Any adoption of a child through a birth mother arrangement is a stressful process for the prospective parents.
Beyond the usual worries that accompany a pregnancy, there's the looming chance that the birth mother, upon delivering the child, will have a change of heart — and decide that she's unable to give the child up, a heart-wrenching decision for all parties. But for a small percentage of people looking to adopt, there's an even worse scenario: Adoption fraud.
At its heart, adoption fraud is a con. A person, looking to take advantage of the emotionally vulnerable, preys on them, collecting cash and/or services, with no intention of ever surrendering their child for adoption. And in some instances, the con-artist isn't even pregnant.
Even more disconcerting? Because so many adoptions are handled privately or through agencies, there are no real hard numbers on adoption fraud, allowing paranoia and speculation to run amok with prospective parents. This comes in addition to basic financial and protection considerations for starting a new family. (Learn more: Financial considerations for adoption)
"A lot of it comes to trusting your gut," said Nicole Witt, executive director of The Adoption Consultancy in an interview. "Pre-adoptive parents are very nervous. Sometimes, their instincts aren't accurate as they are in typical experiences they've had. But if you're really feeling something is wrong, it's worth talking to your team about and see if the adoption professionals agree or if there's a way to get better information."
It's important to point out that while hard numbers aren't available, adoption experts from all corners agree these sorts of scams are rare — and there's certainly a difference between a birth mother changing her mind and an actual scam. But they do occur. For instance, an Oklahoma City woman was sentenced to serve 60 months in jail and pay more than $49,000 in restitution to victims of an adoption scam she ran over a three-year period.
The financial risk for prospective parents is significant. Private adoptions typically cost between $28,000 and $37,000, though that number varies considerably depending on circumstance.1 While those numbers factor in costs like adoption agency or attorney's fees, Witt says expenses for birth mothers typically range between $5,000 and $12,000, an alluring number for scam artists.
There's a bit of a safety net financially. The federal adoption tax credit, which can range up to $13,570 per child, can be used for each domestic adoption attempt, successful or not. (Related: Tax breaks for parents)
"The credit is much more valuable than a deduction since a credit reduces federal income tax liability dollar for dollar," said Stephen Kirkland, a CPA and founder of Atlantic Executive Consulting Group, in an interview. "A credit of $1 will reduce what you owe by a full dollar. It is a nonrefundable credit which means it will reduce your federal income tax to zero and any excess credit can be carried forward."
Unfortunately, there's no safety net for the emotional toll of an adoption scam. There are, however, a few ways to protect yourself from falling prey to it.
First, pay close attention to the communications with birth mother. If she's more focused on the finances than getting to know you as the prospective parents of her unborn child and the type of life that child will have, that's a potential red flag, said Witt.
Determine, also, how familiar the birth mother might be with the information you've made public after they've reached out. Scammers often target multiple families at the same time and can confuse the details of each. A good guard against this — and a good opening question for any birth mother — is "What about our profile appealed to you?"
And do your homework when it comes to investigating the birth mother as well. Some adoption scams are run regularly by the same people, often under different aliases. Do a Google image search of the prospective birth mother and look for the name on adoption scam boards online to see if this person has a history of fraudulent activity.
Also, be aware that it's not just individuals who run these sorts of scams. For example, the owner of a child placement agency in Houston was charged and arrested for four counts of adoption fraud. The FBI accused the owner of matching birth mothers who were having just one child to multiple families. The indictment accuses the owner of illegally collecting $111,000 from the scheme.
This is where early diligence in selecting an adoption agency can pay off.
"With any adoption professionals, you want to work with people who have a strong, positive track record," said Witt. "If somebody just opened their agency last week, I know someone has to start with them, but I wouldn't want it to be me. Check with the Better Business Bureau. Try to track down people online who worked with this agency who aren't on their reference list. Everyone is going to have someone who is unhappy with them, but you want to find out why they're unhappy with them."
Here's the truly frustrating part of adoption scams. While state laws vary, and the FBI occasionally gets involved in big cases, instances of fraud often go unprosecuted. Many states only consider it a misdemeanor crime.
"There's not a great deal of risk," said Ryan Genest, an adoption attorney and partner with Culp, Doran & Genest in Iowa. "Although, in all honesty, I don't think most people who engage in this type of behavior say 'I've looked up the laws and the worst thing that can happen to me is I might be put on probation'."
Getting the money back is often impossible — and if the birth mother is actually pregnant, said Witt, it puts the victims of the scam in an even more difficult position.
"If she does get incarcerated, then what happens to the child?" she said. "Maybe the child goes into the foster care system and is that what you want to happen? It's not so black and white."
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This story was originally published September, 2016. It has been updated.
1 National Infertility & Adoption Education Nonprofit, “25 Factors to Consider When Adopting From the United States,” July 2014.