By Megan Twohey
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate subcommittee will hear testimony Tuesday about how the federal government can stop parents from transferring custody of their adopted children to strangers met on the Internet.
The hearing comes in response to a Reuters investigation into the practice, known as "private re-homing," which bypasses the government's child welfare system. Reuters found online forums where desperate parents solicited new families for children they no longer wanted. The parents then transferred custody of the boys and girls to strangers, often through nothing more than a notarized power of attorney.
No state or federal laws specifically prohibit re-homing. State laws that restrict the advertising and custody transfers of children rarely prescribe criminal sanctions and are frequently ignored.
After the news agency published its investigation in September, at least four states passed new restrictions on advertising children, transferring custody, or both. Lawmakers in those states noted that the absence of government safeguards can result in children ending up in the care of abusers.
Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Children and Families represents the first time members of Congress will examine the issue. The focus will be on how the federal government can help state and local officials identify and prevent cases of re-homing, as well as child trafficking.
Some child advocates say that congressional action is needed to restrict re-homing. Joe Kroll, executive director of North American Council on Adoptable Children, said a federal law should place uniform restrictions on the advertising of children and require that all custody transfers of children to non-relatives be approved by a court.
"So much of re-homing is across state lines," Kroll said. "It’s an interstate issue. Because of all the cross-border activities, state-by-state solutions just don’t work. You need a federal law that addresses this."
In a report issued last year, the Congressional Research Service said the interstate aspect of re-homing and the role of the Internet in facilitating the practice gave Congress opportunities to act. "Although there appears to be no federal criminal law implicated by the general process of 're-homing,' this does not preclude Congress from enacting laws to protect children that may be harmed by this practice," the report said. The Government Accountability Office will begin studying state and federal policies related to re-homing this summer.
No government agencies track re-homing, but Reuters identified eight Internet groups in which members discussed, facilitated or engaged in the practice. In a single Yahoo group, 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; many were described as suffering emotional or behavioral problems. Yahoo has taken down the group.
Some re-homed children endured severe abuse, and the adults who used the online network to obtain children were not properly vetted, Reuters found. In one case, a man now serving prison time for child pornography took home a 10-year-old boy whom he and a friend found online hours earlier. They picked up the boy in a hotel parking lot.
At the request of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., officials from the federal departments of State, Justice, Health and Human Services and Homeland security have been discussing ways to address re-homing. In May, Health and Human Services officials warned states about the dangers of the practice and encouraged them to use existing federal funding to support struggling adoptive families.
(Reporting By Megan Twohey. Edited by Blake Morrison.)