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Scams Plague Efforts to Adopt Beyond Borders


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Since the early 1990s, the number of foreign children adopted by Americans has nearly tripled; it reached 23,000 last year. The US State Department reports most international adoptions are successful, but it warns the growing demand for adoptable children is leading to bad outcomes, both for children and parents. Some cases of abuse are linked to adoption groups operating without a license in the US and overseas. Michael Montgomery of American RadioWorks reports on how and why some adoptions from the former Soviet Union have gone wrong.


Two years ago, P.J. Whiskeyman was trolling the Internet when she chanced on some striking images. They were photographs of children posted on a Web site devoted to finding homes for overseas orphans. Whiskeyman was drawn to the blurry images of two Ukrainian girls.

Ms. P.J. WHISKEYMAN: This is Vika. She looks a lot to me like our daughter, like she would be a little older sister for her--she would have been. Little impish smile.

MONTGOMERY: Whiskeyman lives in Lititz, Pennsylvania. She's 46, a writer and a mother of six children. Even with such a lively household, the images of the orphans nagged at Whiskeyman. She found herself going back again and again to the girls' photos on the Internet.

Ms. WHISKEYMAN: I can't explain those things. You know how the heart is. It works different than the mind.

MONTGOMERY: Whiskeyman was troubled thinking about the orphans' plight. She said she always considered herself pro-life. `What better way to affirm that belief,' she thought, `than to give the girls a better life in America?' So with two of their children grown, Whiskeyman and her husband, Mike Bard, decided to adopt the orphans, and that led the couple to a California adoption service that posted the girls' photos on the Internet, Yunona USA.

Ms. WHISKEYMAN: We fell in love, and when I called Yunona about these girls, you know, the first thing they told me the day I called them in November was, `Oh, well, there's some other parents that have expressed interest in those girls...'

Mr. MIKE BARD: Yeah (laughs).

Ms. WHISKEYMAN: `...and you'd better send your down payment immediately...'

Mr. BARD: That's right.

Ms. WHISKEYMAN: `...if you want--'cause the first one to get their money in, we'll hold the children for them.'

MONTGOMERY: The family quickly wired Yunona a $7,500 deposit, signed a contract and prepared to travel to Ukraine to collect the orphans. And they did this without ever meeting a Yunona representative or seeing the girls. Experts say that's a risk many adoptive parents are willing to take.

Ms. TRISH MASKEW (President, Ethica): We certainly see people make decisions that they would never make in any other type of transaction. Because they want a child so bad, they're willing to sign almost anything to make that happen.

MONTGOMERY: Trish Maskew is president of Ethica, a group that lobbies for better rules regulating adoptions. Maskew says many prospective parents are unaware that adoption agencies are part of a lucrative industry and one with little government oversight.

Ms. MASKEW: We like to say that your neighborhood health club is probably more heavily regulated than anybody who's doing adoption in the United States. And that is one of those reasons that adoption seems to be plagued by continuing scandals.

MONTGOMERY: P.J. Whiskeyman had read about adoption scandals, but they were stories of shadowy child traffickers operating in the Third World. In contrast, Yunona seemed to be a big, legitimate agency. It was based in California and had an extensive Web site. But when Whiskeyman and her husband traveled to Ukraine, the couple discovered they didn't know the whole story.

Ms. WHISKEYMAN: And we didn't know that Yunona had absolutely no control over the adoption of these children.

MONTGOMERY: Whiskeyman says she thought she was adopting the two girls from the photo listing because their names and birth dates were listed on her contact with Yunona. But she learned only later that Ukrainian laws ban prospective parents from selecting specific orphans prior to traveling to the country. Whiskeyman says Yunona representatives told her they were bribing officials to circumvent those laws, and she says she was instructed to lie to authorities at the National Adoption Center in Kiev to get the two girls.

Ms. WHISKEYMAN: Suddenly, you realize you're a part of the scam. It's like you're sucked in and, you know, you're part of it. And you're trying to fool the National Adoption Center worker, but meanwhile, they really know the truth 'cause they're the ones taking the bribes anyway.

MONTGOMERY: Even with the bribes, Whiskeyman says she never located Vika, the girl with the smile. The second girl wasn't available, either. Whiskeyman says Yunona then tried to pressure the couple to select other children virtually on the spot, but the couple said no. They returned home to Pennsylvania empty-handed and angry with Yunona.

Ms. WHISKEYMAN: It's basically a bait-and-switch operation, because the children they're pulling you in with aren't available for adoption.

MONTGOMERY: The US State Department reports that one of the most common adoption scams is for companies to extract prepayment for a child who isn't available. Maura Hardy is the assistant secretary of State for consular affairs.

Ms. MAURA HARDY (Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs): American parents have been horribly and cruelly led down the wrong path and been asked to pay an incredible amount of money, only to find out that the unscrupulous broker that they have worked with, in fact, did not have a child for them at all or had a child who was not, in fact, eligible for adoption because it wasn't an orphan at all.

MONTGOMERY: Hardy says fraudulent adoptions are a small fraction of the roughly 70,000 children adopted from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the past 15 years. But there are no precise figures since the government and most states keep statistics only on completed adoptions. That bothers some adoption professionals like Karen Lane.

Ms. KAREN LANE (Domestic Adoption Attorney): There's no oversight; that's the problem. There's no repository of complaints.

MONTGOMERY: Lane is a prominent domestic adoption attorney in Los Angeles. She says legal loopholes in California and in other states allow groups like Yunona to operate without a license as so-called `adoption facilitators.'

Ms. LANE: It's always been a problem, and it's an increasingly big problem because of the Internet and the kind of global outreach of these facilitators to prospective clients in other states. Right now they're not really licensed; they just open up a business. There's nothing to lose.

MONTGOMERY: Like many adoption facilitators, Yunona is a for-profit corporation. The company operates at least 20 different Web sites flashed with children's photos, flashy graphics and mood music. Over the years, Yunona racked up dozens of complaints from angry parents. One day, the complaints hit the desk of FBI Special Agent Doug Perez.

Mr. DOUG PEREZ (Retired; FBI Special Agent): You never knew what you would get with Yunona. You want a child and you pick a child out; that's the child you want. And all of a sudden you go there, and the child's not available, or you find out that the child has been adopted by another family. There was other issues of bad informa--false information or misleading information in terms of if they said that the children were healthy, they weren't.

MONTGOMERY: Perez led an investigation into Yunona until retiring last April. The FBI wouldn't discuss the case on tape because it's still pending, but Perez says he agreed to talk with us out of concern that Yunona was still in business. He says the FBI interviewed more than 40 families who said they were duped by Yunona, and in most cases, the families were lured in by the photo listings.

Mr. PEREZ: When they see the photographs on the Web site, they see the little blond little girl or the young little boy with blond hair, blue eyes, that is a selling feature. And the families are hooked--are absolutely hooked when they see these children.

MONTGOMERY: Yunona's founder is Ivan Jerdev. Last September, we spoke with Jerdev at Yunona's spartan headquarters perched above a video store in Napa, California. Jerdev told us he came to America in the early 1990s with no training in social work or in adoptions. But sensing an opportunity, he started connecting prospective parents with orphans in his native Russia. Jerdev defended his online business as a way to rescue orphans from poverty.

(Soundbite of September 2005 interview)

Mr. IVAN JERDEV (Founder, Yunona USA): It's a very good instrument to find the parents, because the parents want to see the child to have information.

MONTGOMERY: Jerdev said that even though selecting orphans through photo listings might be banned in Ukraine and other countries, it's legal in the United States.

(Soundbite of September 2005 interview)

Mr. JERDEV: I work in United States where photo listings are OK. No one in California law or federal law refused me to get photo listings.

MONTGOMERY: The photo listings that are up, those kids are available? They're not advertisements?

Mr. JERDEV: Nyet. No. They're available. The child is available at the moment we sign the contract.

MONTGOMERY: That seems clear, but there's a catch.

(Soundbite of September 2005 interview)

Mr. JERDEV: It's very clear states in our contract we can't guarantee that the child will be available for your family when you'll be there.

MONTGOMERY: Yunona's contract has other clauses that question the reliability of its own photo listings. So if photo listings are so problematic, why doesn't Yunona stop using them?

(Soundbite of September 2005 interview)

Mr. JERDEV: I removed, like, 80 percent of clients. But in this way, they will go to another agency with photo listings and they will have exactly the same problems, exactly, you know.

MONTGOMERY: Jerdev told us most families understood the risks in overseas adoptions, and he claimed many happy clients. We contacted some of those families, like Roberta(ph) and Craig Saber(ph) of Bangor, Pennsylvania. Roberta Sager says the couple avoided photo listings and adopted two healthy young girls by selecting the orphans in person.

Mrs. ROBERTA SABER (Adoptive Parent): We had a wonderful, satisfying journey the first time that we traveled through Yunona into Kazakhstan. And when we ventured back again, we had the same situation, a wonderful adoption journey with Yunona.

MONTGOMERY: Several former Yunona employees told us that while clients like the Sabers were happy, many others were not. And they said some workers repeatedly spread false information about orphans.

Mr. CONSTANTINE YAKUBANKO(ph) (Former Vice President, Yunona): Some stories have been written in Napa by people who have never--who have no clue about these children.

MONTGOMERY: That's Constantine Yakubanko. Yakubanko is a Ukrainian who worked for four months as a Yunona vice president. He says he was fired in 2004 after objecting to Yunona's use of photo listings. Yakubanko now runs a program for street kids in Ukraine.

Mr. YAKUBANKO: There were people that were telling the family more than they knew. You know, `Your child is adorable. The child has no medical issues,' and so on. I always held the position that we should tell the parents the truth; they can handle it. And Ivan and some other people who worked in Yunona for some longer time, they just didn't think the parents could handle the truth.

MONTGOMERY: Since leaving the United States for Russia in October, Yunona President Ivan Jerdev has not replied to multiple requests for a response to these allegations. But in his interview in September, Jerdev denied deliberately misleading parents. He told us he relied on state agencies and orphanages for information about the children. And Yunona's contract with parents does state that medical information might be unreliable.

(Soundbite of September 2005 interview)

Mr. JERDEV: We don't have direct access to their medical. All information we have, we have from our coordinators, who also doesn't have access to the medical.

MONTGOMERY: A Yunona representative in Napa said he couldn't comment on Constantine Yakubanko's allegations because he wasn't working for the company at the time. FBI investigators say they found a pattern of non-disclosed medical conditions in as many as a dozen Yunona adoptions. One case involved Mary Perdue. Perdue is a 55-year-old machine operator in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In 2003, Perdue adopted a seven-year-old Russian boy named Victor, who she'd seen on a Yunona photo listing.

(Soundbite of recording of Victor crying and screaming)

MONTGOMERY: Yunona had told Perdue that Victor was healthy, gentle and a deep sleeper. But in Iowa, Victor never slept for more than four hours and was prone to long, violent rages.

(Soundbite of recording of Victor crying)

Ms. MARY PERDUE: I taped that because nobody believed that he would scream for hours.

MONTGOMERY: Victor often focused his rage on Kim, Mary's daughter, who's disabled and in a wheelchair.

Ms. PERDUE: He threatened to eviscerate her. He popped her in the mouth for no reason. He would push her wheelchair into corners and into furniture, and I just knew he was going to open that basement door one day when I was at work and push her down there.

MONTGOMERY: A psychologist diagnosed Victor with numerous emotional disorders and concluded he had been severely abused in Russia. After 18 months of treatment and therapy, an Iowa judge sent the boy to a special facility, where he lives as a ward of the state.

While adjustment problems are common for orphans moving to new homes, they're rarely as extreme as Victor's. Perdue believes Yunona and the Russian orphanage concealed Victor's problems to make him more adoptable.

Ms. PERDUE: I made it crystal clear that I wanted a healthy child. At the very best, they lied.

MONTGOMERY: Perdue considered suing Yunona, but she ruled it out as too costly. Investigators say they know of only two successful lawsuits against Yunona, and in both cases the awards were small. Former FBI investigator Doug Perez says many parents were so overwhelmed that they didn't have time to think about lawsuits. Perez says one California mother went so far as to return her 12-year-old adopted son.

Mr. PEREZ: They went back, and they took the child back to the home country. And it was, again, tears, sadness. Here she is in a cab watching as she has to let the boy just get out of the car and go back into the orphanage.

MONTGOMERY: In addition to interviewing families, investigators are trying to trace the millions of dollars collected by Yunona from families. Yunona President Ivan Jerdev would not discuss the company's finances, other than to say that adoptions average between 20 and $30,000. Jerdev did say that some of that money went to bribes delivered by independent coordinators.

(Soundbite of September 2005 interview)

Mr. JERDEV: We don't pay, you know. But the coordinators must go this route, and they pay, yes. They have to pay to a lot of people bribes, (unintelligible) bribes. The money always finds a way to go around.

MONTGOMERY: Jerdev didn't say who was being paid off, but bribes are a sensitive topic for other, more established agencies. The huge flow of unmonitored money troubles Trish Maskew of Ethica.

Ms. MASKEW: Anytime we put that level of money into a situation like this, it creates the opportunity and the motive for corruption.

MONTGOMERY: Maskew says that even though most adoption agencies are trying to work ethically, corruption and loose regulations are having big consequences. Ukraine announced a moratorium on new adoptions to the United States last September, saying it had lost track of hundreds of adopted children. Then in November, the Russian government said it had evidence linking unlicensed adoption groups to the deaths of Russian children taken into American homes. The statement also named Yunona as one group operating illegally in Russia.

Back in the US, some states have tightened restrictions on adoption facilities, and new federal rules being implemented under an international treaty could close other legal loopholes. But in the meantime, adoption experts say parents also have a responsibility. Adam Pertman directs the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.

Mr. ADAM PERTMAN (Director, Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute): In the end, if preadoptive and adoptive parents demand ethical, thoughtful, reasonable services, then things will change 'cause it's our money.

MONTGOMERY: As we were finishing this report, Yunona's fortunes took a dramatic turn. Just before Christmas, police in Napa raided the company's offices, seizing computers, files and banking records. The raid forced Yunona to suspend operations in Napa. Police say they want to question owner Ivan Jerdev, but a company representative says Jerdev is in Russia and out of contact. Police are now scouring Yunona's financial holdings. So far all they've found are unpaid debts and empty bank accounts. For NPR News and American RadioWorks, I'm Michael Montgomery.

ELLIOTT: American RadioWorks is a documentary unit of American Public Media.

You can learn much more about adoption, including a series from American RadioWorks and past NPR coverage of the topic, at our Web site, npr.org.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.