GWEN IFILL: Now: adoption in America in the age of the Web.
A new series of investigative reports published this week is raising serious questions about how some adoptive parents who seek help online are encountering unintended consequences.
Jeffrey Brown has our look.
JEFFREY BROWN: The stories focus on how some parents are using the Internet to turn over their adopted children to new families after finding they’re having problems raising the children, in a practice called private re-homing.
The investigation by Reuters titled “The Child Exchange” documents cases in which the transfer began on online bulletin boards and led to instances of neglect and abuse and were carried out in a largely unregulated environment.
Megan Twohey spent 18 months working on the investigation for Reuters. Also joining us now is Adam Pertman, executive director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national nonprofit that focuses on adoption research and policy. He’s also the author of the book “Adoption Nation.”
Well, Megan, Megan Twohey, some background first so we understand this. Why are parents giving up their adopted children? And how are they doing it?
MEGAN TWOHEY, Reuters: Well, that’s a good question.
I spoke to many adoptive parents for this 18-month project who had gone on the Internet and solicited new families for their unwanted adopted children. And the reasons that they turned to this largely underground network were three-fold. One, they said that they didn’t feel like they had received proper training going into their adoptions.
Two, they didn’t feel like they — the issues that the children that they adopted came to them with, emotional and behavioral problems that hadn’t been disclosed, and when the adoption went south, the adoption agency wouldn’t help them.
And in some — in other instances, they would go — when they turned to the states, the government child welfare system, for help, they didn’t get — they didn’t get any assistance. In fact, they were often told that if they wanted to relinquish their child to the state foster care system, they could face charges of abuse and neglect and put other children in their home in jeopardy.
So, they often — it was a very common theme that these parents felt desperate and they felt like this underground online network was their only option.
JEFFREY BROWN: And so in this private system, you show how this can be done we a simple power of attorney and you show that, in some cases, it led to some serious neglect and abuse.
MEGAN TWOHEY: That’s right.
So, it’s important to realize that when parents go into this sort of online re-homing network — and we found these are Yahoo! — these have been Yahoo! groups and Facebook groups where people go to solicit new families for their unwanted adopted children, and oftentimes they transfer these children over to strangers with nothing more than a power of attorney, a simple slip of paper that you can download from the Internet and get notarized that says you’re placing this child in the hands of another adult, and they’re now in their custody.
There’s no child welfare officials involved. There is no court system monitoring that and vetting the person who is taking the child. And so we found multiple cases where people who had criminal backgrounds, histories of abuse and neglect, obtained children in this manner. And bad things happened to those kids.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so, Adam Pertman, help us place the context here.
You read these articles. Are these worst-case scenarios, a handful of cases? What kinds of questions do they raise for people in your — in — where you sit?
ADAM PERTMAN, Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute: Well, from where I sit, it’s so appalling that it’s hard to even look straight at anybody and say anything that is vaguely positive, except that maybe these parents, who certainly are feeling they’re in dire straits, certainly are feeling as though it’s their last resort, at least they are looking for a home for the kid.
But, that said, this is really over every ethical line, every good practice line, over every line we could possibly draw. Parents have to be vetted. Children have to be cared for. The answer to your question, no, this doesn’t appear to be a big, prevalent problem. These are the worst-case scenarios, but it’s not just a handful.
And what it really does is shine a very bright light on two much more pervasive and bigger problems. We have to deal with this one, no question, but the Internet is opening up so many possibilities in the world of adoption. We published a report last year called “Untangling the Web” in which we talk about a whole slew of these. And this certainly is one.
We didn’t talk about this one, by the way. We didn’t know about this one. But there are many, many untoward practices that are occurring because no one is paying attention, just like in this case. And it really shines another bright light on the need for adoption — post-adoption services for families.
If there are families that are so distraught, that they would think to do something like this, then what about all the other families who wouldn’t think to do it, but need help, too? We are not providing those services to help families succeed. And if we looked at those two big issues, the Internet and post-adoption services, I think we would go a long way to solving problems like this, but we also have to address this very, very singularly and specifically.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Megan, just to pick up on this, because you were looking at these cases existing, as you said, in — I think you used the word a largely lawless marketplace, what kind of oversight is there in cases like this?
MEGAN TWOHEY: Well, that’s a good question.
And I would like to point out, going back to your last question about how frequently is this happening, I mean, that is a great question. And the answer is that nobody in the United States government can tell you the answer to that question. There’s nobody here in the United States who is trying to track what happens to these children. There’s no law that recognizes that re-homing is taking place, let alone tries to regulate it.
And so you’re left with basically kind of a patchwork of state laws. You know, in certain states, it’s illegal to go online and offer your child up for adoption. You have to be a licensed child placement agency to do that kind of advertising. In other states, you don’t. There’s different laws that govern adoptions and granting of guardianship.
But, for the most part, this has been largely a lawless world, and where there is no government oversight and nobody here in the United States trying to track that. And so you can’t say — nobody in the government can tell you how often this is happening. But, at Reuters, we have spent a lot of time, 18 months looking at the online forums in which people were going to advertise their unwanted adoptive kids.
We did a deep dive on a single Yahoo! group where this re-homing was popular. And we found that — we tracked the activity over five years. We have built a database, and we found that a child was being offered up on a single Yahoo! group on average once a week.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Adam Pertman, we just have a minute left, but given that scenario for these kinds of cases, but even the more general instances, what should be done in terms of oversight and regulation?
ADAM PERTMAN: Well, that’s not to be decided.
I mean, as Megan said, we don’t have the laws. We don’t have the practices. We don’t have the monitoring. What we need to do is immediately understand that something has to be done, and we need to convene law enforcement officials, legislators, because it is a patchwork.
And unless it’s done in a coordinated fashion, we’re not going to nail this one.
JEFFREY BROWN: And just real briefly, is there resistance to that? Is there — why doesn’t that happen?
ADAM PERTMAN: I cannot — it didn’t happen — it hasn’t happened because we didn’t know.
I mean, this is a big — a big kudo for journalism. I mean, we learned something from this series, and now we have to do something about it.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, shining a light on these cases.
Megan Twohey, thanks so much.
And, Adam Pertman, thank you.
MEGAN TWOHEY: My pleasure.
ADAM PERTMAN: My pleasure.