How The Internet Is Revolutionizing The Adoption Process

Guests

Jenny Galiani, mother of four adopted children
Jennifer Ludden, national desk correspondent, NPR
Adam Pertman, executive director, Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute

Many pregnant women and potential adoptive parents are bypassing traditional adoption agencies and connecting online. This trend raises a number of ethical concerns about the regulation of the online process and interactions between birth mothers and hopeful adopters.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Adoption's long been a controlled and often lengthy process, but the Internet's changed all that. Now birth mothers browse prospective adoptive parents online. Those hoping to adopt create websites designed to market themselves to those women. This new process challenges traditional licensed agencies, provides new opportunities for people to connect across state lines. It also creates more possibilities for online scams and exploitation.

In a few minutes, we'll talk with the Donaldson Adoption Institute - about the Donaldson Adoption Institute's new report called "Untangling the Web: The Internet's Transformative Impact on Adoption." We'll also speak with NPR's Jennifer Ludden, who's been reporting on this issue.

We also want to hear from you. If you've participated in an online adoption, as a birth mother or as an adoptive parent, if you're in the process or if you're thinking about it, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the media's mistakes on Newtown. But we begin with Jenny Galiani, an adoptive mother of four, three through an online agency. She also runs an adoption support group in North Wales, Pennsylvania, and joins us now from her home in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Good of you to be with us today.

JENNY GALIANI: Hi, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you. What's the difference between the traditional route and online?

GALIANI: I would say the traditional route is what I experienced with my third child, through an agency called Bethany Christian Services, local. And the online I think gave us just much broader spectrum of exposure to birth parents and therefore shortened our waiting time with each of our children.

CONAN: So it sounds like you had a good experience.

GALIANI: We've had four wonderful experiences, we really have.

CONAN: And this was an online agency you went through.

GALIANI: Yes, we went with - the name is American Adoptions, and they're based in Kansas, and even though we are in Pennsylvania, we were able to do everything without ever meeting. And we matched very quickly with our children. It was a wonderful experience.

CONAN: It turned out to be wonderful, but the first time you did it, did you have any qualms?

GALIANI: Well, the first time you do it, it's like - it's the big black hole. There's an awful lot of paperwork, and when I first began this journey of adoption, I really did not know anyone who had adopted. But now I know hundreds of families that have adopted.

It is kind of nice to have the support. You would think that by using an online agency you may not have the support that you need, but I actually found it to be the opposite. I think they're just - you know, they've been there for you every step of the way: your paperwork, matching with the birth mother, you're showing your profiles and also seeing you through up to several years after you've adopted, if you have questions, with talking about adoption with your kids, et cetera.

CONAN: So having had that good experience, why did you decide later to try to the more traditional route?

GALIANI: Well, you know, at the time we had two adopted children, we had two girls, and we wanted to have a boy. And the agency we were using was not offering gender-specific adoption. So we went with Bethany, a local agency, who was, and adopted our son. And then when we were going for our fourth child, by that time American Adoptions had gone and made it so that you could be gender-specific.

But we had wonderful experience with Bethany, as well.

CONAN: And the difference, again, primarily the length of time. How - can you give us an idea of how much that was?

GALIANI: Well, the length of time with my first child was about two and a half months. We matched with her. She was born in Florida. And our second child we only waited six days. And our third child through Bethany, actually we handed our paperwork and became activated and that very day got a call about our son, who was three months old and living with a local foster family. And three days later we had him at home.

And our last child, I think because we already had three kids, I'm not sure how appealing we were to birth parents, but somebody picked us. It took about 12 months to match with our fourth child.

CONAN: And you understand, you've talked to hundreds of adoptive families, those first three experiences are pretty unusual.

GALIANI: Actually, they're not. You know, maybe the third one, waiting one day, but that's primarily why I do the support group and I've given seminars in the tri-state area because I want to get the word out there to people that adopting domestically is not only not difficult but can be wonderful. And I think people often are threatened by possible relationship with the birth parent because you are, you know, sort of more local.

But it's exactly the opposite. It's been very easy, and what a gift to be able to have a semi-open or open adoption with your birth parents.

CONAN: Jenny Galiani, thanks very much for your time, and congratulations.

GALIANI: Thank you.

CONAN: Jenny Galiani runs the Mary Mother of the Redeemer Adoption Support Group in North Wales, Pennsylvania. She joined us from her home in Ambler, Pennsylvania. NPR's Jennifer Ludden joins us now. Her story on how the Web is transforming adoption ran last week on MORNING EDITION. She joins us here in Studio 3A. Jennifer, nice to have you back on the program.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hi Neal.

CONAN: You're in that seat this time; you'll be in this seat next week. But anyway, as you report on this process, that speed, that seems remarkable.

LUDDEN: That is remarkable, and, you know, I spoke with some people, and we've - I think a lot of us heard of people who have had years-long waits. And I met someone who was going through a local brick-and-mortar agency in Maryland, very near to here, who was told the average wait, two to three years, but then it actually, he was told, would be longer because of the Internet, because birth mothers in Maryland were suddenly communicating with prospective adoptive parents all over the country and maybe, you know, letting them adopt their children instead of keeping it within this local area.

And so he was actually advised, he and his partner, to go online, set up their own website and market themselves also nationally.

CONAN: We mentioned earlier the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute's new report, "Untangling the Web: The Internet's Transformative Impact on Adoption." Joining us now is Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. He's with us from a studio at Boston University. Nice of you to be with us today.

ADAM PERTMAN: I'm glad to be here. It's quite a mouthful, that title, isn't it?

CONAN: Yes it is, but I'm sure you've gotten used to it. But I wanted to ask you, Jenny described a very positive experience, and I'm sure many others share that positive experience. It's not universal.

PERTMAN: No, it's not universal. And I'm very happy for her that she had such a strong positive experience, but I would - I have known many thousands of adoptions, and I would say this is - these are the exceptions, not the rule. That doesn't mean that there aren't people who can get through it that quickly, but it does mean that no one should enter the process thinking this is how it will go for me.

CONAN: And not just merely that quickly but that trouble-free.

PERTMAN: Absolutely. It's a complicated process, and that's OK. I mean, there are lots of complicated processes. And that's part of the point, right, that to do this we should be educated, we should be trained, we would do it with, you know, all of our understandings of what can happen so that there's counseling, all the good things that over the years social welfare has provided to the field of adoption.

And there you get to the Internet, where it becomes much more about just process and not about knowledge and education and support.

CONAN: And Jennifer Ludden, you did some reporting on this and found some people who did get support online and others who did not.

LUDDEN: Well, I heard a lot from adoption agencies who had encountered people maybe cleaning up what they saw as the mess from an encounter with an Internet provider. And I believe the one that the guest mentioned, Jenny mentioned American Adoptions, also has - they're a longtime - they have a brick-and-mortar agencies, as well. They do have a large staff with counselors.

But what we're hearing in from Adam's report that a lot of Internet-only providers have popped up using the Internet as people in so many different industries have done and maybe don't have the counselors, maybe don't have anyone who can meet with a birth mother in person.

I heard stories of, you know, adoption agencies getting calls from birth mothers in a panic attack in the ER room. It turns out they'd just given up their child the day before and had not had any grief counseling, which is something that a local agency would be very careful to offer.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. If you're an adoptive parent, if you've given up a child for adoption, if you're thinking about it, if you're in process now, call and tell us what your experience has been like, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Kristen's(ph) on the line with us from Louisville.

KRISTEN: Hi, yes, I just set down my seven-month-old. We just adopted him this year. It was an incredible, incredible experience. Our birth mom, we just had a perfect experience with her, better than I could imagine. But we did also have two very bad experiences, and it took us about three years to get him from very start to finish.

And one of those experiences, we had a birth mom that pretty much used us for monetary support while she was having the baby, and then I don't believe she ever intended to place. And then the other experience was phone calls that we received from someone claiming to be from a fundamentalist Christian family. You know, it was kind of during that fundamentalist, all the news stories about all that. And so I'm pretty sure it was just someone taking advantage of some - I don't even know how many crazy emails we got from people claiming to have babies to place with us.

And we went through an agency that also had an online website, and so we kind of felt protected, but we still kind of had those issues. And when we brought them up to our adoption counselor, he just kind of said, well, yeah, that's the way it is for everybody. And it's just kind of sad that there are so many families so willing to open their homes and yet so many people wanting to take advantage.

CONAN: We're sorry for your bad experiences, Kristen, and congratulations, though, on your son.

KRISTEN: It was worth every minute of it.

CONAN: Well good, and merry Christmas.

KRISTEN: Thank you.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask Adam Pertman about some of the bad experiences she had. Yes, of course she had a good experience, too. We can never forget that. But there are people who are looking to profit from this, and there are inducements for some that might be swaying some women to give up their children.

PERTMAN: Right, so it's the good, the bad and the ugly. The Internet is changing every realm. The difference between all the others, or most of the others, you know, whether it's commerce on the Internet, book selling, collecting taxes, pornography, gambling, whatever it is, there are people looking at it. There are people saying here's the good, here's the bad, how do we regulate it, what's the illegal activity, how do we help people get the most out of this without taking big risks. We haven't done that for adoption, and it affects tens of millions of people.

CONAN: And Jennifer, is there any move to start regulation that would cover this?

LUDDEN: Not that I could find, although you have adoption, local adoption agencies wondering. One woman said to me, you know, it would help if each state law was more similar. You have such a wide variety of state laws that, you know, an adoption provider, Internet provider can look at the most liberal law for a birth mother, say, and kind of gear the business toward that.

And you go on websites, and you see, you know, appeals to birth mothers: We can pay for you to stay in an apartment with a pool, get you college money, a cell phone because certain states allow that for living expenses. But many states don't, and those local strict state laws are kind of being over - bypassed here.

CONAN: And agencies in those states...

LUDDEN: They're losing business.

CONAN: ...faces difficult competition, yes. If you have an experience with an online adoption, as a birth mother or an adoptive parent, if you're in the process, or if you're thinking about it, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We already know that the Internet has dramatically changed the way we communicate, the way we get our music and movies and shop. That same technology has also transformed the process of adoption. Would-be parents and birth mothers often have more options, though online agencies remain largely unregulated, and the shift to the Web offers more possibilities for fraud and other issues.

It's all laid out in a new report from the Donaldson Adoption Institute. If you've participated in an online adoption as a birth mother or an adoptive parent, give us a call. If you're thinking about it, if you're in the process, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Adam Pertman, executive director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute. That's the group behind the new report "Untangling the Web: The Internet's Transformative Impact on Adoption." His latest book, "An Updated Adoption Nation: How the Adoption revolution is Transforming Our Families and America."

Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Liz, Liz with us from Auburn, California.

LIZ: Hi there, thank you for taking on this really important topic. I'm an adoptive parent, and my husband and I just recently adopted a baby. We did go through an agency, an independent adoption center, and we had a profile with them, and we also created our own blog on the Internet to reach out to potential birth mothers.

And that blog was how our birth mother found us. And it gave a daily, or every several, few days, we gave updates about our daily lives, kind of gave very warm and just general information about us as a couple to sort of reach out to birth mothers and let them know who we were. And that was how our birth mother found us, through doing a Google search.

CONAN: And can you give us a little more information on the kinds of data you put in that blog?

LIZ: Sure, we put information about family events that we participate in. We spend a lot of time outdoors, so we would talk about the activities we did, just kept it very lighthearted and positive and to give someone an insight of, you know, what we were like and what we do in our daily lives so they could have an inkling of what their child's life would be with us as adoptive parents.

CONAN: And did you give information - and forgive me if I'm - tell me to shut up if I'm probing too hard - did you give information about your financial status, and did you give information about the kind of financial support you might be able to offer a birth mother?

LIZ: No, absolutely not. We really kept the information basic about our lives. And, well, I wanted to say just quickly that the experience of using the Internet and providing this blog, that was really, I think, essential for our birth mother reaching out to us. What I did want to say, and just mention this quickly, is I think we still need to have a conversation about the adoption process itself because we spent five weeks waiting for an adoption to happen in another state.

And it was because of legal reasons and just a very complicated and lengthy process. And with - that part of the process was unfortunate, but I would say that using the Internet and networking with our birth mother that way was a really wonderful process.

But with that, I would say that it was paramount that we had our adoption agency there with us to help guide us and know what was appropriate and not appropriate to put up on a personal website. I think that guidance is really important for adoptive parents, to protect themselves both legally and, you know, their own personal information.

CONAN: Well, congratulations, Liz, thanks very much for the phone call.

LIZ: Thank you.

CONAN: And Adam Pertman, in that process, as we've heard, people are allowed to be, if they wish to be, much more selective, correct?

PERTMAN: Oh, people can be more selective. It's interesting because we've just heard from adoptive parents, and this is a transformative process for everybody concerned. So young women, or not-so-young women because most women who place children today, infants, for adoption are not that young, those women are also part of the process.

And we hear very little about them. You know, are some of the processes coercive? If you're promised on the Internet that we can get you a baby in, make it up, six to eight months, how do you do that? Is anybody checking to make sure that there is no coercion, to make sure that that process is going well? Maybe it is, but is anybody out there trying to find out?

And if it's not, then are people making promises that they can't keep because they're pre-adoptive parents willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars? And I just would quickly add, and the person who's not often spoken about in all of this is the adopted person. So the baby, if it's a baby, and the older child because most adoptions in America today are of older children, is really affected by this transformative nature of the Internet. And we rarely get to get a glimpse of that, and it's really, really important.

CONAN: Are any groups systematically left out?

PERTMAN: Well, nobody's left out because the Internet is really so inclusive, right? And that - and again I'll make just one final point, forgive me, but the missing piece of this and one of the biggest changes that's taking place, and you've actually heard it in the background from the callers, is that we're talking about a new form of extended family.

Almost all of these adoptions today are open. The Internet obliterates laws and barriers that prevented people from knowing each other. So we're really looking at that piece, the closed era of - the era of closed adoptions is really coming to a close, and what we're seeing is very different.

CONAN: Just to clarify, open adoptions where the child is well aware that they have been adopted and who their birth mother is, if not their birth father, as well.

PERTMAN: Well actually not just knowledge but contact.

CONAN: And closed of course where that information was kept. And I wanted to ask you another question. We got this story from the Associated Press, dateline Moscow: Russia's parliament Wednesday gave overwhelming preliminary approval to a measure banning Americans from adopting Russian children, a harsh retaliatory move against U.S. human rights legislation.

The proposal appears too extreme for some senior Russian officials. The foreign minister and education minister spoke out flatly against an adoption ban. And the speaker of the upper house of parliament, a close ally of President Putin, suggested the lower house members were letting emotions overtake rationality. Putin himself, who has the authority to veto legislation, has made no public comment.

Is - as - whether that piece of legislation goes through or not, it does seem that there is more - there are more hurdles in the way of international adoptions, which can take a long time and be very complicated. And does that put even more emphasis on these Internet transactions here?

PERTMAN: Well, they're a little bit separate, but the answer is, the direct answer to your question is absolutely. This is the way people adopt. I mean, if you go online, most adoptions in America today are from foster care. So if you go online, you see pictures of kids - and this is some of the positives, right? This is people able - in Utah able to see a child in Mississippi and say I can give that kid a home, she has special needs, but I can do this.

So there are real positives, and the same can be true in international adoption. They can see what children are available, they can expedite the process. But you're absolutely right about international adoption. The numbers are dwindling, and things, acts such as the one in Russia today really not only diminish the prospects for people to adopt, if it happens, but it also fuels their sense that maybe something is wrong here, maybe I shouldn't do this. And the bottom-line victims aren't the parents. They're the kids who stay in institutions.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on this. Jessica's(ph) on the line from Oakland.

JESSICA: Hi, I just wanted to call in because I am actually an adoptee that considered putting up my son for adoption and was in the process of using online stuff because I was in a - I'm in recovery. So I was actually in a program at the time. And I just did not feel as safe in using the process for online adoption that my parents had used when they were looking to adopt me in 1985, where they had to, you know, make up their own piece of paper stating this is who I am and go to different agencies and so on and so forth.

And I just felt like it wasn't as personal, that you didn't get this same connection that you had back in the day, where you actually had - you met these people, or you met with certain agencies, and you got the counseling, you got the support, you had different adoption groups that you could be a part of, which I continued to be part of for a long time after we were adopted.

And then even a year later, they ended up adopting my brother because my birth parents ended up getting pregnant again and asked them if they wanted another child. And I don't think a situation like that would have necessarily been able to happen had it been via the Internet.

CONAN: And what did you eventually decide to do, Jessica?

JESSICA: I kept him just because I didn't feel it was, I don't know, necessarily safe to talk to these people and essentially give my son up to people that I would never meet.

CONAN: And you're both doing well?

JESSICA: We're both doing wonderful. I have three and a half years clean and sober. He's, you know, two and a half going on and three, in school. And I'm happy. I'm glad that I decided to keep him. And I actually know my birth parents now, too. So my story is a little bit quirky and different than most I would believe. I am blessed to have the adoptive family I do have, and I'm blessed to have the connection I knew with my biological parents as well.

CONAN: Well, thanks, Jessica, very much for the call. Appreciate it. Let's see if we go next to - this is Penny(ph), and Penny's on the line from Denver.

PENNY: Hi. Thank you for bringing up this topic. We have two successful adoptions. One was through the Internet, and we were on the front lines of it, I think, because our daughter is going to be 11 in April and we found her through the Internet. And - or actually her birth parents found us. We had a number of inquires, asking us to adopt their children, and they didn't work out. We were suspicious of some. Some just disappeared.

But the one that sort of clung on, we established a relationship with her very early on. She was - the birth mother was about three-and-a-half weeks pregnant when she contacted us, and we had a wonderful experience through the process. However, we were guided. We had an agency. They said: Look out for this. Look out for that. And so, you know, we knew.

And also I think that one thing - adoptive parents tend to be very anxious about adopting. They want a baby, so they want it now, and they're willing to follow any little golden thread that gets thrown their way. And you really should be cautious, you know? You should establish a little bit of a relationship with people before you start throwing money at them.

And, you know, we went, up until her first trimester, just talking on the phone, emailing back and forth, getting to know each other. And we were very bonded by the time that first trimester came along, and we actually went out and met them. They - we were in California. They were in Ohio. And...

CONAN: And you kept up the relationship?

PENNY: Yeah. We kept up the relationship. My daughter just called her not too long ago just to say hello, has a relationship. They have - the birth mother has a couple of other kids from her marriage. She was actually married when we adopted, and I suspect she didn't believe it was going to last. So she, you know, she decided to put this one up for adoption.

And so, you know, my daughter calls her birth sister and talks to her birth mother, and I think it just makes her feel very good, and you know, I think it's a good connection for all of us to have.

CONAN: Penny, I'm glad it all worked out.

PENNY: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. And Adam Pertman, I think a decade ago was probably pretty early, but what is the number - what are the numbers now in terms of the ratio of online to traditional adoption?

PERTMAN: I'm glad you asked because it gets at the heart of the issue that we're trying to raise. We don't have a clue.

CONAN: You don't know.

PERTMAN: And that is the point. We really don't know. There - you know, when you start a study, the first thing you do is look at the - you do a literature review. You see what else is out there, who else has studied what. You look at the experience over the years.

When we started this - and it's a multi-year study. This is our first publication. When we started, you know what we found? Nothing. And so we were very much inventing this wheel. Not that there's no knowledge, but there's really no real body of it from which we can learn. So policy, practice, the lives of the people that are talking to you today - they're all sort of wandering out in the wilderness.

We just don't know what constitutes best practices, and that's what we're trying - we're trying to say to everybody concerned, it's time we look at this. We put together a 70-page examination of what the issues are, where we should be headed, with recommendations, all that. And it's time to finally get our arms around this thing and figure out even the most basic questions such as the one you asked.

CONAN: Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which just released a report he mentioned, "Untangling the Web: The Internet's Transformative Impact on Adoption." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an email from Julie(ph) in Houston: I'm an adoptive parent of two boys: 18 months and eight month old. We adopted transracially and locally through a bricks-and-mortar agency. We had a great experience and very much valued that personal face-to-face experience. Both adoptions were quick. The first one took about a month. The second one, we did not even sign up, but were called by a social worker at our agency to see if we were interested in another baby. And our experience, part of a long wait for those we know, has to do with parents being selective about race, gender, health status. Not that those aren't significant considerations, but they do impact the wait time for a baby rather than the process being the reason people wait.

And Adam Pertman, let me ask you again. Transracial adoption has been highly controversial in past years.

PERTMAN: And it is happening literally every day, most of them not through infant adoption such as this one, but most of them from abroad. Most adoptions from abroad are transracial or from foster care, where a very big minority is transracial. These are some of the very, very big changes occurring in adoption generally, and the Internet is accelerating them.

CONAN: Here's another email, this from Lorna(ph) in San Mateo: I was a birth mother in an open adoption in 1999, in the early days of the Internet. Sitting down with a thick envelope of family profiles full of pictures and letters was one of the most overwhelming steps of the process for me. I can't imagine having an endless supply of family websites to look at. It was hard enough choosing one family out of a stack of loving people. I think having been able to always look at one more family would have driven me crazy and made that step unnecessarily grueling.

I wonder, had you heard that from some of the people you spoke with for this study?

PERTMAN: Well, it's information overload. You know, one of the positives of the Internet is just how much information you can get. One of the negatives of the Internet is just how much information you can get, whoever you are in the process. And that's one of the things that's lacking, not just in the adoption realm, but elsewhere as well.

There are no real filters. There are no editors. There's no one to tell you here's the good stuff, here's the bad stuff, here's what's reliable, here's what's not. And that is one of the genuine problems that we saw. There have to be some rules. There has to be a way for people to navigate this thing in order to do well for themselves and their families.

CONAN: And any prospect? Jennifer Ludden said - she told us earlier that she saw no move towards regulation.

PERTMAN: Well, there's no move but - and I don't mean to pat us on the back too much, but no one has ever raised the issue before. So here we are - although in some individual states, some agencies have gone to attorneys general, said take a look at what's happening out there, aren't you going to do anything, and no one has.

So what we hope with this report is that it is a big red flag saying, OK, really adoption affects tens of millions of people, honest. And so are we going to serve their interests? Are we going to serve their needs? Are we going to help, you know, young vulnerable women not to be coerced? Are we going to help adopted people who are looking for their biological families do it, but with counseling because they're only 13 years old? What are we going to do now that we know?

CONAN: There's a link to the report we mentioned on our website, "Adoption Nation" - excuse me, that's the book, "Adoption Nation: How Adoption Revolution is Transforming Our Families in America." That author is Adam Pertman. The "Untangling the Web: The Internet's Transformative Impact on Adoption," that you can find on our website. Go to npr.org. Adam Pertman joined us from a studio at Boston University. Thanks very much.

PERTMAN: It was my pleasure.

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