Category Archives: Adoption/Re-Homing

Wealthiest Chinese Use Surrogacy as Means to U.S. Citizenship

Behold the designer baby — who comes with U.S. citizenship to boot

Wealthy couples have figured out how to get around China's one-child policy.

Wealthy couples have figured out how to get around China’s one-child policy.

Emily Shire

A new American product may be on the verge of surpassing Calvin Klein jeans and Prada handbags as the Chinese elite’s favorite luxury item: Surrogate mothers.

While Thailand, India, and Ukraine are also known as popular surrogate sources, a growing number of wealthy Chinese have been turning to American women to serve as surrogates, writesAlexandra Harney at Reuters. And they are paying top dollar, starting at around 120,000 of them to be exact.

China is fuzzy on the permissibility of surrogacy. Though it has been explicitly prohibited since 2001, overseas surrogacy is not technically illegal. Moreover, the wealthy have found a way to circumvent the law (much as they have China’s one-child policy), creating a surrogacy black market. Xuyang Jingjing writes at Global Times that “with connections and backdoor deals, couples are sometimes able to find a surrogate mother and a hospital willing to take the risk.”

Most famously, in 2011, one wealthy Chinese couple was discovered to have spent one million yuan (approximately $157,000) on two surrogate mothers, resulting in eight babies.

However, some Chinese couples are uncomfortable with the shady process of surrogacy in China and prefer the openness and professionalism of the U.S. surrogacy industry. And while a full surrogacy package may cost more in America, it comes with some critical benefits — namely a potential green card, which explains why surrogacy has become so popular even with fertile couples.

A group of expectant mothers exercise in Zhangzhou, Fujian province. (File photo/Xinhua)

A group of expectant mothers exercise in Zhangzhou, Fujian province. (File photo/Xinhua)

Under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, anyone born in the country has a right to citizenship, and once a citizen turns 21 years old, he can apply for green cards for his parents. For this reason, “birth tourism” has brought some Chinese women to the United States, especially Southern California, to deliver and gain instant U.S. citizenship for their babies. Though the $25,000 Chinese agencies typically charge to arrange these deliveries is a far cry from the cost of U.S. surrogacy, they are still usually reserved for the super wealthy.

Yet even the high price of American surrogacy pays for itself when you consider it can cost less than applying for an EB-5 visa, which necessitates a minimum investment of $500,000 in a job-creating business. In fact, one Shanghai-based agency that charges close to triple the typical U.S. surrogacy fee uses the lure of the American dream as part of its marketing. “If you add in plane tickets and other expenses, for only $300,000, you get two children and the entire family can immigrate to the U.S.,” an agent tells Reuters.

Furthermore, some choose American surrogates because they want the opportunity to create “designer babies.” Some want “ethnically Chinese or Asian egg donors, commonly with Ivy League degrees,” says Harney. Others desire “tall, blond donors,” according to Jennifer Garcia of Extraordinary Conceptions, a California surrogacy agency. “Clients believe these taller, biracial children will be smarter and better looking,” writes Harney.

It can be just as easy to request a boy or girl (though boys are far more popular), so the possibilities with American surrogacy are endless. That is, if you can afford it.

The British babies made in India

The surrogate mothers of India’s Akanksha Clinic eagerly await their 600th delivery. But is there an ethical price to pay?

Baby factory: Dr Nayna Patel and the surrogate mothers of the Akanksha Clinic

Baby factory: Dr Nayna Patel and the surrogate mothers of the Akanksha Clinic

Tom Rowley

By 

Michael and Veronica have spent months preparing a nursery for their firstborn twins. Piles of baby clothes lie across three beds – two for the babies and one for Veronica, who will lie awake with them each night. Feeding and nappy stations stand against the wall, which is covered in Winnie-the-Pooh paper. Yet their babies are being born to another woman, 7,000 miles away.

They are among an increasing number of couples seeking “wombs for hire” abroad. Frustrated by strict Western guidelines on surrogate births, Britons who cannot fall pregnant naturally or via IVF treatment are choosing to pay an Indian woman to have their children.

Michael, a 62-year-old GP, emigrated to Canada from Salisbury in the 1980s, and thought he would never be a father after he married his first wife, who already had a family. But after their divorce, he met Veronica, 33, at a medical conference five years ago and fell in love again. They married four years ago. At last, he thought, he could have children of his own.

Veronica, who is from a large family in Russia, also wanted a family but could not fall pregnant because she had been born with an abnormally small uterus. The couple tried IVF four times, but each attempt failed.

“She shed so many tears,” says Michael, who wishes to keep secret his full name to protect his children’s identity. “Because I am a doctor, I could see her result on the computer so I was the one who always had to break it to her. If she saw me turn up with flowers and a bottle of wine, she knew the results were not good.”

The high cost of surrogacy in Europe and the US means many Western women are outsourcing pregnancy abroad.

The couple finally resigned themselves to living without children – until last summer when they heard of the Akanksha Infertility Clinic, where up to 100 Indian women at any time carry the children of Western clients. Michael and Veronica quickly signed up.

More childless couples are making the same decision. Since surrogacy was first regulated in Britain in 1985, only about 50 couples a year have chosen to ask another woman to carry their child. But the rate has quadrupled in the past six years, as a growing number of older couples opt for surrogacies and new legislation permits gay men and lesbians to do so, too. Although only 203 surrogate babies were recorded in Britain last year, social workers say this understates the true figure as many couples do not apply for the parental order that grants them official status as parents.

Britain bans commercial surrogacy to prevent exploitation, meaning that surrogate mothers can only be paid expenses, such as for maternity clothes. Typically, surrogates are friends or family, or altruistic strangers kept on registers with long waiting lists.

But more than a quarter of British couples are now bypassing the law to find surrogate mothers overseas, where they pay up to £50,000 per baby. India is the most popular country, largely because its clinics charge less than half the rate demanded in America.

At the centre of this £620 million industry is the Akanksha Infertility Clinic, set on a dusty backstreet in Anand, a small city in rural India, some 600 miles from Delhi. It is run by Nayna Patel, a fertility specialist who made headlines a decade ago when she helped a British woman give birth to her own grandchildren as a surrogate for her daughter.

Pregnant Indian women

Pregnant Indian women

Dr Patel admits to running a “baby-making factory”, charging clients from 34 countries around $28,000 (£17,000) to match them with one of dozens of local surrogate mothers, for whom she provides a healthy diet and accommodation during their pregnancies.

Business is rapid, and Dr Patel has thrived in the nine years since she established the clinic. She lives with her family under armed guard in a large house in the suburbs and is driven around in the back of an Audi. She expects to deliver her 600th baby next year, when she hopes to open a new 100,000 sq ft hospital, large enough to house 100 surrogates and 40 clients, who will be offered apartments when they come to visit.

The trade in babies is nothing if not highly controversial. “I don’t think any of us has a right to be a parent,” says Marilyn Crawshaw, a leading academic with a special interest in assisted reproduction. “There are people who say this is a win-win situation, and you can find Indian women who have acted as surrogates who say they have earned more money in nine months than they would in 10 years. But these women wouldn’t be doing this if poverty wasn’t a driver.”

She also worries that surrogate children may be unable to discover their heritage. “They need to have a choice,” she explains. “If the child is curious, they will want to know about the surrogate. [But] if the parents see the surrogate as immaterial to their family, they won’t be able to tell their child about her, how it was for her during the pregnancy and how her other children are doing now.”

Celia Burrell, a consultant obstetrician at Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospital, has called for tougher guidelines. “How can we monitor a surrogate in India?” she asks. “Does she get the medical and emotional help and support that she needs? How do we know she is not being forced into it?”

Michael admits that such questions originally troubled him. “We obviously considered the fact that there may be some unfortunate poor woman who is doing it out of desperation. But other infertility clinics don’t care for the surrogates in the same way that Dr Patel does. With the knowledge we have, we are reassured that what the clinic said originally is true: the surrogates are taken good care of, they do it voluntarily, their families are involved in the decision and the outcome is an improved lifestyle for their children because they don’t have to struggle so much to survive.”

Dr Patel pays each of the women about £5,000. She encourages them to spend it on a house with their sole name on the title deeds, and employs embroidery teachers so the surrogates leave with a better chance of finding work. She also encourages clients to inquire about the well-being of their surrogates, and regrets taking on those who do not. “A couple of sentences is all it takes,” she insists.

Indian surrogate clinic

In demand: Some of the 45 surrogates on the clinic’s books with Dr Nayna Patel

“This woman is an absolute saint,” says Michael. “If the surrogates have abusive relationships, she makes sure the husband doesn’t take the money. I never got the feeling she was in it for profit.  Every day, women lined up for the free gynaecological clinic she runs for the local community.”

Michael heard about the clinic on the radio last summer and told Veronica. After reading a book about Dr Patel and researching other options online, they sent her an email the following day.

There were also legal advantages to choosing India. In Canada, as in Britain, a surrogate is named as mother on a birth certificate and can decide to keep the child once she has given birth. “We might have gone through all this stress, had a beautiful baby born with both of our genes, and then had a surrogate say, ‘I want your baby’. In India, if you write a strong contract, it is enforceable in court.”

The couple flew out in March and – though Michael admits the clinic was “not built to Western standards” – he was impressed by the hygiene and medical procedures. The embryologist harvested Veronica’s eggs and collected a specimen of Michael’s semen, and a few days later showed them five blastocysts – the early stages in the development of an embryo – under a microscope. They chose to have two implanted into the surrogate’s womb to increase the chance of at least one successful conception, and will pay around $33,000 (£21,000) for the twins.

indian women at birthday party

Dr. Nayna Patel (center) and her staff throw a party for a newborn before he is taken home by his biological parents,

The couple have met their surrogate mother – Kokilla, 28, who has three children of her own – many times, and Dr Patel sends them email updates on her condition, so Veronica can look at the scans on her iPhone.

“Her husband is a policeman,” says Michael, “which is considered a very good job in India. They are climbing into the middle class. I have been told she is having a house built. She told Veronica it is wonderful that her own children are now going to have a great education. They can be enrolled in a private school [with the money]. Education in India is the lifeline for every family – it gets you out of the pits you are in.”

The couple were made to sign an agreement promising to collect their children even if they are born with a disability, but Michael says they would be grateful for any life, after living without children for so long. Nor would they have terminated the pregnancy if disabilities were spotted early on. “They would be loved and brought up just the same.” The pregnancy has gone smoothly so far, however, and the twins are due to be born on November 21.

The couple will stay in a nearby hotel once their children are born. They are not allowed to return home until Canadian authorities have taken DNA samples to establish that they are the genetic parents.

Even though she has not carried their babies, Veronica has bonded with the ultrasound pictures and is certain she will feel an immediate connection to them. She has already made a list of baby names. “They are my Alexander and my Katarina,” she says. “It is sentimental but I have had their names for two years, always saying I would one day have these two.”

Michael is also looking forward to teaching them to play sport. “They don’t play cricket here, but my kids are going to play. Hopefully, some Indian heritage has got into them for that.”

They have told only three close friends about the surrogacy, fearing playground bullying if too many know – but they will tell the children once they are teenagers. In fact, they are so happy with the process that they are already considering using the remaining three blastocysts. “You’ve read my wife’s mind. She is already planning it.”

For now, though, the couple must await news of the birth. “Veronica has suffered a lot. The greatest joy anybody could have is seeing the faces of those little ones that are part of you. I know I will be very emotional.”

Next week Veronica will fly out to stay near the hospital, carrying a case laden with gifts for Kokilla, with whom she wants to keep in touch after the birth. “We will forever be grateful to her because of what she has done,” says Michael. “This woman is a heroine to us.”

International Adoption: Saving Orphans or Human Trafficking?

A Cambodian orphanage in 2010.

A Cambodian orphanage in 2010.

By Kevin Voigt, CNN

Editor’s note: In this series, CNN investigates international adoption, hearing from families, children and key experts on its decline, and whether the trend could — or should — be reversed.

(CNN) — Srey Powers’ earliest memories in Cambodia are “waking up each morning, climbing trees to forage for fruit and berries with my cousins, and sitting around a fire each night with the one meal provided,” the 19-year-old said.

Born in a refugee camp, Powers remembers traveling at age 6 for two days by moped, car and foot “only to be left at a building with many infants and toddlers and strange adults,” she said.

At the orphanage, she met her new American family — Claudia and Patrick Powers from Long Island, New York.

“From day one, I had a bond with my mother. Our first language was through playing soccer,” recalled Powers, who was named most valuable player after leading her high school to the 2010 girls soccer state championship.

Powers was adopted from Cambodia in 1999.

Two years later, the U.S. closed Cambodia to adoptions due to allegations of corruption.

The U.S. adoption story of another 19-year-old is different.

“When I was 13, I was sold,” said Tarikuwa Lemma, who grew up in Ethiopia.

She and her two sisters were adopted by an Arizona family who were told Lemma’s parents died of AIDS.

“The truth was that our mother had died as a result of complications during childbirth, and our father was alive and well,” said Lemma.

Tarikuwa Lemma thought she was being sent to the U.S. for a home study program.

Tarikuwa Lemma thought she was being sent to the U.S. for a home study program.

Lemma’s family was scammed by a man who said the girls were being sent to the United States on a study program, she said. Only when the sisters arrived did they realize their legal rights had been signed away to new parents.

“I wanted to escape from the people I felt had kidnapped us from our homeland, our culture and our family,” said Lemma, who hopped from three different U.S. adoptive homes before becoming independent after turning 18. “My sisters and I had a father, a brother and older sisters, plus a large extended family that cared for us and loved us. We were middle class by Ethiopian standards, not poor.”

These tales paint the divide on which, experts say, the legal and ethical debate on international adoption rests: Do the risks of abuse in a minority of cases outweigh the larger good that most adoptions provide?

Healing or ‘hostage taking’?

As international adoption becomes more difficult, a growing number of voices in the U.S., Australia and elsewhere are pushing to reduce restrictions that limit adopting from abroad.

“In every human endeavor, there is a chance for abuse,” said Elizabeth Bartholet, director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, who adopted two children from Peru in the 1980s.

“But if a plane goes down, they don’t ground the whole airline industry … the only institution I can think of that when there’s a problem, they shut it down, is international adoption.”

Critics argue the hunger to adopt children from developing nations helps feed nefarious practices, as families are often deceived or coerced into giving their children up for adoption.

“The same story happens again in country after country,” said David Smolin, director of the center for Children, Law and Ethics at Samford University.

International adoption: I was stolen from my family

Smolin became a legal expert on international adoption issues after he and his wife adopted two daughters from India in 1998 only to discover that the girls were stolen from their mother.

Smolin, along with many other experts and organizations — including UNICEF and the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption — believe that orphans being adopted from abroad should be a last-case scenario, with more emphasis placed on helping keep children in their home country, such as providing day care, foster care, better orphanages and more domestic adoption.

Asked whether abuse in a minority of adoption cases should result in the closure of entire countries, Smolin said: “That’s a false choice. I don’t appreciate our family or my daughters’ family in India being used as collateral damage. That’s like hostage-taking.”

 Srey Powers, adopted from Cambodia when she was six years old, visits her birth sister's village in 2010.

Srey Powers, adopted from Cambodia when she was six years old, visits her birth sister’s village in 2010.

International adoption ‘Stuck’

Adoption advocates argue the current system is holding children hostage, that developing in-country programs are at least a generation away — time that the millions currently languishing in orphanages can ill afford.

“The de facto result (of in-country preference) is they would prefer to have the children in institutional life rather than intercountry adoption,” Bartholet said. “The results are more developmental problems, more kids on the street and more cost to the government to institutionalize these kids.”

Until the global decline of transnational adoption in 2004, “40,000 kids a year were getting really good homes and moving from devastating circumstances,” according to Bartholet. “That’s an amazing social program that changes people at no cost to the home country. To shut that down is tragic.”

Read more: The decline of international adoption

Craig Juntunen, a former quarterback in the Canadian Football League and an entrepreneur who retired at age 43, toured a Haiti orphanage in 2006.

The experience changed his life, as he watched children “climbing over each other” to get a hug.

Later that year, he and his wife adopted three children from Haiti.

“Looking into their eyes when they first came, we were filled with a happiness we had never felt before,” said Juntunen, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. “But, I was constantly reminded of how kids living in institutions, deprived of such simple things as human contact, are robbed of the opportunity to grow into happy, healthy people.”

He wrote about his experience in a book, “Both Ends Burning,” which is now the name of the international adoption advocacy group he founded.

The group produced a documentary, “Stuck,” documenting the travails and successes of people attempting to adopt in Vietnam, Ethiopia and Haiti. In each case, children matched for adoption continue to spend years in institutions while adoption requests move at glacial speeds across two countries.

Juntunen’s group took the film on the road, showing it in cineplexes, film festivals and churches across 60 cities in 78 days, culminating in an “empty stroller march” on Capitol Hill in Washington.

 Craig Juntunen with his wife Kathi, and their children (from left) Espie, Amelec, and Quinn.

Craig Juntunen with his wife Kathi, and their children (from left) Espie, Amelec, and Quinn.

A goal of Juntunen’s group is to raise international adoption in the U.S. to 50,000 children a year and cut the average time to approve adoptions to nine months.

In 2011, fewer than 10,000 overseas children were adopted in the U.S., with an average wait time of three years.

“We have to create the social and political will to deal with these things,” he said.

The boom-bust cycle

One country closes, and another country becomes this popular hotspot
Kathryn Joyce, author of “The Child Catchers”

To debunk the idea that corruption is the exception in the current international adoption systems, critics point to Guatemala, which was shut down in 2007 for adoption after allegations of families being coerced and children kidnapped to feed U.S. demand.

Before Guatemala closed to U.S. adoptions, the ratio of children adopted hit one per every 100 live births, according to the Adoption Council — more than double the rate in Latvia, the next-highest nation.

Two years later, the number of foreign adoptions from Guatemala dropped 90%.

As Guatemala closed, adoptions in Ethiopia — now the second-largest supplier of orphans to American families — skyrocketed from fewer than 900 in 2003 to 4,564 in 2009.

“International adoption tends to work in this boom-bust cycle … one country closes, and another country becomes this popular hotspot,” said Kathryn Joyce, author of “The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption.”

Many adoption agencies went from Guatemala to Ethiopia where “the number of agencies leaped from five to 50 in a few short years,” said Joyce, who traveled to Ethiopia while researching her book.

Read more: Overseas adoptions rise for U.S. black children

Brokers who source children for agencies can earn as much as $5,000 per child — “five times the amount they might expect to earn a year,” she said. “The influence of all this U.S. money can be distorting.”

 Born in Liberia, Cynthia Newton, left, and her brother, James, say the Pledge of Allegiance during their 2011 citizenship ceremony.

Born in Liberia, Cynthia Newton, left, and her brother, James, say the Pledge of Allegiance during their 2011 citizenship ceremony.

Whole economies can emerge when international adoption blooms in a developing nation. Employment from agencies, new guesthouses and hotels for the influx of prospective parents, and even a rise in “searchers” — people paid to investigate the birth origins of a child like Lemma when U.S. families begin to doubt the stories agencies provide.

“Adoption is a business, there is no question, sadly,” said Susan Soonkeum Cox, vice president of policy and external affairs at Holt International, a nonprofit Christian adoption agency based in the U.S. “Many people got into this because it’s an opportunity to help (orphans), but for other people it was a lucrative business opportunity. You could see this in the explosion of adoption agencies and practitioners.

“There are so many cases of corruption … as an adoption agency, no one is more appalled, because we all get stuck with it and have our reputation smeared.”

Haiti earthquake and adoption theology

The international adoption debate played out on the world stage in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake, which killed 200,000, when a group of U.S. Christian missionaries were accused of kidnapping “orphans.”

Laura Silsby led a group of 10 missionaries from Idaho that was stopped at the Dominican Republic border as they tried to cross the border with 33 children without proper legal documentation.

Silsby originally claimed the children were orphaned or abandoned, but the Haitian government and the orphans’ charity SOS Children later found that all had at least one living parent.

 Laura Silsby, the head of New Life Children's Refuge, arrives for a Port-au-Prince court hearing in February 2010 in Haiti.

Laura Silsby, the head of New Life Children’s Refuge, arrives for a Port-au-Prince court hearing in February 2010 in Haiti.

Charges against all but Silsby were dropped; Silsby was jailed for four months before being tried on charges of arranging illegal travel by a Haitian court and released on time served.

Some parents told CNN they placed their children in Silsby’s care because that was the only way they knew to ensure a better quality of life for them.

Silsby’s group, New Life Children’s Refuge, said it was going to house the children in a converted hotel in the Dominican Republic and later move them to an orphanage.

According to the itinerary of Silsby’s mission, part of the group’s plan, in addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, was for the planned orphanage to “equip each child with a solid education and vocational skills as well as opportunities for adoption into a loving Christian family.”

While the incident — which some labeled “kidnapping for Jesus” — painted a dark picture of good intentions for international adoption advocates, the Haiti earthquake also offered a victory when in April 2010, the Obama administration granted “humanitarian parole” to speed up U.S. adoptions of Haitian children already in progress.

By August of that year, some 1,500 Haitian orphans joined U.S. families.

Can the system be fixed?

Smolin of Samford University says the problem with the current international adoption system comes down to one issue: money.

“I’m not a proponent of shutting down intercountry adoption,” Smolin said. But when a large amount of cash comes to developing countries with weak governments, “it reproduces systematic problems over and over again.”

Smolin wants to see limits on the amount of money and number of agencies that can operate in a given country.

Bartholet of Harvard says limiting agencies will place more control in weak governments of developing countries.

“If you shut down private intermediaries, you shut down international adoption,” she said.

 Children play at Amani Baby Cottage, an orphanage in Uganda.

Children play at Amani Baby Cottage, an orphanage in Uganda.

Juntunen’s group wants a U.S.-led effort to help developing countries with technology and training that will improve records — such as the creation of accurate birth certificates — and faster adoption procedures.

“I believe we have to start bringing nations together to talk about this,” he said.

Tarikuwa Lemma, who seven years ago was taken from her mother in Ethiopia, is writing a book about her experiences as she’s about to start college.

“I am fighting to make sure that first families and adoptive families know the truth about the possibilities of fraud and human trafficking in adoption,” she said.

Meanwhile, Srey Powers is a sophomore studying accounting at State University of New York at Oneonta. While visiting Cambodia three years ago, she found her grandmother, who spoke of the difficult choice to give Srey up for adoption.

At one point, her grandmother turned to her adoptive mother and asked in a harsh tone if she had her “working in servitude, farming the fields.” Her Cambodian grandmother assumed Powers’ suntan was from working outside, not playing soccer.

“Watching my mother’s attempt to put my (grandmother) at ease, I had a new level of gratitude for her, my father, my siblings and my life in America,” she said.

Parents Swap Adopted Kids Online

 

Inside America’s underground network for adopted children where the unwanted as young as 10 months old are advertised online and placed with strangers by parents desperate to get rid of them

Quita Puchalla, now 21, says her life became a ‘nightmare’ when her adopted parents decided to ship her to a family they met online.

Quita Puchalla, now 21, says her life became a ‘nightmare’ when her adopted parents decided to ship her to a family they met online.

REUTERS

KIEL, Wisconsin – Todd and Melissa Puchalla struggled for more than two years to raise Quita, the troubled teenager they’d adopted from Liberia. When they decided to give her up, they found new parents to take her in less than two days – by posting an ad on the Internet.

Nicole and Calvin Eason, an Illinois couple in their 30s, saw the ad and a picture of the smiling 16-year-old. They were eager to take Quita, even though the ad warned that she had been diagnosed with severe health and behavioral problems. In emails, Nicole Eason assured Melissa Puchalla that she could handle the girl.

“People that are around me think I am awesome with kids,” Eason wrote.

Private re-homing: Quita, middle, with Calvin and Nicole Eason - the couple her adoptive parents sent her to live with when they no longer wanted to raise the teenager from Liberia

Private re-homing: Quita, middle, with Calvin and Nicole Eason – the couple her adoptive parents sent her to live with when they no longer wanted to raise the teenager from Liberia

A few weeks later, on Oct. 4, 2008, the Puchallas drove six hours from their Wisconsin home to Westville, Illinois. The handoff took place at the Country Aire Mobile Home Park, where the Easons lived in a trailer.

No attorneys or child welfare officials came with them. The Puchallas simply signed a notarized statement declaring these virtual strangers to be Quita’s guardians. The visit lasted just a few hours. It was the first and the last time the couples would meet.

To Melissa Puchalla, the Easons “seemed wonderful.” Had she vetted them more closely, she might have discovered what Reuters would learn:

• Child welfare authorities had taken away both of Nicole Eason’s biological children years earlier. After a sheriff’s deputy helped remove the Easons’ second child, a newborn baby boy, the deputy wrote in his report that the “parents have severe psychiatric problems as well with violent tendencies.”

• The Easons each had been accused by children they were babysitting of sexual abuse, police reports show. They say they did nothing wrong, and neither was charged.

• The only official document attesting to their parenting skills – one purportedly drafted by a social worker who had inspected the Easons’ home – was fake, created by the Easons themselves.

On Quita’s first night with the Easons, her new guardians told her to join them in their bed, Quita says today. Nicole slept naked, she says.

Within a few days, the Easons stopped responding to Melissa Puchalla’s attempts to check on Quita, Puchalla says. When she called the school that Quita was supposed to attend, an administrator told Puchalla that the teenager had never shown up.

Quita wasn’t at the trailer park, either. The Easons had packed up their purple Chevy truck and driven off with her, leaving behind a pile of trash, a pair of blue mattresses and two puppies chained in their yard, authorities later found.

New home: The Puchallas dropped off Quita at the Easons' mobile home in Wisconsin. Now, Nicole Eason lives at a different mobile home in Tucson, Arizona

New home: The Puchallas dropped off Quita at the Easons’ mobile home in Wisconsin. Now, Nicole Eason lives at a different mobile home in Tucson, Arizona

The Puchallas had rescued Quita from an orphanage in Liberia, brought her to America and then signed her over to a couple they barely knew. Days later, they had no idea what had become of her.

When she arrived in the United States, Quita says, she “was happy … coming to a nicer place, a safer place. It didn’t turn out that way,” she says today. “It turned into a nightmare.”

The teenager had been tossed into America’s underground market for adopted children, a loose Internet network where desperate parents seek new homes for kids they regret adopting. Like Quita, now 21, these children are often the casualties of international adoptions gone sour.

Through Yahoo and Facebook groups, parents and others advertise the unwanted children and then pass them to strangers with little or no government scrutiny, sometimes illegally, a Reuters investigation has found. It is a largely lawless marketplace. Often, the children are treated as chattel, and the needs of parents are put ahead of the welfare of the orphans they brought to America.

The practice is called “private re-homing,” a term typically used by owners seeking new homes for their pets. Based on solicitations posted on one of eight similar online bulletin boards, the parallels are striking.

“Born in October of 2000 – this handsome boy, ‘Rick’ was placed from India a year ago and is obedient and eager to please,” one ad for a child read.

A woman who said she is from Nebraska offered an 11-year-old boy she had adopted from Guatemala. “I am totally ashamed to say it but we do truly hate this boy!” she wrote in a July 2012 post.

Another parent advertised a child days after bringing her to America. “We adopted an 8-year-old girl from China… Unfortunately, We are now struggling having been home for 5 days.” The parent asked that others share the ad “with anyone you think may be interested.”

Reuters analyzed 5,029 posts from a five-year period on one Internet message board, a Yahoo group. On average, a child was advertised for re-homing there once a week. Most of the children ranged in age from 6 to 14 and had been adopted from abroad – from countries such as Russia and China, Ethiopia and Ukraine. The youngest was 10 months old.

After learning what Reuters found, Yahoo acted swiftly. Within hours, it began shutting down Adopting-from-Disruption, the six-year-old bulletin board. A spokeswoman said the activity in the group violated the company’s terms-of-service agreement. The company subsequently took down five other groups that Reuters brought to its attention.

A similar forum on Facebook, Way Stations of Love, remains active. A Facebook spokeswoman says the page shows “that the Internet is a reflection of society, and people are using it for all kinds of communications and to tackle all sorts of problems, including very complicated issues such as this one.”

The Reuters investigation found that some children who were adopted and later re-homed have endured severe abuse. Speaking publicly about her experience for the first time, one girl adopted from China and later sent to a second home said she was made to dig her own grave. Another re-homed child, a Russian girl, recounted how a boy in one house urinated on her after the two had sex; she was 13 at the time and was re-homed three times in six months.

“This is a group of children who are not being raised by biological parents, who have been relocated from a foreign country” and who sometimes don’t even speak English, says Michael Seto, an expert on the sexual abuse of children at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group in Canada. “You’re talking about a population that appears to be especially vulnerable to exploitation.”

Giving away a child in America can be surprisingly easy. Legal adoptions must be handled through the courts, and prospective parents must be vetted. But there are ways around such oversight. Children can be sent to new families quickly through a basic “power of attorney” document – a notarized statement declaring the child to be in the care of another adult.

In many cases, this flexibility is good for the child. It allows parents experiencing hard times to send their kids to stay with a trusted relative, for instance. But with the rise of the Internet, parents are increasingly able to find complete strangers willing to take in unwanted children. By obtaining a power of attorney, the new guardians are able to enroll a child in school or secure government benefits – actions that can effectively mask changes of custody that take place illegally outside the purview of child welfare authorities.

There is one potential safeguard: an agreement among the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands called the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, or ICPC. The agreement requires that if a child is to be transferred outside of the family to a new home in a different state, parents notify authorities in both states. That way, prospective parents can be vetted.

The compact has been adopted by every state and is codified in various statutes that give it the force of law. Even so, these laws are seldom enforced, in part because the compact remains largely unknown to law enforcement authorities. Each state is also left to decide how to punish those who give or take children in violations of the compact’s provisions. Some states attach criminal sanctions – generally, misdemeanors. Other states aren’t explicit about how violations should be handled.

A child might be removed from the new home if an illegal re-homing is discovered. But seldom is either set of parents punished. No state, federal or international laws even acknowledge the existence of re-homing.

“You’re talking about a population that appears to be especially vulnerable to exploitation.”

Melissa Puchalla shuffles through piles of paperwork containing records for Quita, the adopted daughter she sent to live with a family she met online.

Melissa Puchalla shuffles through piles of paperwork containing records for Quita, the adopted daughter she sent to live with a family she met online.

Michael Seto, expert on sexual abuse of children

International adoptees are especially susceptible to being re-homed. At least 70 percent of the children offered on the Yahoo bulletin board, Adopting-from-Disruption, were advertised as foreign-born.

Americans have adopted about 243,000 children from other countries since the late 1990s. But unlike parents who take in American-born children through the U.S. foster-care system, many adults adopting from overseas receive little or no training. It isn’t unusual for the children they bring home to have undisclosed physical, emotional or behavioral problems.

No authority tracks what happens after a child is brought to America, so no one knows how often international adoptions fail. The U.S. government estimates that domestic adoptions fail at a rate ranging from “about 10 to 25 percent.” If international adoptions fail with about the same frequency, then more than 24,000 foreign adoptees are no longer with the parents who brought them to the United States. Some experts say the percentage could be higher given the lack of support for those parents.

A U.S. federal law, passed in 2000, requires states to document cases in which they take custody of children from failed international adoptions. The State Department then collects that information. In addition, adoption agencies are supposed to report to the department certain types of failed international adoptions that come to their attention.

But many states say they are unable to keep track of the cases because their computer systems are antiquated. And the State Department won’t disclose the number of failed international adoptions that are reported by adoption agencies.

“Because the State Department is not the authoritative source of information regarding dissolutions and is not always notified when adoptions are dissolved, we do not provide statistics,” a State Department official said.

The failure to keep track of what happens after children are brought to America troubles some foreign governments. So do instances of neglect or abuse that become known. Often cited is the case of the Tennessee woman who returned a 7-year-old boy she adopted from a Russian orphanage. The woman had cared for him only six months when she put the boy on a flight to Moscow in April 2010. He was accompanied by a typed letter that read in part, “I no longer wish to parent this child.”

Late last year, Russia banned adoptions by Americans amid a broader diplomatic dispute. Other nations, including Guatemala and China, have also made the process more difficult. As a result, the number of foreign-born children adopted into the United States has declined from a peak of almost 23,000 in 2004 to fewer than 10,000 a year today.

The recent obstacles to bringing new kids to America could make the Internet child exchange even more appealing. A participant in one online bulletin board characterized the re-homing groups as “the ‘latest country’ to adopt from.”

Other participants wrote about openly defying government efforts, foreign and domestic, to keep track of children from failed adoptions (also sometimes called “disrupted” adoptions).

“We adopted two children from Russia. We have disrupted our daughter. What business of the Russian government?” one parent wrote in July 2012. “We never let anyone know about the disruption.” (Russia is among the nations that seek periodic updates on children adopted from there.)

Parents who offer their children on the Internet say they have limited options. Residential treatment centers can be expensive, and some parents say social services won’t help them; if they do contact authorities, they fear being investigated for abuse or neglect.

The problems – and the isolation parents feel – can prove overwhelming. On the bulletin boards, parents talk of children becoming abusive and violent, terrorizing them and other kids in the household.

“People get in over their heads,” says Tim Stowell, an adoptive parent who created the Facebook group last year. “The main thing is to offer hope for families that have no hope… I also knew there were people looking to adopt kids from those situations, so I wanted to get those people together, kind of like a clearinghouse.”

Not until January 2011 did any official responsible for overseeing the U.S. child-protection compact call attention to the dangers of the online network. In a nationwide alert to state child welfare authorities, an administrator for the ICPC warned that adoptive parents were sending children to live with people they met on the Internet. The practice, the official wrote, is “placing children in grave danger.”

The official who sent the memo, Stephen Pennypacker, says he issued the warning after a child welfare worker in one state noticed cases of kids being sent to new parents without the approval of authorities.

In the alert, Pennypacker asked that such cases be documented and reported to the national non-profit organization that oversees the ICPC. He says he also told child protection officials in each state to alert their attorneys general, local police and social workers “so that people could be on the lookout.”

Despite the urgency of the request, Pennypacker says there has been no response.

As part of its investigation, Reuters reviewed thousands of pages of records – many of them confidential – from court cases, police reports and child welfare agencies. Reporters examined ads for children and emails between parents, and also identified eight Internet groups in which members discussed, facilitated or engaged in re-homing. Reporters then analyzed thousands of posts from the group that Yahoo subsequently shut down, Adopting-from-Disruption.

Some participants in that group both offered and sought children for re-homing, sometimes simultaneously. Others looked to offload more than one child at a time. Some sought new parents for children who already had been re-homed. A 10-year-old boy from the Philippines and a 13-year-old boy from Brazil each were advertised three times. So was a girl from Haiti. She was offered for re-homing when she was 14, 15 and 16 years old.

In an interview earlier this year, Nicole Eason — the woman who disappeared with Quita — referred to private re-homing as “non-legalized adoption.”

“The meaning of non-legalized is, ‘Hey, can I have your baby?'” Eason said.

She discussed why she was so motivated to be a mother. “It makes me feel important,” she said.

And she described her parenting style this way: “Dude, just be a little mean, OK? … I’ll threaten to throw a knife at your ass, I will. I’ll chase you with a hose.

“I won’t leave burns on you. I won’t leave marks on you. I’m not going to send you with bruises to school,” she said. “Make sure you got three meals a day, make sure you have a place to live, OK? If you need medication for your psychological problems, I’ve got you there. You need therapy? You need a hug? You need a kiss? Somebody to tickle with you? I got you. OK? But this world is not meant to be perfect. And I just don’t understand why people think it is.”

The story of the Easons and the girls and boys they have taken through re-homing illustrates the many ways in which the U.S. government fails to protect children of adoptions gone awry. It shows how virtually anyone determined to get a child can do so with ease, and how children brought to America can be abruptly discarded and recycled.

A CHILD FOR FREE

The night before leaving Quita with the Easons, Melissa Puchalla showed her daughter a picture of the couple. Like Quita, Calvin Eason is black. Nicole is white, and Puchalla thought Quita might thrive in a mixed-race household.

The Puchallas also say they were giving up the teenager to protect their other children. Quita was unpredictable and violent, Melissa says, and her siblings had grown frightened of her. “There was no other option,” Melissa says today.

Puchalla assured her daughter that the Easons were “very good people,” Quita remembers. “But I was like judging in my mind: ‘How do you know?'” Quita says today. She says she spent the night crying.

Quita Puchalla’s adoptive parents used this photo to advertise her online.

Quita Puchalla’s adoptive parents used this photo to advertise her online.

 

The Easons were elated. They were about to get a child, for free.

Part of the allure of re-homing is that the process is far cheaper than formal adoptions. Adopting from a foreign country can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Taking custody through re-homing often costs nothing. In fact, taking a child may enable the new family to claim a tax deduction and draw government benefits. The Easons view re-homing as a way around a prying government, and a way to take a child inexpensively.

“If you don’t want to pay $35,000 for a kid,” Nicole Eason says today, “you take your chances.”

For Quita, the drive to the Eason place was a blur. But she remembers vividly when her adoptive father, Todd Puchalla, stopped in front of a mobile home with an overgrown lawn. Some of the trailers were well-maintained. This one, Quita thought, looked like a junkyard.

From the picture her mother had shown her, Quita recognized the Easons immediately. Both were large, well over 200 pounds, and Calvin was tall — about 6-foot-2. But what first caught the Puchallas’ attention was the tube coming out of Calvin’s neck a few inches beneath his chin. It was from a tracheostomy, a surgical procedure to alleviate a sleep disorder.

“We were a little standoffish about him because he has a trach,” Melissa Puchalla recalls. “But they were warm, and they were caring. They seemed kind.”

Today, Melissa Puchalla says, “Maybe a red light should’ve went off – too good to be true. But at that point, I was walking in such a fog.”

Not only were the Easons willing to take Quita, but they would gladly do so through the simple device of a power of attorney document, about 400 words long. The paper is signed by the old parents and the new guardians, and witnessed by a notary. As happened in Quita’s case, no lawyers or government authorities are involved. The document is filed nowhere; it functions, in essence, as a receipt. Such agreements fail to satisfy the ICPC when custody of the child is exchanged across state lines and authorities in both states aren’t involved. But that hasn’t stopped some parents from handling transfers this way.

Not long after the Puchallas arrived with Quita, the Easons presented a cake. “Welcome home Quita” was written in orange frosting.

Nicole also had a card for Melissa. Inside were printed these words: “I have faith that you’re going to come out of this experience with more wisdom and resilience than you ever thought possible.”

Melissa helped Quita unpack and hugged her goodbye. Everything would be fine, Melissa assured her. Melissa also devised a code: Quita would say “I love asparagus” over the phone if she felt in danger. (Quita didn’t use the code, Melissa says.)

As the Puchallas drove away, Melissa sobbed. She calls the decision “the hardest thing we’ve ever done in our lives.” Quita still can’t reconcile it. “How would you give me up when you brought me to be yours?” she asks.

In the days that followed, two puppies scampered through the trailer, gifts from the Easons to Quita. The dogs lifted the teenager’s spirits, but they weren’t housebroken and no one cleaned up after them. No one did the dishes, either, or the laundry.

More troubling, Quita says, was that the Easons took her into their bed: “They call me in there to sleep … to lay in the bed with them.” In bed, “Nicole used to be naked and stuff. It was not right to me.”

The sleeping arrangements Quita describes are consistent with the experience of another child the Easons took in. Nicole and Calvin both say that no child they took in ever slept in their bed.

A MISSING CHILD

Within days, the Easons had stopped answering Melissa Puchalla’s calls or returning her emails, Puchalla says. They attached a makeshift camper to the truck bed of their purple Chevy S-10, packed most of their belongings and left the state. Riding along was a friend of the Easons, a man on parole in Illinois for armed robbery.

When Melissa Puchalla called the school Quita was supposed to attend, she talked with an administrator who then contacted state child protection officials. Although Puchalla had signed over custody of Quita, she says she felt obligated to ensure Quita was safe.

Authorities, including police, subsequently went to the mobile home park in Westville. A neighbor told a child welfare official that before the Easons left, Quita had told the neighbor’s daughter that the Easons would be heading to upstate New York to visit Nicoles’s mother.

The puppies, left chained in the yard, were retrieved by animal protection officers.

As authorities searched for Quita, they discovered information that could have precluded the Easons from taking custody of the teenager, if the proper officials had been involved, adoption experts say.

Illinois authorities determined that the Easons had fabricated a document they provided to the Puchallas called a “home study.” It purported to be from a social worker who had visited their home and done background checks of the couple. Actually, Nicole had found a sample document on the Internet and filled it out herself. Some of the information was true; the rest was fiction.

“Quita Puchalla is missing as is the Eason family,” reads a confidential report by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. The internal report was dated Oct. 20, 2008, 16 days after the Puchallas had dropped Quita at the Easons.

“The Easons faked their home study,” the report says. “The Easons are suspected of using the disrupted adoptions of out of country children… Because there are other states involved, licensing issues and possible public aid fraud as well as a missing child, this matter may involve the FBI at some point.”

Illinois officials did share their findings with the local sheriff’s office and with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Authorities then contacted the New York State Police, who located the Easons’ truck in Stephentown, New York. It was parked outside a house where Nicole’s mother lived.

When police went to the home on Oct. 21, they found Nicole, Calvin and Quita. The man convicted of armed robbery who had traveled with the Easons to New York wasn’t there.

Later that day, investigators separately interviewed the Easons and Quita. Reports show that the teenager said the Easons had pornography in their house. Police took Quita to a homeless shelter; the next day, she was put on a bus. She was heading back to Wisconsin, by herself, to the parents who had given her up not three weeks before.

Taking Quita from the Easons and returning her to the Puchallas was the extent of the response by authorities.

New York State Police concluded that the Easons had committed no crimes in their jurisdiction. Illinois authorities took no legal action, and neither did officials in Wisconsin. No one did anything to prevent the Easons from taking a child again.

Hundreds of other adoptive parents were seeking new homes for their unwanted children through Internet message boards like those that had featured Quita. Nicole Eason knew how the child exchange worked. She would tap it again after losing Quita, much as she had used it before.

One of the first times, Eason had gone by the screen name Big Momma. The custody transfer took place in a hotel parking lot just off the highway, and the man who went with her to get the 10-year-old boy would later be sentenced to federal prison. His crime: trading child pornography.