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  1. U.S. lawmakers call for action to stop parents from giving away kids online

    URGING ACTION: Erik Jones, an Illinois assistant attorney general, leaves the witness stand at an Illinois House of Representatives’ adoption reform committee in October. The Illinois attorney general urged Facebook and Yahoo to police online groups where children are advertised. REUTERS/Jim Young

    State Department says officials are “deeply troubled” by practice, which puts children at “extreme risk”

    CHICAGO - U.S. lawmakers called Tuesday for federal action to prevent parents from giving unwanted adopted children to strangers met on the Internet, and the Illinois attorney general urged Facebook and Yahoo to police online groups where children may be advertised.

    The demands come as nations whose orphans have been adopted by Americans contend that the U.S. government isn't doing enough to stop the practice, known as "private re-homing."

    A Reuters investigation last month revealed an underground market where desperate parents seek new families for children they adopted but no longer want. The parents connect through online forums on Yahoo and Facebook, privately arranging custody transfers that can bypass government oversight and sometimes violate the law.

    No government agencies track the practice, but the news service identified eight Internet groups in which members discussed, facilitated or engaged in re-homing. In a single Yahoo group that the company has since taken down, a child was offered to strangers on average once a week during a five-year period. At least 70 percent of those children were listed as having been adopted from overseas.

    The series identified re-homed children who endured severe abuse and adults who used the online network to obtain children but were not properly vetted. In one case, a man now serving prison time for child pornography took home a 10-year-old boy he and a friend found online earlier that day. They picked up the boy in a motel parking lot.

    On Tuesday, 18 federal lawmakers called for a Congressional hearing on re-homing. In a letter submitted to a House subcommittee that oversees adoption, the bipartisan group said the news agency's series "drew attention to the many disturbing dangers and problems associated with this practice." The group, led by U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI), said a hearing would "identify ways to prevent these dangerous practices."

    'OVERSIGHT AND PROSECUTION'

    In the letter, the U.S. lawmakers also requested a study by the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office. The study would identify gaps in state and federal laws "related to the oversight and prosecution of wrong-doers in the re-homing of children." It also would identify ways to better support struggling adoptive families.

    ‘DISTURBING DANGERS’: In response to the Reuters investigation, a group of lawmakers led by U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) called for a Congressional hearing on re-homing to “identify ways to prevent these dangerous practices.” REUTERS/Larry Downing

    In a separate letter to Obama administration officials - including the U.S. attorney general and the heads of the departments of State, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services - Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) called for a broad federal response. Wyden wrote that the Reuters stories demonstrated that advertising children online "does not seem to violate any federal laws" and called on the Obama administration to recommend a "minimum federal standard" to govern re-homing.

    An agreement among states is supposed to prohibit parents from transferring custody of a child to a non-relative across state lines without approval of officials in both states. But the agreement is rarely enforced. Some state laws prohibit anyone without a child-placing license from facilitating adoptions or advertising children for adoption. Many states place no restrictions on the activity, and no uniform federal law exists. Wyden called it "stunning" that "investigation and enforcement is left to largely disparate state practices."

    "Finding families for vulnerable children should never be a do-it-yourself process that involves nothing more than placing or responding to an advertisement online," Wyden wrote. He asked each of the agencies to "make further recommendations to Congress on what additional authority may be needed in order to stop the practice of advertising children online for de-facto adoptions that occur outside of a formal, legal process."

    "Federal law should clearly prohibit the trafficking of children through this unconscionable practice," Wyden said in his letter.

    The apparent lack of response by U.S. authorities to re-homing has angered some nations. Days after the articles were published, the Democratic Republic of Congo announced it was not allowing children to leave the country for adoption. "This suspension is due to concerns over reports that children ... may be either abused by adoptive families or adopted by a second set of parents once in their receiving countries," according to a U.S. State Department alert posted Sept 27 on its website. Congolese officials did not comment.

    ‘MY BUSINESS’: Nicole Eason has taken in more than a half-dozen children, many from failed international adoptions, during the past decade. “Whatever happens behind my closed doors is my business,” she says. REUTERS/Samantha Sais

    CONCERN ABROAD

    China and Russia are among other countries that expressed concern over the U.S. government's handling of the issue.

    “Finding families for vulnerable children should never be a do-it-yourself process that involves nothing more than placing or responding to an advertisement online.” U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon

    In a statement on re-homing released last month, the State Department said it was "deeply troubled by the information revealed in recent reports of parents who advertise their children online and turn over physical custody to other individuals without the safeguards of state or local government oversight. The Reuters reports highlighted examples in which this practice put the welfare of vulnerable children at extreme risk."

    The State Department offered no details about whether it would try to track children brought to the United States, but said it is "committed to ensuring that reliable safeguards for the wellbeing of children are in place."

    At the state level, meanwhile, lawmakers in Florida and Wisconsin are drafting legislation to address re-homing. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sent letters on Monday to Yahoo and Facebook, urging both companies to aggressively police their sites for re-homing activity.

    Yahoo shut down all of the re-homing groups on its site that Reuters brought to its attention. A Facebook spokesman said the company had no plans to take down a popular but private page called Way Stations of Love, where adoptive parents sometimes seek new homes for unwanted children.

    FEDERAL RESPONSE: U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) called on the U.S. attorney general and the heads of the departments of State, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to address re-homing issues. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

    In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Madigan called on the company to take down the page and "ensure this practice never again finds a home on Facebook." Madigan wrote that Facebook's initial response to questions about the page - that "the Internet is a reflection of society" - "suggests your company is comfortable with its website being used to facilitate this illegal conduct."

    A DIFFICULT BALANCE

    "I understand the difficulty your company faces as it balances freedom of speech protections with the equally important challenge of limiting troubling content," Madigan wrote. "Yet, in cases such as these, where illegal acts of 're-homing' are occurring, or likely to occur, there is no justification for allowing this conduct to continue unabated on Facebook."

    A Facebook spokesman said the company "has received Attorney General Madigan's letter and we look forward to responding to her office's questions in full." A Yahoo spokesperson said the company it had already taken "the 're-homing' groups down" and that it looks "forward to working with the Attorney General on this issue."

    At a hearing Tuesday before the Illinois House of Representative's adoption reform committee, state lawmakers called for better support services for adoptive families and for more safeguards for adopted children. They also pressed state officials about why they didn't do more to prevent illegal re-homing cases detailed by Reuters, specifically those involving former Illinois couple Nicole and Calvin Eason.

    Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Democrat, said that when she adopted a cat earlier this year, she signed a contract that prohibited her from re-homing the pet. "My cat has more protections than the children I'm talking about," she said.

    PRESSING FACEBOOK: Lisa Madigan, attorney general for Illinois, is asking Facebook to account for how it is policing possible re-homing activity. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

    Erik Jones, a state assistant attorney general, testified that his office quickly alerted authorities in Arizona, where the Easons are now living, after reading the articles "because there could be ongoing threats to children." The series recounted how Nicole Eason took in at least six boys and girls from adoptive parents whom she met on the Internet after authorities removed both of her biological children from her care. In addition, she and her husband, Calvin Eason, were each accused of sexually abusing children they had babysat. Nicole took custody of one child when she was living with a pedophile who is now in prison for trading child pornography.

    ARIZONA INVESTIGATION

    "We learned that the Easons had relocated to Arizona and investigators from our office immediately reached out to law enforcement officials in Arizona," Jones said.

    Jones said Arizona authorities later learned that two children were living with the Easons, and Arizona Child Protective Services removed the children from the home. "We have not yet learned who the parents are, or where they are located," Jones said. "However, the children who were in the (Eason) home are now safe and that was our number one priority."

    “My cat has more protections than the children I’m talking about.” Illinois state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz

    The Easons confirmed that they have been interviewed by police and child welfare workers in Tucson, Ariz. They would not discuss what they were asked. "I'm not worried about it," Nicole Eason said of the investigations in a phone interview last week. "Why should I be worried about it?"

    A police report shows that authorities removed two children who were living in a hotel room with the Easons. The children, the report says, had not been attending school. Their names and ages were blacked out.

    In the phone interview, Eason said authorities have no right to investigate what happens in her home. "Whatever happens behind my closed doors is my business, not anyone else's." She added: "Until there's a murder investigation, absolutely not. Stay out of my business."

    (Edited by Blake Morrison)

    Leave a comment on our Facebook page or tweet us @SpecialReports and use the hashtag #ChildExchange. You can also send us an email at childexchange@reuters.com.

    Girl spent months harboring secret, fearing she would be sent away again

    NO IDEA: Nita Dittenber, now 18, said she had no idea that her adoptive mother was using the Internet to look for families willing to take Nita. "There could have been murderers or killers," Nita says. REUTERS/Harrison McClary

    Authorities say an Ohio mother used ‘re-homing’ to keep allegations of sexual abuse from coming to light

    MARYSVILLE, Ohio - On an Internet forum where parents sought takers for adopted children they no longer wanted, a teenager from Haiti was offered more frequently than any other girl.

    Starting at age 14, Nita Dittenber was passed among four families over two years through a practice called “private re-homing.”

    In September, Reuters exposed an underground market in which desperate parents use online bulletin boards to offer adoptees to strangers, often illegally and with no government oversight. The Internet forums, including the Yahoo group where Nita was advertised, can enable abusers to acquire children easily; in one case, a pedophile in Illinois took home a 10-year-old boy hours after an ad for the child was posted online.

    In the last home where Nita was sent, re-homing served a different purpose, Ohio prosecutors contend. They say it was used to silence Nita and another girl in an effort to conceal the repeated sexual abuse of children.

    For 17 months - from early 2011 until July 2012 - Nita lived in the Ohio city of Marysville with Jean Paul and Emily Kruse. Jean Paul was an information-technology specialist with the Ohio National Guard. Emily was a stay-at-home mother. The Kruses were the fourth family to take custody of her in America.

    Not long after she was sent there, Nita says, the younger Kruse children told her they were being molested by Jean Paul. Nita says she struggled for months over whether to speak up about the allegations, fearing she’d be thrown out of the house and sent to yet another set of strangers if she did.

    “I didn’t want to get passed around anymore,” Nita, now 18, says in an interview.

    Months later, according to criminal charges filed in Union County Court here, Emily Kruse abruptly put Nita on a flight back to her original adoptive parents in Idaho - alone and “with only the clothes on her back.”

    The reason: Kruse discovered that Nita had told relatives of the Kruses about the abuse accusations. Prosecutors say Emily sent Nita away to ensure the teen “would not be around to answer questions or participate in the resulting investigation.” They say another girl - an alleged victim of the abuse - was also threatened by Emily with re-homing unless she wrote a letter saying her accusations against Jean Paul were “not true.”

    Jean Paul Kruse, 41, has pleaded not guilty to 17 felony criminal counts, including raping two of his daughters and sexually abusing another daughter. He and his attorney didn’t respond to interview requests. Emily Kruse, 36, has pleaded not guilty to felony charges of obstructing justice and intimidating a witness. She declined to comment; her attorney did not respond to questions.

    SHOCKING CHARGES: Ohio National Guardsman Jean Paul Kruse, 41, was once the subject of a heartwarming story about the children he and his wife had adopted. Now, he faces charges of sexually abusing three of his daughters. REUTERS/Staff Sgt. Kim Snow/Ohio National Guard Public Affairs/Handout

    RE-HOMED LIKE A PET

    Since the late 1990s, Americans have adopted about 243,000 children from other countries. If the failure rate of international adoptions is similar to the rate at which domestic adoptions fail - estimates by the federal government range from about 10 percent to 25 percent - then more than 24,000 foreign adoptees are no longer with the parents who brought them to America.

    No government agency tracks what happens to these children after they reach America, and none monitors how frequently children are transferred to strangers via the Internet. But on a single online message board examined by Reuters—a Yahoo group called Adopting-from-Disruption — a child was offered for re-homing about once a week during a five-year period. Most of the children were adopted from overseas. One was Nita.

    After Reuters published messages from the Yahoo group, Nita’s adoptive aunt began reading the posts. Reporters had removed names and other identifying information. But Tammy Dittenber says she quickly recognized that some of the messages were about Nita, based on details about her age, nationality and state of residence.

    Tammy says she knew that Nita’s adoptive parents - her in-laws, Tony and Michelle Dittenber - had sent Nita to other families. But Tammy says she had no idea how until she read the posts.

    “I said, ‘Oh my God! All the puzzle pieces are coming into focus,’” Tammy Dittenber recalls. “...I realized she had been re-homed the way you re-home a pet.”

    Re-homing a child is easy. No state or federal laws specifically prohibit it, and state laws that restrict the advertising and custody transfers of children are often confusing and rarely spell out criminal sanctions.

    An agreement among the 50 U.S. states called the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, or ICPC, is meant to ensure that child welfare authorities oversee custody transfers, review prospective parents and account for what happens to children sent from one state to another. Many law-enforcement officials - including police who investigated the Kruse case - have never heard of the compact.

    Even so, Ohio state officials say prosecuting the Kruses for breaching the pact would be futile. “There are no sanctions or criminal penalties in Ohio for violating the ICPC,” said Benjamin Johnson, a deputy director of the state’s Department of Job and Family Services.

    Authorities handling the Kruse cases are now calling for state measures to address re-homing, and other states have already taken action in response to the Reuters investigation.

    “I was scared and nervous. I didn’t want to get passed around anymore.” Nita Dittenber on being re-homed

    In Illinois, lawmakers held a hearing on the practice, and Colorado, Florida and Wisconsin are moving forward with bills aimed at stopping re-homing. “We need to protect kids who are literally being traded between homes,” said Republican state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, who sponsored the Wisconsin bill. The state senate passed the measure this week, and it now awaits the governor’s signature. “This legislation puts Wisconsin on the national forefront of addressing re-homing and attacking it head on,” Kleefisch said.

    At the federal level, a group of 18 Republican and Democratic members of Congress is seeking hearings to “identify ways to prevent these dangerous practices.” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, called for broad action in a letter to Obama administration officials, writing that it was “stunning” that “this practice of advertising children, usually over state borders, does not seem to violate any federal laws.”

    Yahoo shut down the re-homing groups that Reuters brought to its attention, and the Illinois attorney general is pressing Facebook to explain how the social network polices itself. Reuters found that adoptive parents also were offering unwanted children there on a private page called Way Stations of Love. In a Jan. 21 letter responding to the attorney general’s inquiries, Facebook said it had found “no evidence of the type of Pages you described” but that “if people were discussing the activity in closed Groups or in private messages, we do not know about those communications unless they are reported to us.”

    ‘HOW CAN PEOPLE DO THIS?’

    Born Nita Durand and raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Nita still speaks with a trace of a Haitian accent. She says her birth parents were poor and sent her to an orphanage when she was 9, hoping she would have a better life than they had.

    THE FUTURE: Nita Dittenber recently completed a residential treatment center for troubled girls. Now, she says, she is focusing on her dream: to return to her native Haiti to help orphans. REUTERS/Harrison McClary

    In 2009, Tony and Michelle Dittenber adopted her and brought her to their home in Nampa, Idaho, just outside Boise. Tony helps operate a food warehouse. Michelle books flights for an airline.

    Nita was 13 at the time. She became one of nine Dittenber children, four biological and five adopted, including Nita’s younger biological sister. Each of the adoptees is Haitian.

    The Dittenbers and Nita clashed from the start. Nita had “behavioral issues,” Tony Dittenber says. Nita says she thought the Dittenbers were harsh and treated her unfairly.

    After the family tried without success to get help from social service agencies, Michelle says she turned to the Internet. She had read offers for children in the online forums. “My first thought was, ‘How can people do this?’” Dittenber says. “Then as I read through it and read people’s stories and what they’d been through, I understood.”

    In August 2010, Michelle posted a message on the Yahoo group Adopting-from-Disruption. Her profile name: idmomofmany.

    “I have a 14 year old daughter I adopted from Haiti,” she wrote. “Unfortunately we are needing to find a new family for her. Where do we start?”

    Re-homing victim: ‘I could have been dead’

    Since she was adopted and brought to America at age 13, Nita Dittenber was passed from family to family through an underground market for adopted kids. The practice, called "private re-homing," was uncovered last year by a Reuters Investigation

    It was the first of several times Michelle offered Nita on the Yahoo group. In her posts, Michelle portrayed Nita as a “bully” with an “attitude of entitlement.” The girl “lies” and is “manipulative,” she wrote, but “does love little kids very much” and has “a soft spot for elderly people as well.”

    Each time they transferred custody of Nita, the Dittenbers used a notarized power of attorney document stating that Nita was now in the care of the new family, Tony says. No social workers or attorneys were involved, he says, and there was no official vetting of the parents taking in Nita.

    Nita says she did not know that she had been advertised on the sites until her aunt read the Reuters report and told her about it. “I didn't really know what was going on,” Nita says. “I had no clue about where I was going to live and for how long.”

    The first two families to take Nita — one in Ohio, another in Idaho — sent her back to the Dittenbers.

    Then, Nita was sent to the Kruse home in Marysville. It was her third move in less than a year. She was 15.

    ‘NINE IS ENOUGH?’

    It seemed like a good option. Michelle says that the first Ohio family who’d taken in Nita knew and vouched for the Kruses.

    In 2008, the couple also had been profiled in a heartwarming story distributed by the Ohio National Guard, headlined “Nine is enough?” The article described how the Kruses happily scrambled to care for their large family.

    At the time, the story said, the Kruses had five biological children - four from previous marriages — and four adopted overseas. A photo showed a grinning Jean Paul tickling one of the adopted children, a girl born in Liberia.

    “We wanted a girl because they have it so hard there,” the story quotes him as saying. “They are often raped and molested from a very young age.”

    Within weeks of arriving at the Kruse place, Nita alleges, several young girls in the home told her they were being sexually abused by Jean Paul. She says she wasn’t abused herself but was terrified to come forward. It took her about nine months to share the allegations with Emily, she says. When she finally did, Nita says, Emily accused her of lying and promised to put her on a plane back to Idaho if she told anyone else.

    FELT REJECTED: As she was passed from home to home, Nita Dittenber says she developed an eating disorder and contemplated suicide. "I remember praying to God, 'Please take me,' because I did not want to go through that again," she says. REUTERS/Harrison McClary

    Nita kept silent for another eight months. “I was like, ‘I’m not about to ruin this one,’ ” Nita says. The stress of being sent from family to family was overwhelming, she says: She suffered an eating disorder and contemplated suicide.

    Then, in July 2012, Nita and two of the girls were visiting with a Kruse family relative. Nita says she recalls feeling glum that day, burdened by what the young girls were continuing to tell her. The relative asked her why she looked so down. Nita told her of the alleged abuse, and then the other girls told their stories.

    The relative took Nita and the girls to see other family members, Nita says, and they went over the allegations again.

    In court documents, authorities describe what happened next: After learning that the abuse allegations had come to light, Emily picked up Nita at a local hospital where the teen was working as a volunteer. Emily then took Nita directly to the nearby airport in Columbus.

    “Michelle was on the Internet a lot. She’d come back and say ‘there’s a family here who will take her.’ I was like ‘OK.’” Tony Dittenber on his wife’s efforts to re-home Nita

    Emily “did not tell the child where she was going and did not permit her to pack her clothing or other belongings,” prosecutors allege in court documents. At the airport, they say, she ordered Nita to get on a flight to Boise so that the girl couldn’t be questioned in any investigation of Jean Paul. The move was so abrupt, they allege, that Emily didn’t give the Dittenbers advance notice that Nita was heading back to Idaho.

    The Dittenbers were away on vacation at the time, so they asked Tony’s brother and sister-in-law, Michael and Tammy Dittenber, to pick up Nita. When Nita walked off the plane, she “looked lost and really confused,” Tammy wrote in a police statement as part of the Kruse criminal cases. “…She said she had nothing. No suitcase, duffle bag, carry on, nothing.”

    Almost immediately, Michelle Dittenber again began offering Nita for re-homing.

    In a July 24, 2012, post on the Yahoo group, Michelle blamed Nita for the rupture with the Kruses.

    “The last straw with the last family was her making allegations that the dad in the family was sexually molesting all the kids but her,” Michelle wrote. “...I would love to be done with her permanently.”

    SPEAKING OUT: Nita Dittenber says she felt burdened by what young girls in the Kruse home had confided in her: that Jean Paul was molesting them. When she spoke up, she was kicked out of the Kruse home, according to court documents. REUTERS/Harrison McClary

    Soon, however, child welfare workers and police began to investigate the Kruses. In August 2012, 10 children were removed from their home.

    Later that summer, police in Nampa, Idaho, interviewed Nita as part of the investigation. Sgt. Don Peck says he never looked into how Nita came to live with the Kruses. He says he had no reason to believe her custody transfer was improper, despite an Idaho state law that prohibits anyone without a state license from advertising children for adoptions.

    Jean Paul Kruse is scheduled for trial in May; Emily Kruse is scheduled for trial in July. The two no longer live together, and some of the couple’s children have been returned to Emily’s care.

    ‘HEART TO HEART’

    Eventually, the Dittenbers sent Nita to Mercy Ministries, a Nashville residential treatment center for troubled girls.

    In December, Nita received a certificate for completing the program. In her eight months at Mercy Ministries, she says, she recovered from her eating disorder and regained a sense of self-worth, making friends and bonding with staff.

    “I had no clue about where I was going to live and for how long.” Nita Dittenber on being sent from family to family

    Michelle, who says she now regrets her decisions to re-home Nita, traveled to Nashville for the graduation ceremony. For the first time, Michelle discussed with Nita how she had used the Internet to seek new families for her.

    “I was like, I do understand that you needed help…but there could have been murderers or killers,” Nita says. “You don’t know those people. I could have been dead.”

    Michelle says she told Nita that “she always has the option to come back home” to Idaho.

    Nita has no such plans. Today, she is living outside Nashville with Sandra Booker, a nurse she met through church. With Booker’s help, Nita intends to finish her education and “focus on the future.” Her ambition, she says, is to return to Haiti and work with orphans.

    (Additional reporting by Blake Morrison. Edited by Blake Morrison and Michael Williams)

    Leave a comment on our Facebook page or tweet us @SpecialReports and use the hashtag #ChildExchange. You can also send us an email at childexchange@reuters.com.

    Parents struggle to get assistance after adopting from overseas

    LEARNING TO COPE: Amanda and Bryan Alexander stand in their adopted daughter’s bedroom in Georgia. They keep the room free of decorations and put the dresser in front of the window as precautions meant to protect their daughter. REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry

    U.S. government, adoption agencies seldom help; one family shares challenges of caring for daughter

    NEW YORK - Amanda Alexander always wanted to adopt. In 2008, when her adoption agency sent a picture of a Russian girl who was available, Amanda fell in love.

    The girl was almost 2, and the agency warned that she had a “developmental and speech delay.” Two years later, an American doctor also diagnosed the girl with fetal alcohol syndrome and severe attachment disorders.

    Now 7 years old, Alexander says, the girl has attacked her mother and classmates and tried to cut out her tongue with scissors. In the last three years, she has been hospitalized nine times for psychiatric care.

    The Alexanders sought help from schools, social workers and other parents. But they found there is little assistance available for parents of international adoptees, particularly when children have severe trauma and emotional problems.

    Their situation reflects a quandary faced by adoptive parents across the United States. With high hopes and often at great expense, families have adopted needy boys and girls from orphanages overseas, only to realize after returning to America that the children have behavioral or psychiatric problems that hadn’t been diagnosed or disclosed.

    Many parents are unprepared to handle the problems. Their adoption agencies often won’t help. And neither will the U.S. government. Amanda Alexander left a job in management to devote time to her daughter. The Alexanders travelled from Seattle to Virginia to meet specialists, amassed enormous medical bills and moved to a different state to get better care for her.

    In September, a Reuters investigation revealed how some desperate parents have turned to Internet groups to seek new homes for children they regret adopting. The practice is called “re-homing,” and the online bulletin boards enable parents to advertise children and arrange custody transfers that bypass government oversight.

    In response to the news agency’s findings, state and federal lawmakers are seeking measures aimed at stopping re-homing, and Russia and other nations are calling on the United States to account for what has become of international adoptees. Since the late 1990s, Americans have adopted about 243,000 children from other countries, but no authority tracks what happens after those children arrive in the United States.

    The Alexanders say giving their daughter to a stranger they met online would have been unthinkable. “It’s not something that we would ever do,” Amanda Alexander says.

    But for parents who hold onto a troubled international adoptee, the way ahead can be grueling. Reuters interviewed about two dozen families with troubled children adopted abroad. They described how their children molested siblings, tried to crash their cars, pulled knives on them, killed or tortured animals, or took weapons to school. Many of the parents did not want their names to be published, in part because they say they worry about stigmatizing their families.

    Amanda Alexander, 34, decided to speak publicly. “It has been really hard,” she says. “It’s completely changed our lives in every way.”

    ‘LEAP OF FAITH’

    In 2008, the Alexanders made three trips to Russia. There, eight doctors evaluated the parents-in-waiting to see if they would be fitting caretakers. The Russian physicians listened to their hearts with stethoscopes, inquired about drug and alcohol use, even asked about their greatest fears. The exam seemed somewhat staged to the Alexanders, who say the doctors asked them to pay $800 each for the service. They obliged.

    The trips were required to complete the adoption. On each journey, the Alexanders learned a little more about the toddler they hoped to take home. On the second visit to Russia, they recall learning that the girl had a heart condition; on the third, they discovered she also had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

    Amanda Alexander says she requested all of the girl’s Russian medical records but was told by the adoption agency, European Adoption Consultants, Inc. that she would receive them on the final trip to Russia. When she did get the records, they were in Russian and contained references to conditions including cerebral palsy and a heart issue that were not mentioned in the English paperwork that the Alexanders had initially received.

    NEEDED MORE: The Alexanders say they are glad they adopted their daughter, but they wish they had known more about her medical conditions before bringing her home to the United States. REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry

    An attorney representing European Adoption Consultants, citing confidentiality agreements, said the agency could not comment on specific cases but that parents typically receive the full medical information from orphanages earlier in the adoption process.

    After the family brought their daughter to her new home in Tennessee, the family took the girl for a battery of tests by American doctors. They discovered her heart condition was a benign murmur, and the cerebral palsy was mild. But the girl’s behavior was odd. She was hyperactive and would hit her head against her crib.

    Doctors initially diagnosed her with ADHD. It would be another two years before Amanda learned that the girl had all the characteristics of fetal alcohol syndrome, along with child trauma and severe attachment disorders.

    The Ohio-based adoption agency also offered no training and little information about the possibility of attachment issues, stating only that these were rare, the Alexanders say. Instead, the agency offered advice about travelling to the Moscow airport and how to declare money. The couple says they took it upon themselves to buy and read adoption and parenting books to prepare.

    The executive director of European Adoption Consultants, Margaret Cole, said that training is part of the homestudy requirements, and the training includes “all the elements of parenting and adopting.” Cole did not respond to further requests to comment.

    International standards recommend - and will soon require - that adoption agencies provide 10 hours of training for parents seeking to adopt overseas. That’s not nearly enough, parents and adoption experts say.

    The Alexanders say they would have proceeded with the adoption if they had known more about their daughter’s eventual diagnoses, but would have prepared differently.

    “I took a leap of faith and said, ‘I want her,’” Amanda Alexander says. “She was meant to be ours.”

    SWEET BUT VIOLENT

    When the girl was age 4, the Alexanders placed her in a pre-kindergarten program. She received private speech and language tutoring, but the school determined she was not eligible for a specialized program.

    The girl was volatile. She could be sweet and spunky, then become physically destructive without warning. She attacked other students at school. Doctors prescribed medicine. Still, Amanda regularly received frantic calls at work about the girl’s behavior.

    When the girl threatened to kill a classmate, her pediatrician recommended a psychiatric hospital. It would be the girl’s first of nine hospitalizations in the next three years.

    With each psychiatric stay, the girl’s medications would be tweaked to stabilize her mood, with limited effect. Once, she hit her mother in the head, sending her to the emergency room. Amanda quit her job in management at a government-owned electric utility to stay with her.

    After school, the girl would sometimes try to bolt in front of cars or sit screaming in the parking lot before Amanda could get her home. Medical records show the girl poked herself with safety pins, hit herself in the stomach, and spread feces on herself and on her bedroom walls. She told doctors that she saw big black monsters in her room, and giggled as she talked about it.

    “I took a leap of faith and said, ‘I want her.’ She was meant to be ours.” Amanda Alexander

    Throughout this, the Alexanders’ relationship with their adoption agency deteriorated.

    At first, the family happily sent the agency pictures of their daughter, attended an adoption reunion, and spoke with waiting parents about their experience.

    As the girl’s behavior became more difficult to manage, the agency’s social worker suggested the Alexanders wait for their daughter to adjust and recommended parenting books, Amanda says.

    “It wasn’t that we were being impatient in waiting for her to adjust,” Alexander says. “We had read those books before we adopted. They hadn’t helped us.”

    The Alexanders estimated they paid approximately $60,000 to adopt the girl, including travel to Russia and documentation expenses. Three years after the adoption was completed, the family asked the agency to help cover the girl’s medical expenses. The Alexanders say the agency’s director responded by offering to throw a bake sale.

    European Adoption Consultants director Cole did not respond to requests for comment.

    A lack of post-adoption support by adoption agencies is common, says Julie Beem, executive director of Attachment & Trauma Network Inc, a parent-led organization that supports families of traumatized children. “There is not a lot of post-adoptive follow-up that happens,” she says. “If there is, it’s passing a report to the sending countries. It’s often very formalized and perfunctory.”

    One solution would be for the State Department to require accredited agencies to give families access to a mental health professional who is experienced at handling adoptions, says Kathleen Strottman, executive director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, a Washington-based non-profit.

    ENORMOUS BILLS

    By the time the Alexanders’ daughter was 6, she had gone through four schools. Her kindergarten teacher was afraid she would hurt other students. At home, the girl’s behavior strained the Alexanders’ marriage and their finances. Even with comprehensive private insurance, the family racked up almost $80,000 in 2011 alone in uncovered medical costs for the girl, Alexander says.

    Last spring, a hospital discharged the girl from its psychiatric ward. The family was still in the parking lot when she told her parents she wanted to kill them with a knife. The hospital recommended that the Alexanders find the girl long-term psychiatric residential care.

    “There is not a lot of post-adoptive follow-up that happens. If there is...it’s often very formalized and perfunctory.” Julie Beem, executive director Attachment & Trauma Network Inc.

    In a letter outlining why the girl should be admitted to residential treatment, her therapist wrote, “In spite of all of the often insurmountable problems this family is experiencing, they continue to love [their daughter] and attempt to do what is best for her. This family is not living their life, they are merely existing.”

    Residential treatment can cost upwards of $250,000 a year, an expense not typically covered by private insurance. In the foster-care system, which handles children born in the United States, adoptees are enrolled in Medicaid and often are awarded subsidies to help pay for treatments. Internationally adopted children usually aren’t covered by these safeguards.

    “Families don’t know where to turn,” said Melanie Chung-Sherman, an adoption consultant in Texas. Child psychologists and counselors are abundant, she says, but it can be difficult to find specialists in adoption issues such as child trauma, fetal alcohol syndrome, and attachment disorders.

    The Supporting Adoptive Families Act, proposed by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), would boost assistance for adoptive families through training, counseling, and parent groups. States would be encouraged to beef up adoption support programs through existing funds.

    In summer 2012, the Alexanders moved from Tennessee to Georgia. There, they applied for a special state program that allowed the Alexanders to bypass Medicaid income restrictions and enroll their daughter based on her disability. The program, called the Katie Beckett Waiver, is designed to allow families to provide home-based care for their disabled children.

    The following year, they placed their daughter in a residential treatment facility near Atlanta for five months.

    ‘WORTH IT’

    Since returning from treatment in November, the Alexanders say, the girl is calmer. She still rages when she comes home from school, but her behavior is more manageable.

    The family also hired a lawyer to convince the school district to place their daughter in a specialized classroom. Amanda works two jobs from home to help ease the financial burden on the family.

    This month, the Alexanders joined their daughter at a weeklong camp that specializes in helping children cope with attachment issues.

    “She’s worth it. She is just a little girl. She didn’t ask for any of this,” says Amanda. “She has so much potential. She just needs to heal, so she can reach it.”

    Leave a comment on our Facebook page or tweet us @SpecialReports and use the hashtag #ChildExchange. You can also send us an email at childexchange@reuters.com.

    NEED HELP: After Sheila Trznadel and her husband, Doug, adopted their son in 2011, they discovered he needed more help than they could handle or afford. REUTERS/Jim Young

    NEW YORK - Within months of bringing him home, Sheila Trznadel knew that the boy she and her husband had adopted from Ukraine needed more help than her family could offer or afford.

    The 7 year old was violent and never showed remorse. He switched on the gas oven in the Trznadels’ Darien, Illinois home. He hid matches in his room, stashed scissors under his bed, and told his parents he wanted to kill the family. One doctor who treated him said the child exhibited traits of a psychopath.

    His parents had sought help from their adoption agency, social workers, and lawmakers, but they quickly realized their options were few. If they continued to raise the boy, they believed they were risking the safety of their other children. They also couldn’t afford the boy’s treatment.

    As a consequence, the Trznadels took a drastic step: They left their son in a hospital and told Illinois officials they would not take him back until he received the care he needed.

    The move is called a lockout, and it’s not without risk. Most states consider it a crime - either child abandonment or neglect. The Trznadels hired a lawyer and offered authorities evidence to support their decision, including a psychiatric evaluation of the boy.

    “I want people to understand how serious these situations are,” says Sheila Trznadel, 37, whose son, now 10, is now a ward of the state. “It’s not his fault. He is an innocent child,” Trznadel says. “But the system is failing us, and it’s failing him.”

    Over the last decade, 627 parents in Illinois have relinquished their children to obtain mental health services. In 2001, a report by the Government Accountability Office found about 3,700 children in 19 states entered the child welfare system within a single year.

    Child welfare agencies say the system was not built to take children with severe mental health issues simply because the parents cannot afford to pay for such care. “We see this as a public policy issue,” says Karen Hawkins, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. “It’s the lack of resources for community mental health funding for children. That is the context to which we’re all working.”

    When the Trznadels adopted their son in 2011, they knew little about his past. At the orphanage, the boy behaved strangely. He was hyperactive and sometimes defecated in his pants. Workers there said he was simply nervous.

    After returning to the United States, the Trznadels say they realized the boy’s problems were much more severe. He urinated on the furniture in their home and dumped paint into drawers of clothing. More than once, he told the family, “I’m gonna kill all you guys,” Sheila recalls. “We didn’t sleep. Someone was always awake to watch him.”

    The boy was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. He told doctors that he endured abuse in the orphanage.

    “The family has to fail before they get the support that they need. That’s the way the system is set up.” Linda Spears, vice president of policy and public affairs at the Child Welfare League of America

    To help her son, Sheila searched the Internet, lobbied politicians, and took the boy to specialists for extensive psychological evaluations. He cycled through medications, including one that made him suicidal.

    In 2012, Trznadels started sending him to a local hospital for short-term psychiatric care. “Our other kids were scared,” Sheila says. “We were trying to give him a good home, and in doing so, we were giving our other children a home in lockdown.”

    For the Trznadels, costs swelled after the boy spent a month in a psychiatric hospital. Sheila works at a lab, and her husband, Doug, works for a chemical company. The hospital bill was $113,000, an amount they cannot afford.

    The adoption agency the Trznadels used, Partners for Adoption, referred them to a social worker and suggested they seek help from the state of Illinois. The agency, which went out of business in 2012, wrote that it had not selected the child; instead, the family was offered the boy by orphanage officials in Ukraine.

    In July 2012, the Trznadels left their son at the hospital, relinquishing custody to the state and forcing child welfare authorities to admit him into a residential treatment facility.

    In a letter to the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, the psychiatrist wrote that “even at a young age, [the boy] displays hallmarks of psychopathy. He is unable to foresee the consequences of his action, he lacks guilt or remorse for any harm his actions might have caused.”

    BIG BILLS: After their son was repeatedly hospitalized, the Trznadels struggled to pay his medical bills. REUTERS/Jim Young

    The psychiatrist also wrote that it may not be advisable for the Trznadels to keep the boy, “because of the potential harm he would do to his family.”

    The state agreed to a “no-fault dependency,” meaning the child lacked proper medical care through no fault of the parent.

    “The family has to fail before they get the support that they need. That’s the way the system is set up,” says Linda Spears, vice president of policy and public affairs at the Child Welfare League of America, a non-profit advocacy group.

    Like other states, Illinois does have some resources available for adoptive families, but the programs are limited. Grants can defray the cost of some services for children with severe mental illnesses. But in fiscal year 2012, just 15 families received money from Illinois’ Individual Care Grants; almost 87 percent of completed applications were denied, according to the program’s annual report.

    “I want people to understand how serious these situations are...The system is failing us, and it’s failing him.” Sheila Trznadel

    In February, the Illinois legislature introduced a bill to allow the state to temporarily assume custody of kids for the purpose of accessing mental health treatment. The bill is directed at families with children who have a serious mental illness, emotional disturbance, or developmental disability and would prohibit the state from forcing families to terminate their parental right. A state House of Representatives’ committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill today.

    Child welfare workers are trying to transfer the boy out of the treatment facility and back into the Trznadel’s home or into foster care, Sheila says. The Trznadels don’t think he is ready, and a judge agreed, granting the boy another six months in residential treatment under the care of the state. The case will be re-evaluated in April.

    About the series

    Reuters investigative reporter Megan Twohey spent 18 months examining how American parents use the Internet to find new families for children they regret adopting. Reporters identified eight online bulletin boards where participants advertised unwanted children, often international adoptees, as part of an informal practice that's called "private re-homing." Reuters data journalist Ryan McNeill worked with Twohey and reporter Robin Respaut to analyze 5,029 posts from one of the bulletin boards, a Yahoo group called Adopting-from-Disruption.

    Separately, Reuters examined almost two dozen cases from across the United States in which adopted children were privately re-homed. Twohey reviewed thousands of pages of records, many of them confidential, from law enforcement and child welfare agencies. In scores of interviews, reporters talked with parents who gave away or took in children, the facilitators who helped them, organizations that participated in re-homing, and experts concerned about the risks posed to the children and the legality of the custody transfers. Twohey also interviewed children themselves. They talked about being brought to America, discarded by their adoptive parents and moved from home to home.


    The Child Exchange: a Reuters investigation

    By Megan Twohey

    Data analysis: Ryan McNeill, Janet Roberts

    Additional reporting: Robin Respaut, Ryan McNeill

    Web programming: Charlie Szymanski

    Graphics: Matthew Weber, Maryanne Murray

    Video: Zachary Goelman

    Photo editor: Jim Bourg

    Design: Troy Dunkley

    Series editor: Blake Morrison