Area women exposes baby scam
February 22, 2007 12:35am
BY EDIE GROSS
Hope for Jen Sumner came in the form of a classified ad on a Web site for families hoping to adopt.
The woman in the ad, who called herself Shawnie, said she lived in Wisconsin and was pregnant with a girl. She wanted to place the child in a loving home.
"I answered her ad," said Sumner, a single Stafford County woman who had just undergone a hysterectomy. "That's how the ball started rolling."
By the time everything fell apart five months later, Sumner had already decorated the nursery and picked out a name for her daughter: Addison Grace, after both of her grandmothers.
She wasn't the only one who'd done that.
At least 10 families have come forward claiming the same Wisconsin woman conned them into believing they had been chosen to adopt her unborn child.
Some of them sent her money or gifts to cover bills and medical expenses during the pregnancy.
Others, like Sumner, simply maintained a long contact over phone and e-mail, insisting that money change hands only through attorneys.
In the end, the result was the same: There was no baby.
A spokesman with the FBI's field office in Green Bay, Wis., confirmed that his agency is investigating the 30-year-old woman. The Free Lance-Star is not naming her because no charges have been filed.
Sumner and two other women who say they were promised babies by the woman will appear on the "Dr. Phil Show" today and tomorrow to discuss their ordeal and confront her.
"She had a different story for every family she scammed," Sumner said. "I don't know how she kept it all straight. I couldn't have done it."
'An evil, horrible thing'
Sumner first contacted the woman in August 2003. Looking back, she said, there were red flags.
"Shawnie" was only two months along at the time she placed the ad, yet she already knew she was having a girl.
When Sumner questioned her about that, the woman said she'd had an early amniocentesis because the birth father had a history of cystic fibrosis in his family.
Sumner and the woman often used instant messaging to communicate, but once, the woman messaged Sumner under the name "Melissa" rather than "Shawnie."
When Sumner pointed out the discrepancy, the woman said she'd used the fake name Melissa to chat online with a man she didn't know and just happened to notice that Sumner was online at the same time.
The woman told Sumner she had gotten lots of responses to her ad, but decided that she wanted Sumner to adopt her baby.
"I can't say I truly believed her," Sumner said, "but I wanted to."
In December 2003, the woman invited Sumner to fly to Wisconsin for her next ultrasound.
During a layover in Chicago, Sumner punched up a voice mail from "Shawnie," who said she had just miscarried.
"I was screaming and crying through the airport," she said. "I couldn't stand up.
"I was devastated because she told me the baby was dead. My other thought was she'd gotten a better offer, and she was just stringing me along."
The woman didn't return Sumner's calls for several days, and Sumner began to think she'd been scammed. She posted a message on an adoption Web site, describing what she went through.
She immediately received responses from four other couples in Iowa, Michigan, Texas and Oregon, all with similar tales about the woman from Maiden Rock, Wis. Several said they'd met her and she went by Melissa.
Sumner compiled the stories and sent them to the police in the woman's hometown. She got a thank-you note, but heard nothing more.
She turned to an agency to adopt a baby in Guatemala. Addison Rose is now 21/2.
"I moved on. I adopted my daughter. My focus changed," said Sumner. "But I thought from time to time what an evil, horrible thing she did."
Little legal recourse
Then, three months ago, Sumner received an e-mail from a woman in Ohio.
Marie Arquillo, 37, had spotted Sumner's cautionary message, posted online three years earlier.
Arquillo, a former Arkansas police officer, spent five months planning to adopt the baby girl of a woman she knew as Bella. Like Sumner, she painted the nursery pink at the birth mother's insistence.
But when the woman refused to meet with Arquillo's adoption lawyer, she became suspicious and paid a company to track her cell-phone number.
The number came back to a woman named Melissa. When Arquillo Googled the full name, Sumner's posting popped up. Arquillo said she called the woman after talking to Sumner.
"I said, 'I know what you've done, and this time you've messed with the wrong woman,'" Arquillo said.
She pestered the Pierce County, Wis., Sheriff's Office and urged other families to do the same. Ultimately, the Sheriff's Office handed the case to the FBI.
The families who sent the woman money may be able to pursue wire fraud charges, said Kelly Kiser-Mostrom, author of "The Cruelest Con: The Guide for a Safe Adoption Journey."
But Sumner and Arquillo, who spent money on baby supplies and attorneys but never sent any to the birth mother, may not have legal recourse, she said.
"Generally, if there's an emotional scam, it's very hard to get any prosecution of any kind," she said. "There's more of this stuff that happens than people realize."
Both Sumner and Arquillo said they hope going public about their nightmare will spare other families.
They'd also like to see the woman in their case punished.
"Let her sit in a jail cell for a while," said Arquillo. "Let her have nine months for each couple she scammed."
Edie Gross: 540/374-5428
Penny Barg, district supervisor with Adoptions From The Heart in Chesapeake, and Kelly Kiser-Mostrom, author of "The Cruelest Con," offer the following tips to protect yourself during an adoption proceeding.
Use a licensed agency. In Virginia, adoption agencies must be licensed by the Department of Social Services. The agency is required to post that license as well as any violations at its place of business.
Ask for references. Reputable agencies will give prospective adoptive families the names and numbers of past clients.
Verify the pregnancy. Contact the hospital where the mother is being treated. She should have signed a medical release.
Research the adoption professionals you use. Find out if they belong to reputable organizations such as the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys.