The first night, she slept next to a naked Nicole, she recalls. The next morning, she says, Nicole asked Anna if she had felt Nicole kissing her during the night.
She later was expected to sleep between Calvin and Nicole, Anna says."I was sandwiched in there, and I stayed there for about a total of 2 minutes, 47 seconds, and decided that it was getting weird," she recalls. She says she quickly left their room and slept on the couch.
Calvin and Nicole say they have never shared their bed with any children they took through re-homing. Nicole also says she never sleeps nude.
Anna's heart lifted the next day at school when she saw a man with a cowboy hat in the hall. It was Gary Barnes, the adoptive father who had given her to the Easons a few days before.
The previous day, Barnes says he had been contacted by a former friend of Nicole's. The woman thought Nicole may have responded to the ad for Anna. She believed the Easons' home study was fabricated, Barnes says, and that authorities had removed at least one re-homed child from their custody. Barnes says the woman told him she was worried for Anna's safety.
Now, Barnes was, too. He flew to Illinois and headed to the school Anna was to attend in Westville. To his relief, she was there.
Barnes recalls talking with school administrators, then to local police. He explained that he had come to retrieve his adopted daughter after learning the Easons had lied, law enforcement and child welfare records show.
When he and Anna returned to Tolar, Barnes filed a complaint about the Easons with the Texas Attorney General's office.
The attorney general also heard from Lynne Banks, an adoptive mother in South Dakota who monitored the online re-homing groups and had grown concerned about the Easons.
In a Sept. 10, 2008, email to the Texas Attorney General's office, Banks reported that the Easons had already succeeded in taking four children.
"Nicole seems to be in the practice of luring in adoptive parents who are looking to disrupt their adoptions and taking their children by using false documentation," Banks wrote. "She is literally scamming them."
Despite the involvement of authorities in Illinois and the warnings to authorities in Texas, the states took no steps that prevented the Easons from taking other children.
THE VALLEY VIEW
In October 2008, less than a month after Gary Barnes reclaimed Anna, the Easons obtained another child online, Quita, born in Liberia. As detailed in Part One of this series, authorities eventually retrieved the girl in Stephentown, New York. Once again, no one took action against the Easons or the other parents.
The Easons later moved into a studio with a kitchenette at the Valley View Apartments in Stephentown. In early 2009, a 23-year-old disabled man named Elmer Huntoon was living with the couple.
On April 25, 2009, Huntoon went fishing in a pond near the Valley View, according to a state police report. It cites the Easons and other witnesses explaining that Calvin found Huntoon lying face down in the water. Huntoon's drowning was ruled accidental. Nicole, the report says, had tried to resuscitate him.
Months later, in July 2009, a relative of the dead man called New York State Police, investigator Timothy Northrup recalls. A child was now living with the Easons at the Valley View Apartments, the caller reported.
The child was the 5-year-old Guatemalan boy, who had been given to the Easons by Tom and Misty Mealey.
The Mealeys had adopted the boy in December 2008. He proved to be troubled, and the Mealeys say their therapist told them the boy would get worse before he got better. When they reached out to social service agencies to seek a new home, they say they got no help: Unless they were abusing or neglecting the child, the government wouldn't take him in.
In April or May 2009, the Mealeys advertised their unwanted child on a Yahoo group, Respite-Rehoming, the same group where Gary and Lisa Barnes had listed Anna. Nicole Eason quickly replied.
PARTNER: Calvin Eason and wife Nicole persuaded a policeman to give them his 5-year-old. "We would be happy to accept him into our lives," Calvin wrote. REUTERS/Blake Morrison
She explained to the Mealeys that she and Calvin were childless. After several miscarriages, they were now trying to adopt.
"We have decided that if you chose us as a family we would be happy to accept him into our lives," Calvin wrote in an email to the Mealeys.
Tom Mealey says he would have been breaking the law if he used police resources to check out the Easons. He also says the Easons' home study looked authentic. The therapist who had been treating the 5-year-old scrutinized the document and talked with both Nicole and Calvin Eason by phone, Tom Mealey says. The therapist, he says, "thought this would work."
"If she couldn't see through their deception," Mealey says now, "how were we supposed to see through it?"
There were reasons to question the document. First, the address listed for the social worker who purportedly did the home study is a post-office box that corresponds to a P.O. box listed under the name of Nicole's biological daughter, who was taken away from the Easons in 2000. The P.O. box surfaces in a basic Internet search.
Second, Illinois had no record of the social worker, Sharon Smalls. But South Carolina did. A sheriff's report indicates that a South Carolina child protection worker by that name had visited the Easons' home in 2002 – not to attest to their parenting skills but to take away their infant son.
The pattern was familiar: Neither the Easons nor the Mealeys informed child welfare officials in New York or Virginia of the custody transfer.
The Mealeys say they engaged an attorney to ensure they did nothing illegal. In crafting a document that stated they were giving their adopted son to the Easons, the attorney advised framing the transfer as temporary "therapeutic placement," and Tom Mealey says "that's what kept us out of trouble with ICPC."
The deal the Mealeys struck with the Easons began to unravel just four days after the Guatemalan boy changed hands. New York State Police responded to the call they received from the relative of Huntoon, the 23-year-old drowning victim. Authorities visited their room at the Valley View Apartments and took the boy into state custody.
This time, New York social services officials did take action. In a child protective petition filed in civil court, they accused the Mealeys of neglect. Officials alleged the couple had placed the boy "at imminent risk" by giving him to the Easons, citing the fact that Nicole Eason's own biological son and daughter had been permanently removed from their care.
Nicole told investigators that she was looking to take in yet another child. "Ms. Eason stated that she is currently speaking to another family that she met over the Internet and may be providing respite services to a 'sexually aggressive 14 year old girl,'" court records note.
Ultimately, the Mealeys settled the case. The neglect petition was withdrawn, and they gave up their parental rights so the Guatemalan boy could be adopted by a family approved by the government. The Mealeys say they don't know what became of the boy. "We hope he's healing and getting what he needs," Tom Mealey says.
New York authorities, they believed, were also pursuing legal action against the Easons. "We were told they were being investigated," Tom Mealey says.
New York considers it a misdemeanor to transfer custody of a child across state lines without government involvement. The law applies to the parents on both sides of the transaction. The Easons were not charged.
State Police investigator Northrup says he was unaware of the law governing interstate child transfers until being contacted for this article. He says he grew frustrated by his inability to rein in the Easons. The experience left him with grave concerns about what could happen to children whose custody is transferred without the government's knowledge.
"You're going to have kids re-homed to pedophiles who will hold them down there in some cell," Northrup says. "You're opening these kids to human trafficking, sex trafficking and sex slavery."
ADOPTION WORLD: The Easons say they've never abused children they took in. "You want to know what's wrong (in) the adoption world?" Nicole asked. "You get lied to." REUTERS/HANDOUT/NBC News
In February 2011, the Easons left New York. They rented a Ford Focus and drove to Florida. Later that year, they moved to Tucson, Arizona. There, Calvin Eason was convicted of stealing the rental car and sentenced to three years of probation.
As part of the car-theft court proceedings, Calvin was required to fill out a form listing his dependents. On the document, dated December 2011, he listed two children by name: a 9-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son.
When Reuters visited the Eason home in May, there was no sign of the boy or girl. Nicole was driving a cab; Calvin was working the graveyard shift as a janitor for a local grocer. They had just moved into the house.
In interviews, the Easons discussed the children they had taken through re-homing. Nicole recited their names and talked about how much it means to be a parent. "It makes me feel important," she explained. "I guess maybe that's my psychological problem, you know.… It's like, what would I be without them?"
More than most people - and certainly more than the U.S. government - the Easons understand the risks of the Internet child exchange: how children can be handed over without any oversight, and how easy it is for parents to deceive and be deceived.
"You want to know what's wrong (in) the adoption world?" Nicole asked. "You don't get information. You get lied to."
In August, the Easons moved out of the house after failing to pay rent for two months; when the property manager went inside, he says he found five dogs there.
The Easons were staying a few miles away, at a Fairfield Inn. Outside the hotel, Nicole was asked if the couple would be taking in other children.
"Yes," she said. "I have kids in my room."
Where are they now?
The six children Nicole Eason obtained through the underground network:
• The 10-year-old boy Nicole and sex offender Randy Winslow took in a hotel parking lot is living with a family in Washington state. He just turned 18. He continues to have behavioral problems, his foster mother says.
• The 8-year-old girl whom bulletin-board moderator Megan Exon took from the Easons now lives with Exon and her husband in North Carolina; she's 14 and in the 8th grade. The Exons are about to legally adopt her.
• Dmitri Stewart, the Russian adoptee, is now 20. He graduated from high school and is living with a friend in Georgia. He says he recently got out of treatment for substance abuse.
• Anna Barnes, 18, recently graduated from high school. She was admitted to Texas Tech University but doesn't think she can afford to attend. She stays with friends and is looking for a place to live.
• Quita Puchalla, 21, also is without a place of her own. She lost her apartment outside Milwaukee this summer and is now in temporary housing. She is enrolled at the Milwaukee Area Technical College, where she plans to study social work.
• The 5-year-old Guatemalan boy the Easons took from Tom and Misty Mealey was made a ward of New York state. He's now 9.
(Additional reporting by Ryan McNeill, Robin Respaut and Blake Morrison in New York)