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Frustrated Adoptive Parents Turn To Online 'Exchanges'


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Later in the program, we'll head into the Barbershop to ask the guys about the video game Grand Theft Auto - once so controversial, now so lucrative. The new version is breaking sales records all over the place, and we'll hear what the guys have to say about that.

But first, to a much more serious topic about adoptions, especially international adoptions gone awry. Now, the story of the Tennessee woman who sent the 7-year-old boy she adopted from a Russian orphanage back to Moscow, in 2010, made headlines in both countries, and sparked a diplomatic confrontation. But there's a disturbing story, recently reported by Reuters News Service, that suggests that that scenario is actually more common than most people would suspect, except that parents who feel they cannot cope with their adoptive children are more likely to use the Internet to find other homes for them in the U.S., with little oversight from anybody.

Megan Twohey is the investigative reporter at Reuters who looked into this for a report called "The Child Exchange," and she is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

MEGAN TWOHEY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You reported that the practice is called - it's known in adoption circles, anyway - as re-homing. How did you hear about this?

TWOHEY: Well, I was interested in international adoption, and there has been coverage in recent years of some of the problems that have happened on the foreign end of international adoptions. You know, it's really been only in the last 15 years that a lot of these foreign countries have opened their orphanages and child welfare systems to Americans looking to adopt. And Americans have flooded into these countries.

And in recent years, there's been coverage of some of the problems on the foreign end - child trafficking, fraud. And I figured if there were problems on the foreign end, there were likely ripple effects and other repercussions playing out here in the United States. So with that in mind, I went on the Internet, I started just researching international adoption here in the United States, and I really stumbled into these Yahoo! groups and other online forums, where adoptive parents were going to seek new families for their adopted children, saying they couldn't handle them anymore. And the term is re-homing - which, it's interesting to note, was a term first used by people seeking new homes for their pets.

MARTIN: You focus on a number of different families in situations, but I just wanted you to tell us about just one - a 16-year-old girl from Liberia that you profile. What happened?

TWOHEY: So that's a young woman named Quita, who was adopted from Liberia as a teenager; brought to Wisconsin by her adoptive family, who determined in a pretty short period of time that they could no longer deal with her emotional and behavioral problems. The mother said that she thought that Quita was too dangerous to keep in the home.

And so she did what, you know, many other adoptive parents who find themselves in these difficult situations, do. She posted an ad for Quita on the Internet, seeking a new family for her.

And she was contacted by a family just one state over, in Illinois, that was interested in taking Quita. They e-mailed back and forth. They had phone conversations, and then Quida's adoptive mom and father drove her to Illinois, and deposited her in a trailer park with these folks that she had met - just on the Internet. There were no courts involved. It was simply - she just signed a piece of paper and got it notarized, saying she was turning over this girl to these strangers that she'd met on the Internet.

MARTIN: Obviously, I think people are going to want to know how widespread this is. I think that the question is, is this a part of a pattern or a trend, or is this actually a widespread phenomenon? So what does your reporting indicate about that?

TWOHEY: That's an excellent question. One thing is certain, which is that the United States government has absolutely no idea how often this is taking place. There are no laws here in the United States that recognize re-homing, let alone try to restrict it or regulate it in any way. There are no government agencies trying to track what happens to these children as they get passed from one home to the next. But you know, what I can tell you is that at Reuters, over the course of our 18-month investigation, we spent a lot of time, you know, monitoring these Yahoo! groups, Facebook groups and other online forums where this activity is taking place. We did a deep dive on a single Yahoo! group. We scraped all 5,000 messages going back five years, and we found that in this one single Yahoo! group for re-homing, there was a child being offered up, on average, once a week. And that was going back five years. So hundreds of kids were being offered up from across the country.

MARTIN: What were the scenarios that led people to do this? I mean, with Quita, for example, what was going on with her that the parents felt that they could not cope with it?

TWOHEY: Right, well, I think it's important to note that when we did this deep dive on this one Yahoo! group where there was a lot of re-homing activity taking place, we found that most of the children that were being offered up - where people were soliciting new families for them - most of the children had been adopted from foreign countries. And a lot of them were said to have emotional and behavioral problems, special needs of some kind. About 1 in 5 were said to have experienced a sexual or physical abuse of some kind. So in certain cases, parents talk about fearing for the safety of other children in their home.

I mean, it's going to be a case-by-case basis. But I think - looking at the advertisements for these children, talking to adoptive parents who had re-homed a child, there were some themes that came through. Parents talked about feeling that they hadn't received adequate training going into these adoptions. When they brought the children home, they came with these emotional, behavioral problems that they hadn't been told about.

When the adoption went south, they turned to the adoption agency. The adoption industry kind of wiped their hands of them, refused to help. And the government child-welfare system also was not providing assistance. In fact, if - you know - these families sought to relinquish their child to the state foster care system, they were told that they'd be investigated for abuse or neglect, risk having other children removed from their home. So, you know, one of the major themes that came through were, talking to these folks, was just a lot of desperation and feeling like they had nowhere else to turn except for what, you know, many participants in this re-homing world will describe as - describe it as an underground network.

MARTIN: What happened to Quita?

TWOHEY: So Quita was interesting. She ended up in the home of Nicole and Calvin Eason, who were, you know, major - sort of - subjects of our investigation. This is a couple who had an interesting background. The woman, Nicole Eason, had her own two biological children permanently removed from her custody, following allegations of abuse and neglect. One social services official had described she and her husband as suffering from severe psychiatric problems with violent tendencies. In the next couple of years, she had - they were separately accused of sexually abusing children they were babysitting for.

A couple years after that, she apparently, you know, discovered this re-homing network. And Quita was among six children that she obtained through this underground re-homing network. And, you know, in this re-homing world, there is - oftentimes, this activity is taking place out of the view of child-welfare officials or any other government authorities. There isn't, you know - there often aren't any adoption professionals involved.

And so there's very little vetting of the folks who are taking these children. And this family believed what the Easons were saying; and dropped Quita off, saying that she was now in the custody of Nicole and Calvin Eason. Nicole promised that she was going to stay in touch with the original adoptive family and actually, within a matter of days, they had disappeared from the trailer park with Quita. And it set off a multistate search for the girl.

MARTIN: So nobody knows where they are now?

TWOHEY: So they were ultimately located in New York. And the police went in, and they took Quita - did some questioning of her, placed her in a shelter for the night - and put her on a bus back to Wisconsin, by herself. She is actually in college and studying social work, and hoping that she'll be able to help other young people who face similar challenges and struggles.

MARTIN: What's the state of play now? Has there been any response from the State Department? Has there been any response from the child-welfare agencies in the states in which you did your reporting?

TWOHEY: Yes, there has been - it's interesting. There were - I traveled all across the country, interviewing people and collecting cases for this project. And when it finally was published last week, there was certainly a lot of - you know, we heard from a lot of people in the adoption community, folks who had absolutely no idea that this was going on - members of Congress, foreign officials. There was clearly from - at all different levels, a concern, a very serious concern that this was taking place; and a sense that something had to be done. So I think that there is now discussions that are taking place about how both the adoption industry and the government can step in and, you know, play a greater role in basically ensuring that these, you know - we're talking about among sort of society's most vulnerable demographic - are better protected.

MARTIN: That was Reuters' investigative reporter Megan Twohey, telling us about her series of investigative reports called "The Child Exchange." She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Megan Twohey, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TWOHEY: Yeah, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.