This scam happens more often, experts say, when a couple decides to go it alone—without an agency or a lawyer—and looks for a birth mother online or in classified ads. “I understand the temptation to do it independently. A lot of people wing it and only get an attorney at the end,” Pertman says. “But you’re not trained to recognize the warning signs, and you need to have counseling for both the birth mother and the prospective parents, and the intervention of a professional social worker to check out the living arrangements and meet with family members of the birth mother,” to ensure everything is on the up-and-up.
As a couple wanting desperately to have a child, there’s a chance you won’t see things objectively—and you may not spot a problem heading your way. “People are so worried to say the wrong thing to a potential birth mother,” says Kiser-Mostrom, who has adopted four children, “that they lose their instinct for when something isn’t right. Think with your head, not your heart.” Glenn agrees: “What we should have done is contacted our attorney before we sent any money out there.”
This type of scammer doesn’t just prey on prospective adoptive parents, though. Reputable adoption professionals can get taken in by a birth mother working with more than one agency, collecting advance payments, lying about who the birth father is and/or whether he’s agreed to the adoption, and promising her baby to more than one family. “I don’t give a dime until I have medical records confirming pregnancy in my hand, and I get them directly from the doctor,” says attorney Amy Hickman. “Make sure you ask to see prenatal records,” she adds, and don’t hand over a nonrefundable deposit to an agency unless you have written assurance that you’ll receive a refund if you don’t approve the records. It’s a good idea to meet with a birth mother in person to establish an emotional rapport, too.
Scam #3: “The baby you’re adopting is perfectly healthy.”
In early 2007 Maria and Carlos thought they were going to Russia to bring home a healthy 9-month-old baby girl. The agency they were working with assured them the child was fit, and the pictures they received showed an exuberant girl with dark hair and big, brown eyes. When the couple arrived at the orphanage three months later, in April 2007, they found a frail toddler with obvious developmental problems. “It was heartbreaking,” remembers Maria, who insisted on seeing the child’s medical records. She later learned from an orphanage employee that the girl had been born at 25 weeks.
Called “wrongful adoption,” it is in fact fraud when an agency, facilitator, or orphanage fails to disclose to prospective parents a child’s full medical and psychological history. Not surprisingly, getting a complete picture of a baby’s or toddler’s health can be especially difficult with international adoptions. Fetal alcohol syndrome, for example, is a worldwide problem that can cause disabilities and behavioral problems, but not all children exposed to alcohol in utero will have the facial features typical of the disorder at its most severe; some may have lesser symptoms, making delays and problems harder to recognize.
One way to protect yourself when you’re adopting from overseas is to ask for a videotape of the child you’ve chosen. “You can insist on getting a video of the child for screening by a pediatrician who specializes in international adoptions and is trained to recognize the signs,” advises attorney Joni Fixel. You can also avoid agencies more likely to hide children’s mental and emotional problems by working only with one that’s been accredited by the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, Fixel adds. The Convention requires that international adoption agencies meet certain staff and accounting requirements, as well as provide training and preparation for prospective parents adopting a child abroad. For a complete list of countries bound by the Convention’s rules—which were tightened on April 1 to curb abuse—and a guide for prospective adoptive parents of international children, go to www.travel.state.gov/pdf/Prospective_Adoptive_Parents_Guide.pdf. The Joint Council on International Children’s Services (www.jcics.org) is another good resource.
Thankfully, adopting a baby in the U.S. in itself makes it less likely you’ll experience a wrongful adoption. That’s because you’ll have greater access to medical records than you would abroad (and they’ll be in English), it’s usually much easier to see the child and evaluate his health, and there are more laws protecting all parties in a domestic adoption.
In general, when it comes to adoption, says Adam Pertman, the father of two adopted children, you want to be an educated, vigilant customer. “If something sounds too good to be true, it likely is. Have your eyes open and don’t feel like this is such a world-stopping event that you’re willing to say or do anything. That’s a lousy place to start, and it invites the kind of behavior you don’t want to see.”
Red flags for a deceptive agency or facilitator
• The agency’s website has photos of available children, but no information about staff, their backgrounds, or the physical location of its office.
• You’re rushed to send money right away to “hold” a child.
• You’re guaranteed to receive a child in six to eight months.
• The agency posts photos of orphans online—something that’s illegal in some countries.
• You’re asked to pay fees not included on the contract, such as for foster care (when the child never left the orphanage), and you aren’t sent documentation confirming expenses (such as rent paid to a landlord).
• The agency or facilitator does all their business with you over the phone and via e-mail.
• You’re required to sign a contract that forbids you from talking to others about the adoption while it’s in process.
• You’re repeatedly told, “Trust me” and “Be patient,” despite several setbacks, and you’re threatened with risking losing the child if you don’t wait or if you continue to press for answers.
Red flags for a bogus birth mother
• An adoption agency or facilitator “piggybacks,” using other companies or individuals to find birth mothers.
• A birth mother won’t get proof of her pregnancy or verify proof, and won’t consent to release her prenatal medical information to your attorney prior to being matched.
• A birth mother tells you not to worry about the birth father and his rights.
• A birth mother doesn’t show proof of how your money was spent. (Whenever possible, the agency or attorney should directly pay for expenses—food, housing, utilities, medical care—so the birth mother is not given money.)
• A birth mother avoids meeting you in person.
• A birth mother is living in a motel or is in constant crisis.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2008 issue of Conceive Magazine.
Related Topics: Adoption