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Preying on Parents

Part: 1, 2, 3, 4

Update: This report, originally produced in October 2005, spurred California lawmakers to take action, and in September 2006, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation aimed at curbing adoption fraud.

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A Picture and a Promise

Four years ago Mary Perdue was contemplating her family's future. Perdue was 51, divorced and a machine operator in a factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Perdue had raised two daughters but the idea of having a son had always intrigued her. She considered foster care. But why bring a child into your home, she asked herself, if you were just going to show him the door one day? Then Mary and her daughters discovered international adoption. Expensive, yes. Risky, perhaps. But the child would be part of the Perdue family forever.

So like thousands of other Americans, Mary Perdue and her daughters started trolling Web sites devoted to finding homes in America for overseas orphans. The Perdues looked at photos of hundreds of orphans. And then they saw Victor, a seven-year-old boy living in an orphanage in Russia.

"He just struck me," Perdue says as she recalls seeing Victor's photo for the first time. "The real thick head of hair, dimples. A smiley happy little boy."

PJ Whiskeyman at her computer.
photo by Sasha Aslanian

Kim Perdue, Mary's younger daughter, saw a future brother in Victor's blurry digital image.

"He looked like a friend of mine," says Kim. "The write-up said he was very bright and cheerful, eager to have a family. You fall in love with the picture, and that's how they get you."

In Lititz, Pennsylvania, PJ Whiskeyman and her husband, Mike Bard, also took to the Internet. Whiskeyman is a 46-year-old writer who already had six children. She was casually browsing international adoption Web sites when she came across photos and brief descriptions of two girls, Vika, 9 and Karolina, 11. "The blurb and pictures just tugged at our hearts," says Whiskeyman. The Web site listed the girls as orphans in Ukraine and said they were available for adoption.

Vika

Karolina

The images of the orphans nagged at both families: It was as if they could see the children in their homes and hear their voices. Eventually, the Internet listings led Mary Perdue and PJ Whiskeyman to the same California-based adoption company, Yunona USA.

"And when I called Yunona about these girls, the first thing they told me the day I called them in November was, 'Well, some other parents have expressed interest in those girls and you'd better send your down payment immediately because the first one to get their money in, we'll hold the children for them,'" says Whiskeyman. "And I remember I called Mike and we scrambled together to wire them the first down payment of $7,500 to hold these girls."

Both families signed contracts and placed deposits without ever meeting a Yunona representative and with only scant information about the children they wanted to bring into their lives. That's not unusual today in the world of international adoption. As the number of overseas adoptions has exploded, so too has the number of companies battling for business in cyberspace. It's a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year. And while adoptive parents face a blizzard of red tape, groups that help arrange those adoptions face little government scrutiny.

"We like to say that your neighborhood health club is probably more heavily regulated than anybody who's doing adoptions in the United States," says Trish Maskew, president of Ethica, a group that lobbies for better rules governing adoption.

Maskew says most adoptions are set up by reputable companies and work out well. But there have also been scandals involving child trafficking and Internet scams that prey on prospective parents.

That's something that worried PJ Whiskeyman and her husband when they traveled to Ukraine. The couple was expecting to return to Pennsylvania with two new daughters. But instead they could never locate Vika. And they were shocked to learn that Karolina had a 14 year-old brother and could not be adopted without him. The couple refused to consider other children suggested by Yunona and returned home empty-handed.

"We got suckered," says Whiskeyman. "We would never have gone if not for the picture and the promise."



Next: Bait and Switch