As this writer discovered in the worst way, domestic open adoption remains a largely unregulated frontier that can leave prospective adoptive parents vulnerable to just about anything.
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The phone rang at 9 p.m. My husband and I glanced nervously at each other. For two years, we’d been listed on an open adoption website, with a phone number dedicated to birth mothers who want to contact us. And the only calls we’d received were daily Robocalls. Our dedicated adoption email address regularly received penis-enlargement spam.
There’s nothing louder than the constant stream of spam and a phone not ringing when you’re waiting for a call from a birth mother. And it was the only thing we’d been hearing. That, and the sound of our own thoughts, as we wondered why no one was contacting us. Are we likable enough? Are we attractive enough? Do we make enough money?
We reminded ourselves that the birth rate in this country has dropped precipitously in recent years—it’s the lowest it’s been since the Great Depression. All of the other hopeful parents have been waiting a long time, too.
Our adoption agency only does domestic open adoptions, which essentially means the American birth mothers contact prospective adoptive parents directly, either by email or phone, and start a relationship, which is called a “match.” The matching process is a bit like online dating. The birth mother looks through hopeful adoptive couples’ online profiles, which feature photos, together with what’s called a “Dear Birth Mother” letter from individuals or couples who explain why they would be great parents for their child. If the birth mother is interested in pursuing, she clicks on “contact us,” and so begins the correspondence. And the waiting.
At times it’s hard to keep the faith. My husband and I propped each other up with dark humor, trying to stave off our feelings of hopelessness as we wondered whether we’d ever be called. Just when we’d reached a new level of breaking points, an actual human being called us, a young woman named Avalyn.
She was 21 years old and a college student in Alabama who went on missionary trips around the world. She and the baby’s father fell in love when they were 16. They had a 2-year old daughter and couldn’t afford to raise another child. Avalyn was sweet and vulnerable. She cried as she told me how she lost the support of her family after having her first daughter out of wedlock. But it was hard to understand her. She spoke in a thick Southern accent and in the high, whispery voice of a traumatized child. I told my husband how awkward it felt to talk to her. He urged me to keep the conversation going; I need to give anyone who calls the benefit of the doubt.
We emailed each other several photographs while we spoke. She was young and beautiful with dark hair and blue-green eyes, which is my coloring. She said I looked exactly like her mother. We both chuckled a bit about that. In one photo, she showed off her enormous, pregnant belly. She was due in three days and explained that she’d been matched with another family that had three daughters and wanted a son. Her most recent 3-D ultrasound revealed a girl, so the family backed out. I’d give anything for a baby of any gender, so I silently judged them for being shallow.
And then, almost casually, she had her first contraction. I encouraged her to wake up her boyfriend, barely able to breathe. But she didn’t want to; there was no point until the contractions were closer together. She asked me to keep her company instead. So I tried to stay calm and nurturing, while silently calculating how I’d rearrange my schedule if my husband and I flew to Alabama the next day. We could be parents in less than a week. He needed to be up early for a flight, so told him to go to bed without me. I’d stay up and talk with Avalyn.
I asked her what qualities she looked for in an adoptive couple.
Honesty. People who are who they say they are. You know what I mean?
She was interested in our struggles to have a child. She asked lots of questions. Eventually, she stopped talking and didn’t respond when I called her name. Then I heard faint snoring and hung up the phone.
In the morning, I started getting alarming texts from Avalyn about blood loss. I encouraged her to call 911 but she wrote back that she didn’t think she needed to. I didn’t hear from her for a long time. Then she texted to say the paramedics were on their way. Would I call and stay on the phone until they arrived? I was on the way to campus, where I’m a grad student.
Avalyn said she was in pain, she was cold, and she felt tired. I tried to keep her spirits up, but eventually the phone went silent. I began to sob behind the wheel. Three thoughts ran through my head: What if something happens to our baby? This girl is too young to die. I’m a horrible person for worrying about the baby first. I was still listening to silence when I got a text from another number.
You’re on the line with Avalyn. She is completely unresponsive. Can you see if she will respond to your voice and wake up for you? Sometimes a person will respond to the last voice they have heard …
The text was from Avalyn’s boyfriend, Aaron. He said her blood pressure was dangerously low. The paramedics lost her heartbeat; they were shocking her with paddles.
Please don’t hang up I am freaking out they said for you to keep talking to her they don’t want to break the connection…
By now, I’d gotten to campus. I headed straight for a tiny, carpeted, fluorescent-lit room just off the student lounge, fell to my knees, and prayed for Avalyn. This wasn’t the heartwarming adoption story I’d hoped to tell family and friends. For hours, I praised her for being brave and strong. I talked about how much everyone was pulling for her. I assured her this would all turn out okay.
I called Aaron’s number but it went to voice mail. Eventually, he sent another text. She had delivered the baby in the ambulance.
They said she is responding to your voice please keep talking to her.
At one point, our call was disconnected and I burst into tears. I was sure people in the student lounge could hear me crying, but I didn’t care. When I pulled myself together, I stepped out to our school’s landscaped courtyard, sat on a chilly concrete bench, and called my husband, who was sitting on the tarmac at JFK. I told him Avalyn was still unconscious and she delivered a healthy girl. “How did your conversation go last night?” he asked. “Really well,” I said. “It might soon be go time.”
Aaron sent me the baby’s measurements and a photo, taken right after she’d been washed and swaddled for the first time. My heart swelled; she was gorgeous. I forwarded the photo to my husband without comment.
By the end of the day, Avalyn was awake and recovering. She told me I’d proven myself as a good-hearted person by staying with her throughout the entire ordeal. She knew I’d make an amazing mother and she wanted us to raise her baby. My throat tightened up as I said yes. I called social workers at our adoption agency and our adoption lawyer’s office. They told me the same thing; as soon as one of the birth parents contacted them directly, they can get the process started. I emailed Aaron all our social workers’ contact information and waited for him to call.
Two hours later, Avalyn began acting belligerently. She was on painkillers so I cut her some slack. She asked when I was coming to Alabama to pick up the baby. I said we couldn’t legally do the adoption without social workers getting involved.
Do you want this baby or not?
Then she hung up. Later that night, Avalyn seemed to have calmed down a bit. The baby was with her in the ICU, nursing. Suddenly I remembered that our social worker warned us about emotional scammers—women who contact waiting adoptive parents under false pretenses and form a relationship with them—then revel in all the attention. For the first time, I wondered if I was being lied to. My stomach flipped. I had to think fast: If I confront her and everything that she said happened to her today was true, then I look like a heartless monster. Still, once the thought occurred to me, everything—the voice, the urgency, the texts, the hang-ups—seemed to point to this being a giant scam.
Avalyn began to complain about her boyfriend, about the way he acted the morning she went into labor. I told her I didn’t want to get involved. She told me when she called Aaron that morning to say she needed a ride to the hospital and her best friend picked up the phone. She thought Aaron was cheating on her. Should she break up with him? I told her to talk to him in the morning when everyone was thinking clearly. She asked me to name the baby; she was forcing me to commit. I was fairly sure I was being conned now, but I picked a name. A morbid curiosity made me stay on the line and listen silently while she performed the final act of her one-woman show.
Aaron texted me. He said Avalyn wouldn’t see him and he wanted to die. I was still on the phone with Avalyn when she got a call on the hospital room phone. She asked me to stay on the line while she spoke with Aaron. He told her he was down by the beach and he’d taken a bunch of pills. Avalyn hung up with him and asked me what to do. I told her to call 911. And then I listened to that call, too, as the cops investigated, then told her that Aaron was dead.
One by one, the ICU monitors in Avalyn’s hospital room started to beep, reaching a crescendo. I thought of her newborn daughter. All those loud machines would wake her up. I listened for several seconds for a baby’s cry but it never came. My heart constricted and solidified; it felt heavy as a rock.
I hung up.
For the next few days, I sleepwalked everywhere, sobbing periodically. I couldn’t shake a sick feeling about the human race. I was furious with myself for falling for it but I wanted to be matched with a birth mother so desperately. I would put up with anything to give our story its happy ending.
The worst part is that my husband and I were told about people like her, but we fell for it anyway. Other adoption scammers ask for money, using fake bellies and forged ultrasounds to shake down waiting adoptive parents for thousands of dollars. Some target women undergoing fertility treatments. But an emotional scammer does it only for the attention and for the thrill of pulling a con and manipulating another person. At the time, I couldn’t understand why someone would do something so twisted. I denied that it was really happening because I couldn’t imagine being so cruel. Besides, I was sure I’d never fall for it so I put it out of my mind.
But now I clutched the phone with white knuckles, and realized: There was no baby, no boyfriend. Just a sociopath with a Southern accent, some email addresses and two phone lines. I began to hyperventilate with rage. Eventually, the emotional toll of the last 24 hours led to sheer exhaustion and I fell asleep.
The next morning, she texted me to let me know that she wasn’t okay. I texted back:
No, you’re really not okay. You are by far the cruelest and most emotionally disturbed person I’ve ever encountered.
Shame on you.
To which I replied:
Shame on me?!
My husband did a reverse look up of the phone numbers and found a middle-aged woman in Alabama with fraud and criminal harassment convictions. I tried to press charges but the police detective wouldn’t even write a report. In my county, cat-fishing is legal, as long as the scammer doesn’t ask for money.
I began reaching out to as many hopeful adoptive parents as I could online, warning them to not fall for her scam, but they knew all about her. She’s been at it for years; finding us on adoption websites and tailoring her back-story to have maximum impact. If she’s courting a lesbian couple, for example, she’ll say she was raised by two mothers. She uses many different fake names and tells several tragic stories, but countless hopeful adoptive parents have fallen for it. The thing is, I’m way too smart to be scammed.
We all are.
We’ve just had our annual home study renewed, met with the social worker again, and took tests to prove that we don’t have Tuberculosis for the third time. We’re not giving up. We’ve begun turning the spare bedroom into a nursery. In the meantime, we’re living our childless lives to the fullest. Last month, my husband and I heard the L.A. Philharmonic at the Walt Disney concert hall, went to a rock show in West Hollywood, walked along a suspended bridge above seven waterfalls, and had a late dinner in Portland during an unexpected, overnight layover. I would guess my scammer’s been home alone, talking on the phone.
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