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A Tangled Web of Hope and Fear

The Internet has eased adoption in some cases, but it can also be a minefield of unscrupulous child-brokering.

March 11, 2001|BEVERLY BYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Neal and Cilla Whatcott were thrilled when, through an Internet newsgroup of adoptive parents, they found Nightlight Christian Adoptions of Fullerton, an agency specializing in adoption of children from Russia.

With a biological son and two adopted children from Asia, they were eager to adopt an older child. Nightlight matched them with Inga, a 12-year-old who'd spent her life in a St. Petersburg orphanage. Soon they were on their way to Russia from their home in the Marshall Islands.

It was a decision that was to turn their lives upside down--one that has left them without the child and, years later, with financial liability for her care.

Just as the Internet led the Whatcotts to Inga, it led Richard and Vickie Allen of San Bernardino County to the twins who allegedly were sold twice--first to them, then, for double the price, to Alan and Judith Kilshaw of Wales. The 8-month-old twins remain in foster care in Britain, their case in legal limbo.

The highly publicized case has focused international attention on the adoptions process and, peripherally, on how the Internet is changing it. News travels fast on the Internet. It is largely unregulated and an ideal medium not just for making successful matches, but for unethical preying on desperate families. And the Internet has helped make adoption "business with a big B," as one professional says of the now billion-dollar industry.

Adoption fraud and failed adoptions were not born with the Internet, but it has opened another door for birth parents, adoptive families and middlemen, bypassing geographical boundaries.

"Probably 95% of all adoptions go very smoothly and legitimately and properly," says Allan Hazlett of Topeka, president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. "But the awful ones are really awful." And, agree many in the field, there is something rotten in the state of adoptions: money.

Adoption in America is a $1.4-billion annual business, with about 2,000 licensed private agencies, 2,000 licensed public agencies and 500 adoption attorneys, Tampa-based Marketdata found in the first independent study of adoptions services. There also are an unknown number of facilitators--for-profit "baby brokers"--many of whom operate on Web sites.

Marketdata estimates that there were 138,000 adoptions in the United States in 1999. (Last year, there were 10,000 in California.) Figures reflect a slight decrease overall since 1990, but an increase in foreign adoptions and those from foster care.

Researchers found a typical adoption costs $15,000 to $30,000 and is complex and loosely regulated, making abuses, bribes and hidden fees common--especially in adoptions of foreign children.

At Web sites such as Dearbirthmother.com, those wanting to adopt post letters, hoping someone will choose them. Some are decorated with storks and diaper pins or photos of empty nurseries. Almost always, the writers depict themselves as God-fearing citizens living in "Our Town" with faithful pets and doting in-laws.

One couple even posted a letter from their 2-year-old, Megan: "I am adopted . . . I am helping my mommy and daddy look for a baby brother or sister to live with us in our fun, loving home . . . I am so fortunate that my mom can stay home with me."

Agencies, which may charge a one-time fee plus $60 a month for a basic posting and $130 a month for such perks as audio and video, wax poetic. One Web site promises, "Rosebud lips, chubby cheeks, 10 toes that wiggle and a tiny hand to hold . . . we can help make your dream a reality."

Using the Internet to search for a baby, or to advertise a baby, "is demeaning to the whole system," says Reuben Pannor, consultant to and former director of Vista del Mar agency in West L.A. "The case of the twins was an accident waiting to happen."

William Pierce, founder of the Washington-based National Council for Adoption, says people "are getting burned on the Internet at a rate that is inconceivable." He points out that there are no laws to prevent anyone with the ability to post a Web site from "making all sorts of claims, none of which can be verified. They can collect money through credit card, cash or check. Just as there is no enforcement of gambling laws on the Internet, there is no law against gambling on your hopes to adopt."

Assessing the extent of Internet adoption fraud is impossible, he says, because most victims do not come forward, and, when a complaint is filed, prosecutors often say that "they have more important things to do," Pierce said. Would-be parents, eager to find that baby at the end of the rainbow, are easy targets. When stung, they are ashamed--and they don't want to hurt their chances of still getting a baby.

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