There is one potential safeguard: an agreement among the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands called the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, or ICPC. The agreement requires that if a child is to be transferred outside of the family to a new home in a different state, parents notify authorities in both states. That way, prospective parents can be vetted.
The compact has been adopted by every state and is codified in various statutes that give it the force of law. Even so, these laws are seldom enforced, in part because the compact remains largely unknown to law enforcement authorities. Each state is also left to decide how to punish those who give or take children in violations of the compact's provisions. Some states attach criminal sanctions – generally, misdemeanors. Other states aren't explicit about how violations should be handled.
A child might be removed from the new home if an illegal re-homing is discovered. But seldom is either set of parents punished. No state, federal or international laws even acknowledge the existence of re-homing.
“You're talking about a population that appears to be especially vulnerable to exploitation.” Michael Seto, expert on sexual abuse of children
International adoptees are especially susceptible to being re-homed. At least 70 percent of the children offered on the Yahoo bulletin board, Adopting-from-Disruption, were advertised as foreign-born.
Americans have adopted about 243,000 children from other countries since the late 1990s. But unlike parents who take in American-born children through the U.S. foster-care system, many adults adopting from overseas receive little or no training. It isn't unusual for the children they bring home to have undisclosed physical, emotional or behavioral problems.
No authority tracks what happens after a child is brought to America, so no one knows how often international adoptions fail. The U.S. government estimates that domestic adoptions fail at a rate ranging from "about 10 to 25 percent." If international adoptions fail with about the same frequency, then more than 24,000 foreign adoptees are no longer with the parents who brought them to the United States. Some experts say the percentage could be higher given the lack of support for those parents.
A U.S. federal law, passed in 2000, requires states to document cases in which they take custody of children from failed international adoptions. The State Department then collects that information. In addition, adoption agencies are supposed to report to the department certain types of failed international adoptions that come to their attention.
But many states say they are unable to keep track of the cases because their computer systems are antiquated. And the State Department won't disclose the number of failed international adoptions that are reported by adoption agencies.
"Because the State Department is not the authoritative source of information regarding dissolutions and is not always notified when adoptions are dissolved, we do not provide statistics," a State Department official said.
The failure to keep track of what happens after children are brought to America troubles some foreign governments. So do instances of neglect or abuse that become known. Often cited is the case of the Tennessee woman who returned a 7-year-old boy she adopted from a Russian orphanage. The woman had cared for him only six months when she put the boy on a flight to Moscow in April 2010. He was accompanied by a typed letter that read in part, "I no longer wish to parent this child."
Late last year, Russia banned adoptions by Americans amid a broader diplomatic dispute. Other nations, including Guatemala and China, have also made the process more difficult. As a result, the number of foreign-born children adopted into the United States has declined from a peak of almost 23,000 in 2004 to fewer than 10,000 a year today.
The recent obstacles to bringing new kids to America could make the Internet child exchange even more appealing. A participant in one online bulletin board characterized the re-homing groups as "the 'latest country' to adopt from."
Other participants wrote about openly defying government efforts, foreign and domestic, to keep track of children from failed adoptions (also sometimes called "disrupted" adoptions).
"We adopted two children from Russia. We have disrupted our daughter. What business of the Russian government?" one parent wrote in July 2012. "We never let anyone know about the disruption." (Russia is among the nations that seek periodic updates on children adopted from there.)
Parents who offer their children on the Internet say they have limited options. Residential treatment centers can be expensive, and some parents say social services won't help them; if they do contact authorities, they fear being investigated for abuse or neglect.
The problems – and the isolation parents feel – can prove overwhelming. On the bulletin boards, parents talk of children becoming abusive and violent, terrorizing them and other kids in the household.
"People get in over their heads," says Tim Stowell, an adoptive parent who created the Facebook group last year. "The main thing is to offer hope for families that have no hope... I also knew there were people looking to adopt kids from those situations, so I wanted to get those people together, kind of like a clearinghouse."
Not until January 2011 did any official responsible for overseeing the U.S. child-protection compact call attention to the dangers of the online network. In a nationwide alert to state child welfare authorities, an administrator for the ICPC warned that adoptive parents were sending children to live with people they met on the Internet. The practice, the official wrote, is "placing children in grave danger."
The official who sent the memo, Stephen Pennypacker, says he issued the warning after a child welfare worker in one state noticed cases of kids being sent to new parents without the approval of authorities.
In the alert, Pennypacker asked that such cases be documented and reported to the national non-profit organization that oversees the ICPC. He says he also told child protection officials in each state to alert their attorneys general, local police and social workers "so that people could be on the lookout."
Despite the urgency of the request, Pennypacker says there has been no response.
As part of its investigation, Reuters reviewed thousands of pages of records – many of them confidential – from court cases, police reports and child welfare agencies. Reporters examined ads for children and emails between parents, and also identified eight Internet groups in which members discussed, facilitated or engaged in re-homing. Reporters then analyzed thousands of posts from the group that Yahoo subsequently shut down, Adopting-from-Disruption.
Some participants in that group both offered and sought children for re-homing, sometimes simultaneously. Others looked to offload more than one child at a time. Some sought new parents for children who already had been re-homed. A 10-year-old boy from the Philippines and a 13-year-old boy from Brazil each were advertised three times. So was a girl from Haiti. She was offered for re-homing when she was 14, 15 and 16 years old.
In an interview earlier this year, Nicole Eason - the woman who disappeared with Quita - referred to private re-homing as "non-legalized adoption."
"The meaning of non-legalized is, 'Hey, can I have your baby?'" Eason said.
She discussed why she was so motivated to be a mother. "It makes me feel important," she said.
And she described her parenting style this way: "Dude, just be a little mean, OK? … I'll threaten to throw a knife at your ass, I will. I'll chase you with a hose.
"I won't leave burns on you. I won't leave marks on you. I'm not going to send you with bruises to school," she said. "Make sure you got three meals a day, make sure you have a place to live, OK? If you need medication for your psychological problems, I've got you there. You need therapy? You need a hug? You need a kiss? Somebody to tickle with you? I got you. OK? But this world is not meant to be perfect. And I just don't understand why people think it is."
The story of the Easons and the girls and boys they have taken through re-homing illustrates the many ways in which the U.S. government fails to protect children of adoptions gone awry. It shows how virtually anyone determined to get a child can do so with ease, and how children brought to America can be abruptly discarded and recycled.
A CHILD FOR FREE
The night before leaving Quita with the Easons, Melissa Puchalla showed her daughter a picture of the couple. Like Quita, Calvin Eason is black. Nicole is white, and Puchalla thought Quita might thrive in a mixed-race household.
The Puchallas also say they were giving up the teenager to protect their other children. Quita was unpredictable and violent, Melissa says, and her siblings had grown frightened of her. "There was no other option," Melissa says today.
Puchalla assured her daughter that the Easons were "very good people," Quita remembers. "But I was like judging in my mind: 'How do you know?'" Quita says today. She says she spent the night crying.
The Easons were elated. They were about to get a child, for free.
Part of the allure of re-homing is that the process is far cheaper than formal adoptions. Adopting from a foreign country can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Taking custody through re-homing often costs nothing. In fact, taking a child may enable the new family to claim a tax deduction and draw government benefits. The Easons view re-homing as a way around a prying government, and a way to take a child inexpensively.
"If you don't want to pay $35,000 for a kid," Nicole Eason says today, "you take your chances."
“Dude, just be a little mean, OK?… I’ll threaten to throw a knife at your ass, I will. I’ll chase you with a hose.… I won’t leave burns on you. I won’t leave marks on you. I’m not going to send you with bruises to school.” Nicole Eason, on her approach to parenting
For Quita, the drive to the Eason place was a blur. But she remembers vividly when her adoptive father, Todd Puchalla, stopped in front of a mobile home with an overgrown lawn. Some of the trailers were well-maintained. This one, Quita thought, looked like a junkyard.
From the picture her mother had shown her, Quita recognized the Easons immediately. Both were large, well over 200 pounds, and Calvin was tall – about 6-foot-2. But what first caught the Puchallas' attention was the tube coming out of Calvin's neck a few inches beneath his chin. It was from a tracheostomy, a surgical procedure to alleviate a sleep disorder.
"We were a little standoffish about him because he has a trach," Melissa Puchalla recalls. "But they were warm, and they were caring. They seemed kind."
Today, Melissa Puchalla says, "Maybe a red light should've went off – too good to be true. But at that point, I was walking in such a fog."
Not only were the Easons willing to take Quita, but they would gladly do so through the simple device of a power of attorney document, about 400 words long. The paper is signed by the old parents and the new guardians, and witnessed by a notary. As happened in Quita's case, no lawyers or government authorities are involved. The document is filed nowhere; it functions, in essence, as a receipt. Such agreements fail to satisfy the ICPC when custody of the child is exchanged across state lines and authorities in both states aren't involved. But that hasn't stopped some parents from handling transfers this way.
Not long after the Puchallas arrived with Quita, the Easons presented a cake. "Welcome home Quita" was written in orange frosting.
Nicole also had a card for Melissa. Inside were printed these words: "I have faith that you're going to come out of this experience with more wisdom and resilience than you ever thought possible."
Melissa helped Quita unpack and hugged her goodbye. Everything would be fine, Melissa assured her. Melissa also devised a code: Quita would say "I love asparagus" over the phone if she felt in danger. (Quita didn't use the code, Melissa says.)
As the Puchallas drove away, Melissa sobbed. She calls the decision "the hardest thing we've ever done in our lives." Quita still can't reconcile it. "How would you give me up when you brought me to be yours?" she asks.
In the days that followed, two puppies scampered through the trailer, gifts from the Easons to Quita. The dogs lifted the teenager's spirits, but they weren't housebroken and no one cleaned up after them. No one did the dishes, either, or the laundry.
More troubling, Quita says, was that the Easons took her into their bed: "They call me in there to sleep … to lay in the bed with them." In bed, "Nicole used to be naked and stuff. It was not right to me."
The sleeping arrangements Quita describes are consistent with the experience of another child the Easons took in. Nicole and Calvin both say that no child they took in ever slept in their bed.
A MISSING CHILD
Within days, the Easons had stopped answering Melissa Puchalla's calls or returning her emails, Puchalla says. They attached a makeshift camper to the truck bed of their purple Chevy S-10, packed most of their belongings and left the state. Riding along was a friend of the Easons, a man on parole in Illinois for armed robbery.
When Melissa Puchalla called the school Quita was supposed to attend, she talked with an administrator who then contacted state child protection officials. Although Puchalla had signed over custody of Quita, she says she felt obligated to ensure Quita was safe.
Authorities, including police, subsequently went to the mobile home park in Westville. A neighbor told a child welfare official that before the Easons left, Quita had told the neighbor's daughter that the Easons would be heading to upstate New York to visit Nicole's mother.
The puppies, left chained in the yard, were retrieved by animal protection officers.
As authorities searched for Quita, they discovered information that could have precluded the Easons from taking custody of the teenager, if the proper officials had been involved, adoption experts say.
Illinois authorities determined that the Easons had fabricated a document they provided to the Puchallas called a "home study." It purported to be from a social worker who had visited their home and done background checks of the couple. Actually, Nicole had found a sample document on the Internet and filled it out herself. Some of the information was true; the rest was fiction.
"Quita Puchalla is missing as is the Eason family," reads a confidential report by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. The internal report was dated Oct. 20, 2008, 16 days after the Puchallas had dropped Quita at the Easons.
"The Easons faked their home study," the report says. "The Easons are suspected of using the disrupted adoptions of out of country children… Because there are other states involved, licensing issues and possible public aid fraud as well as a missing child, this matter may involve the FBI at some point."
Illinois officials did share their findings with the local sheriff's office and with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Authorities then contacted the New York State Police, who located the Easons' truck in Stephentown, New York. It was parked outside a house where Nicole's mother lived.
When police went to the home on Oct. 21, they found Nicole, Calvin and Quita. The man convicted of armed robbery who had traveled with the Easons to New York wasn't there.
“I have a 16 year old that came home from Haiti.… We need to find someone who would be willing to take her.… None of us want her back.” Participant writing on Yahoo group
Later that day, investigators separately interviewed the Easons and Quita. Reports show that the teenager said the Easons had pornography in their house. Police took Quita to a homeless shelter; the next day, she was put on a bus. She was heading back to Wisconsin, by herself, to the parents who had given her up not three weeks before.
Taking Quita from the Easons and returning her to the Puchallas was the extent of the response by authorities.
New York State Police concluded that the Easons had committed no crimes in their jurisdiction. Illinois authorities took no legal action, and neither did officials in Wisconsin. No one did anything to prevent the Easons from taking a child again.
Hundreds of other adoptive parents were seeking new homes for their unwanted children through Internet message boards like those that had featured Quita. Nicole Eason knew how the child exchange worked. She would tap it again after losing Quita, much as she had used it before.
One of the first times, Eason had gone by the screen name Big Momma. The custody transfer took place in a hotel parking lot just off the highway, and the man who went with her to get the 10-year-old boy would later be sentenced to federal prison. His crime: trading child pornography.
(Additional reporting by Ryan McNeill, Robin Respaut, Zachary Goelman and Elizabeth Dilts in New York)