Child adoptions in the United States may be legally arranged through state or private agencies, or through individual contacts between would-be adoptive parents and birth mothers. In any of these situations, state laws require court hearings and extensive psychological screening of the child and the prospective adoptive parents to determine (among other things) whether the child is in fact available for adoption and whether the prospective parents are safe, competent, and suitable for that child. Once an adoption order is entered, the child is the child of the adoptive parents for all purposes, just as if she had been born to them.
What would happen if such safeguards were not in place? Unfortunately, we now have a glimpse of what might happen to children in an unregulated adoption market, and it is chilling. A Reuters investigation, published in part by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (to read part one, click here ), reveals that for at least the past 5 years, there has been a thriving Internet market in private re-homing of previously adopted children. Adopted children with severe physical or emotional problems that overwhelmed their adoptive parents were sometimes placed with strangers who, via Internet chat groups, promised to give the kids a new home. However, without those time-consuming home visits, interviews and psychological evaluations, the parents placing the children had no real clue what would happen to their kids once the new “parents” took over. Nor did some of them seem to care, so desperate were they to unload those troubled adoptees.
Let me say here that many of these kids were indeed very troubled by any standard. Most (but not all) were adopted from foreign countries such as Russia or China, where they may have suffered from mistreatment by their birth parents or neglect in overcrowded orphanages. Some of them had violent tendencies and attacked their new parents, new siblings, or new pets. Some engaged in property destruction, including disturbing behaviors like smearing feces on walls, sexual acting out, or substance abuse. Some may have reactive attachment disorder, which is the inability to form normal emotional attachments to other people, thought to be caused by trauma and extreme emotional deprivation early in life. The adoption agencies washed their hands of the children upon completion of the legal adoption and provided no remedial services. Most of the parents earn too much to qualify for poverty-based programs, and there aren’t enough of those anyway. Private counseling and treatment costs a king’s ransom. It is not hard to see why the parents became desperate, and turned (as many people do) to the Internet for factual information and emotional support.
According to Reuters, these Internet searches brought the desperate parents to message boards on Yahoo and Facebook pages that allowed parents seeking to “re-home” children to advertise their availability and make contact with people willing to take the kids off their hands. There were no court orders or investigations, no lawyers, and no notice given when custody of the children crossed state lines. In some of the cases investigated by Reuters, the result was nightmarish.
The articles focus on children who ended up with problematic illegal parents, such as Nicole Eason and her husband, Calvin, or with Nicole Eason and her friend, Randy Winslow. These people were frequent posters on the boards and Facebook pages, and they succeeded in luring numerous children (at least six of them) into their home. They looked like generous, child-loving people to the desperate parents who off-loaded their troubled adopted children into the Eason household. The Easons fabricated a glowing home study to show to the parents seeking to re-home their kids, but in reality, those parents did not know much of the truth about the Easons and Winslow. What Reuters reports about them is troubling. Winslow has been convicted of sharing child pornography, and chatted online with an undercover agent who was investigating child exploitation. In those chats, Winslow claimed to have engaged in “sucking boys” as young as 7 years old. He actively sought access to more boys. Before the illegal placements, the Easons had two biological children permanently taken from them for neglect (in two different incidents in two different states), and Nicole was once babysitting an 18-month old child when he drowned in a bathtub. The drowning was ruled an accident and no charges were filed. Illegally adopted children who have since left the Eason’s custody report being beaten, cussed at, inappropriately touched, or made to sleep in bed with Calvin and a nude Nicole. Nicole denies all of these allegations. In any event, adoptive parents continued to re-home their children with the Easons and Winslow.
How could this happen? Actually, the practice of informally placing children outside their birth home has a long tradition in the United States. People are usually surprised to learn that adoption laws are a relatively recent innovation in American law. For most of our country’s history, orphaned or problem children (and children whose parents could not afford to raise them) were sent to live with extended family or fellow church members. There weren’t any background checks, but the transfers were normally to people known personally to the family or recommended by someone known to them, like a church elder. The first state laws on adoption weren’t enacted until the 1850s, and it was the 1920s before all states had adoption statutes on the books. During that same period, both state and church-run orphanages sponsored orphan trains to transport abandoned children from cities to the countryside, where farmers needed them to help with the crops. This practice did not include a lot of screening either, and anecdotal reports show the to-be-expected combination of good outcomes and horror stories. The orphan trains continued until the mid-1920s, when the foster care system began.
Suffice it to say that the current system of foster care, home visits and pre-adoptive screening is far from perfect. Still, it does offer a chance to eliminate would-be adopters who are child molesters or abusers from the pool of potential placements. Why did the placing parents opt out of the system, and turn to the Russian roulette of the Internet? In my opinion, it is because they were desperate, and believed – often correctly – that they had no real place to turn with their enormous parenting problems.
The sad fact is that this society offers very little in the way of help to parents of children with severe disabilities or psychological and behavioral problems. This is true whether the kids are born to, or adopted by, their parents. Even the argument by many adoptive parents that they were misled about the nature or extent of their children’s disabilities by over-eager adoption agencies results in few, if any, remedies under the law. For one thing, actual fraud or gross negligence is hard to prove. For another, our stoic American philosophy says that birth parents can’t just reject their kids if those kids have problems, so adoptive parents shouldn’t be able to either. Actually, either birth or adoptive parents can abandon their children, but that is a crime in many states and, even if no criminal conviction results, the parents may be liable for the support of the children until they reach adulthood. Parents feel trapped – private help may exist, but it is staggeringly expensive and not always successful. Some parents have snapped and neglected, abused, or even killed an adopted child. In one fairly recent case that provoked an international diplomatic crisis, a distraught adoptive mother put her child on a plane back to Russia. (For the ABC News story, click here.). She has since been ordered to pay $150,000 in child support.
It is difficult to come up with a solution that addresses all aspects of the problem. Education about the legal requirements for child placement might help a little, and clearly some organized system of oversight of Internet groups promising placement is in order. However, parents who are desperate and who feel like the legal and social systems are failing them and their children are likely to seek out other underground solutions. We need to offer (and subsidize where appropriate) some meaningful treatment and education to these families in trouble.
I am not in any way excusing adoptive parents who place their children illegally, thereby placing those kids in danger from all sorts of predators who lurk on the Internet. But I strongly believe that this society needs to take a long, hard look at why we seem to feel no collective responsibility to help parents – whether adoptive or birth – who are struggling with overwhelming problems. After all, these children did not ask to be born, and it is the children who suffer the most.