For would-be parents hoping to adopt a baby, Joella Kern provided lots of hope and promises. Kern operated an adoption website that claimed its purpose was to “bring families together,” even posting pictures and descriptions of the babies available for adoption. At least seven different couples from across the country sent Kern a total of $44,000 in exchange for promises of a baby.
But the babies were never delivered. Instead, Kern pocketed the money and told the couples the birth mother pulled out of the “adoption” at the last minute. After a federal investigation, it turned there were no birth mothers and no babies to adopt. In 2005, Kern was sentenced to two years in federal prison for wire fraud in what was believed to be the first Internet adoption fraud case of its kind in the U.S. [Source: “Adoption fraud nets 2-year term,” Spokane Spokesman-Review, July 30, 2005].
Internet adoptions have gained some momentum in recent years. Birth mothers who want to put their child up for adoption and couples looking for a child to adopt can search for one another on different websites, and the results can be easier, cheaper and faster than a traditional adoption agency.
Unfortunately, adoption websites have also been a target for con artists like Kern. The schemes are varied, but always end with broken hearts for the adoptive parents. Some of these criminals promise their unborn child to more than one couple, while some just pretend to be pregnant. All have one goal in mind: extort as much money as possible from trusting couples who desperately want a baby.
These con-artists prey on the most vulnerable emotions of prospective adoptive parents. But many states lack effective laws to prosecute for the specific injuries resulting from adoption fraud. Most states allow birth mothers to change their minds about adoption up until and even after the birth takes place. And typically, birth mothers are not required to give back any money received from adoptive parents if they do change their minds. Consequently, it is often up to the wronged couple to prove there was fraud — not simply a mother who changed her mind.
Couples, be aware. Cases of adoption fraud are springing up all across the country, with some con artists scamming multiple couples at once. As much as we all want to trust in the goodness of others, adoptive parents already know they must guard themselves and their hearts. Couples using online adoption resources should increase that awareness ten-fold. If a birth mother match is made online, it is vital to research that person's background and have contact information for not just her, but also her family or friends. Make sure that information is accurate.
Ask for medical documents and ensure the mother is taking proper care of herself. If a birth mother is reluctant to hand over medical records to you, encourage her to work with your attorney.
Get legal advice. I cannot stress this enough. The intricacies of adoptions, whether online or through agencies, are best handled by a specialized adoption attorney. Laws regarding adoptions vary from state to state, so perspective parents should hire an attorney in the same state as the birth mother. Have an adoption attorney put everything into writing. And if the birth mother does need financial assistance, arrange for payments through your attorney. Prospective adoptive parents should be aware that providing money or services to birth parents is illegal in some states, and most others have laws about how much money can be spent.
Hiring an attorney is also a step toward getting valid consent from a birth mother. Almost all states require consent to be in writing and either witnessed and notarized or executed before a judge or other designated official. But only a few states (Massachusetts, Utah, Mississippi and Nebraska) recognize consent as irrevocable. The majority of states allow a birth mother to revoke her consent, which leads me to my third piece of advice.
Stay smart. Even though adoptive parents may want to approach a birth mother as a new friend or confidant, it is important to remember that at its basic level, the relationship is akin to a business transaction. Look for red flags, such as a birth mother continuously asking for money or refusing to give her medical information.
Coaching adoptive parents to look for adoption fraud may reduce the numbers of crimes, but it is not going to discourage those who commit these despicable acts. States need to re-evaluate their adoption laws to allow prospective adoptive parents to seek return of fees. Prosecuting attorneys need more tools to investigate claims of fraud. While putting the con artist in jail may not make up for the heartache, it would provide some justice for couples.
Adopting a baby should be a joyous occasion, not an excuse for con-artists to make a buck.
Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.