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U.S. lawmakers call for action to curb Internet child trading

By Megan Twohey

CHICAGO (Reuters) - 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. (Link: http://reut.rs/15LiaMb). 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." (Link: http://bit.ly/1is1f1t).

'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.

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. (Link: http://bit.ly/HqVPJ1).

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.

CONCERN ABROAD

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

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 (Link: http://bit.ly/16I2E3N) and Facebook (Link: http://bit.ly/1dJSZvR), 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.

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.

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."

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)

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