For good and ill, adoption transformed by Internet

AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — In the emotion-charged realm of adoption, the Internet has been a transformative force, often for good, sometimes for ill.

It has facilitated matches bringing neglected orphans into loving homes on the far side of the world, and provides crucial advice and support for families at every challenging stage of the adoption process. Yet it also can be an effective tool for scammers and hucksters seeking to exploit birthmothers and would-be adoptive parents.

"I can't imagine an area more ripe for exploitation — people trying to form families or find a place for their unborn child," said Denise Bierly, president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. "It's like Internet dating, except way more scary and dangerous."

Through two decades of widespread Internet use, there's been little rigorous research into its impact on adoption. A leading think tank, the Donaldson Adoption Institute, has launched a multiyear study to fill that void and is issuing a comprehensive report Thursday outlining the profound changes that have unfolded.

Internet-based tools "are transforming adoption practices, challenging laws and policies, offering unprecedented opportunities and resources, and raising critical ethical, legal and procedural issues," the report notes.

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On the plus side, the report notes that many websites and Internet-based tools — including the photo-listing of available children — have expedited adoptions of countless children. The Internet offers a vast array of information and training, and enables would-be adoptive parents to present themselves in online profiles to pregnant women considering adoption.

Vicki and Jed Taufer of Morton, Ill., battled months of bureaucratic delays to adopt a girl from Nepal. They said they could scarcely imagine going through that trying experience in the pre-Internet age.

They were able to communicate regularly by Skype during the six months in 2010-11 when Vicki stayed with their daughter, Purnima, in Katmandu, waiting for the adoption to be authorized by U.S. authorities while Jed was working in Illinois. They used the Internet to build close friendships with other families struggling to complete adoptions from Nepal, and to raise funds to cover their ever-ballooning legal and logistical costs.

"We had to make some pretty big decisions over Skype," said Vicki. "It allowed us to stay connected as a family."

Another important consequence of the Internet: Finding birth relatives is becoming easier and more common thanks to online search capabilities, hastening the likely phase-out of "closed" adoption while broadening relationships between adoptive and birth families.

The report advises adoption professionals to revise their training regimens to reflect the reality that many affected parties will be able to find each other at some point, and to prepare them for such reunions, whether wanted or unwanted.

On the negative side, the report details how adoption scams — which predate the Internet — now take more sophisticated and wide-ranging forms through misuse of social media.

There have been several recent cases across multiple states where women claiming to be pregnant used the Internet to connect with couples yearning to adopt. In exchange for paying the woman's living expenses, couples were promised — falsely — that they would eventually be able to adopt the baby.

Scott Rowland, a prosecutor in Oklahoma, said one victim lost $30,000 while supporting what turned out to be a fictitious pregnancy.

"People need to be more educated, or there's a very real risk they can pulled into bad practices and scams," said Donaldson Institute executive director Adam Pertman. "We hope regulators, educators, law enforcement officials and child welfare organizations will look at this and say `Enough already. We can't allow the Wild West.'"

The Donaldson report also warns that the Internet is accelerating a "commodification" of adoption, with would-be adoptive parents being viewed as commercial clients and less emphasis placed on the idea that adoption's primary purpose is finding families for children.

Far too often, says Pertman, the child's best interest is not the paramount factor as an adoption is arranged.

The report notes that ads for adoption services can crop up on websites amid ads for other commercial products, pitching the possibility of completing adoptions in a few months.

"Promising a quick, easy adoption raises serious questions about how that can be accomplished," Pertman said. "That's not how it works in most of the real world."

The Adoption Consultancy, based in Brandon, Fla., is among many Internet services which do promote the possibility — though not the guarantee — of quick adoptions. Its executive director, Nicole Witt, describes herself as a "wedding planner for adoptions" and says she's assisted in about 75 adoptions annually since founding the firm seven years ago, with fees that range up to $2,750.

"We help you through the process, quickly and safely, usually within three to 12 months," says Witt's website. "We connect you with adoption agencies and attorneys in states where birth parents cannot revoke their consent."

Witt says many of her clients have struggled for years in futile pursuit of treatment for infertility, and deserve help avoiding drawn-out adoption procedures. She says she counsels them that the ultimate goal is to find the best home for the baby being adopted, "and that may or may not be you."

The president of one of the largest U.S. adoption agencies, Bill Blacquiere of Bethany Christian Services, advises caution as people browse online for adoption services.

"An organization could have a very sophisticated website, but maybe isn't delivering on all the services they should be," he said. "You can promote yourself well, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the highest quality organization."

Chuck Johnson, CEO of the National Council for Adoption, said that when he entered the field in the pre-Internet 1980s, local adoption agencies were the primary source of information.

"Now, you look at the Internet, maybe you use an out-of-state agency," he said. "You're conducting very personal affairs with someone, and your first and sometimes only connection with them is over the Internet."

That lack of personal connection, Johnson said, can increase vulnerability to exploitation.

"Almost every one of them knew they were doing something stupid," he said of his exchanges with scam victims. "They were just desperately trying to make the right decision."

The Donaldson report recommends that leading adoption organizations and experts collaborate on developing standards for use of the Internet. It urges state and federal policy-makers to assess whether new laws are needed to protect against Internet-based adoption scams, and calls on social media and Internet companies, such as Facebook and Google, to assess whether their policies and practices need modification.