By Megan Twohey and Zachary Goelman
The ability to transfer custody of an adopted child through the Internet presents new risks. Still, experts say there are systemic problems that make the practice possible, and ways the problems might be addressed.
Question: Aren't there already laws to protect adopted children?
Answer: Yes. But there's no uniform law governing adoption in the United States. Domestic adoption is regulated by state law, and the state laws vary. A federal law regulating international adoptions - the Intercountry Adoption Act - currently covers only kids from certain foreign countries. By July 2014, it will cover all international adoptions.
Q: Will expanding the Intercountry Adoption Act better protect international adoptees?
A: Not necessarily. Although some international adoptions are finalized in U.S. court, others aren't. When adoptions are finalized in foreign courts, no third party is required to follow up on what happens after the child reaches America, says Victor Groza, an adoption expert at Case Western University.
Q: Are there other laws on the books that would help?
A: An agreement between states called the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC) sets a uniform standard for how to handle custody transfers that cross state lines. But the agreement is relatively unknown among police. Some experts say officials need to be better educated about it. Others say its administrators need more funding to enforce the ICPC. "We don't really have the means to investigate all of the practices that are going on around that country that may infringe upon the compact in one way or another," says Harry Gilmore, a child welfare official in Oregon.
Q: Could anything more be done by the federal government?
A: Some child welfare officials recommend that Congress make the interstate agreement federal law. That would create standard penalties and enforcement.
Q: Is it legal to advertise a child?
A: State laws vary on how children available for adoption can be advertised and who can list them. That's one reason some advocates call for a uniform federal law defining what constitutes advertising, who is allowed to do it, and what the penalties are for violating the law.
Q: What if an international adoption just doesn't work? Are adoption agencies obliged to help?
A: Agencies aren't required to assist struggling families after the adoption is finalized, and many don't. Some experts argue that agencies should be held legally responsible for finding the child a new home when an adoption dissolves - though that would be a hard sell among the agencies, many of whom say they are already trying to give more follow-up help. "The best solution is that the original adoption agency would be responsible for handling the case at its own expense," said Niels Hoogeveen, an advocate for adoptees. "That would really change things."
Q: What more could states do to help parents?
A: Some parents who have used the Internet bulletin boards say they want a way to relinquish a dangerous child to the government if parents have demonstrated good-faith efforts to care for the child. They also want government assistance in preventing the adoption from failing in the first place. "I think states should, and I think they are, inching toward providing support services to all adoptive families," says John Levesque, an adoption professional in Portland, Maine. "A lot of this doesn't cost big money."
Q: Do authorities monitor the bulletin boards where children are offered?
A: No government entity in the United States systematically scrutinizes the online bulletin boards. "I think the government should be monitoring that," says Stephen Pennypacker, a child welfare official in Florida. Funding would be needed, however. "Who would do that and how are we gonna pay for that, and what's gonna happen when you find that these placements are being made?"
Q: As things now stand, what could be done to stop dangerous people from obtaining children through Internet forums?
A: Many child-welfare authorities say licensed professionals should be involved in vetting prospective parents in these informal arrangements. "Nobody is checking out those homes. You don't know who you're dealing with on the other end of a … chat board," says Pennypacker.