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The Child Exchange

Posted by on May. 7, 2015 at 6:08 PM
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Americans use the Internet to abandon children adopted from overseas

MOTIVATED MOM: In her time seeking children on the Internet, Nicole Eason has referred to herself as Big Momma and Momma Bear. Her term for informal custody transfers is "non-legalized adoption," and she defines the phrase to mean: "Hey, can I have your baby?" REUTERS/Samantha Sais

Part 1: When a Liberian girl proves too much for her parents, they advertise her online and give her to a couple they’ve never met. Days later, she goes missing.

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.

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.

GIRL AVAILABLE: Quita Puchalla's adoptive parents used this photo to advertise her online. REUTERS/Handout

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.

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.

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."

NEW PARENTS: On the day her adoptive parents dropped her at the Eason trailer in Illinois, they snapped this picture inside the couple's kitchen. From left to right, Calvin Eason, Quita Puchalla and Nicole Eason. REUTERS/Handout

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.

'RED LIGHT': Melissa Puchalla says she sobbed after leaving Quita with the Easons, the couple she met on the Internet. "Maybe a red light should've went off – too good to be true," she says now. REUTERS/Sara Stathas

"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.

The rest can be read by clicking the title, it has multiple parts.

“I don't think..." then you shouldn't talk, said the Hatter.”― Alice in Wonderland

by on May. 7, 2015 at 6:08 PM
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