As the adoption industry migrates to social media, regretful adoptees and birth mothers are confronting prospective parents with their personal pain—and anger.

When Erin and Justin decided to adopt a child at the beginning of 2016, they paid $25,000 to sign on with one of the largest, most reputable adoption agencies in the United States. They imagined an orderly process, facilitated by lawyers and social workers.

They didn’t foresee the internet trolls who would call them cunts and psychopaths. Nor did they imagine they’d be filing a police report, or pleading with Facebook to delete posts that called them human traffickers. They didn’t expect the internet to be involved in the process at all.

Erin and Justin (not their real names) met in Chicago in 2010 on a dating site. Erin was 37 with blond, beachy waves and a Michigan accent. She was divorced at the time and approached the dating market pragmatically, uninterested in wasting time with men who were not serious prospects. When she met Justin, she knew she’d found what she was looking for. “He was so kind, different from anyone I’d dated, and I knew he’d be a good dad,” she told me. They married in 2011 and planned to have children, but when Erin got a job offer that took them to New York City, they decided to wait until they were settled. Then, when they were ready to start trying, Erin learned that she had gone into premature menopause. “I wasn’t devastated, because I knew I wanted to be a mom, and it didn’t matter to me how my child came to me,” she said. They forged ahead, excited to adopt.

But several months after they signed with the adoption agency, it filed for bankruptcy. Erin and Justin contacted an attorney, who advised them to move their search online.

The adoption industry has never been very well regulated, and there is a history of certain firms engaging in unethical practices. But when agencies were the primary facilitators of adoption, they could at least perform basic vetting of birth mothers and adoptive parents and manage complex legal processes. The open marketplace of the web removed that layer of oversight. A 2012 report on adoption and the internet, by the now defunct Donaldson Adoption Institute, found, among other things, that online adoptions create opportunities for fraud and for financial incentives that might push expectant mothers to give up their children. Online, prospective adoptive parents negotiate with birth mothers directly via Craigslist ads. People who adopt children, often from overseas, and then change their minds find new homes for them in Facebook “adoption disruption” groups, without any supervision from child welfare agencies. “One thing that is true about adoption and the internet is that no one is paying attention,” says Adam Pertman, who was the executive director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute. “Whatever is happening is happening because it can, and it’s having enormous impact—some good, some bad, and some unknowable—without any repercussions.”

Erin and Justin signed up for a platform called Adoptimist (“We’re a technology company devoted to family-building. We are not an adoption agency or law firm”) and set up a Facebook page about their “adoption journey.” They filled their profiles with personal information, describing their love of basketball, football, and triathlons. Erin wrote that she came from a large Italian family and hoped to raise her children speaking Italian and English. They shared a picture of the two of them goofing around with a young nephew, another of them eating ice cream.

When they posted their profile to Adoptimist in 2017, Justin and Erin were approached by a woman from Las Vegas. She said she was pregnant with twins and had been diagnosed with cancer, and that she wanted the couple to raise the babies. After many texts and updates about the babies’ heart rates, and an invitation to come meet the twins in the hospital, they discovered the woman had never been pregnant.

She was what Erin described as an “emotional scammer,” someone seemingly uninterested in money who torments prospective adoptive parents for reasons known only to them. Erin said another woman on Adoptimist who claimed to be pregnant sent her a message saying she was hungry and asking her to order a pizza. This was, Erin said, how most of the couple’s interactions on the site went. (Philip Acosta, the president and cofounder of Adoptimist, said that the company has in recent years focused on combating scammers. The site now offers to review the IP addresses of anyone who contacts a prospective adoptive parent, and also alerts users to different types of scams on a “scam blog.”)

Justin and Erin joined a support group for parents seeking to adopt. Several of the couples in their group who had already adopted children passed along advice about using Facebook’s advertising analytics to hone their search. So Justin and Erin paid the social media company between $25 and $150 a month to promote their adoption page in the feeds of women age 15 to 65 in college towns around the US. This range, they reasoned, might reach a grandparent or a friend of a pregnant woman.

Soon after they started buying targeted Facebook ads, Erin’s mother became seriously ill. Erin flew to the suburbs of Detroit, where she was raised, to help. For a hectic few weeks, she and her sister took turns staying in the hospital with their mother and watching Erin’s five nieces and nephews.

One night, Justin called Erin and, sounding stricken, asked if she’d seen their adoption page. She hadn’t had time to check it. “Oh my God,” he told her. “You have to go look now.”

That night in Michigan, when Erin logged on to Facebook, she saw, interspersed with encouraging messages, a torrent of abuse. Perhaps because of the increased exposure Facebook analytics offered, their adoption profile had come to the attention of anti-adoption blogs and Facebook groups. Now their profile had been screenshotted and tagged and mocked on many other pages. “How will you have time for a baby while you’re resting your facelift, and getting all that work done?” one poster asked. Another proclaimed, “Get a dog, you stupid cunts.” “No child deserves her … even the ‘man upstairs’ saw that.”

In the guest bedroom in her sister’s house, Erin stayed up late into the night deleting the comments on their adoption profile and trying to report the users who posted them. “I was trying to plug the dam, but there wasn’t enough time. It was a 20-person job,” she said. “There was no one to talk to at Facebook.” (A Facebook spokesperson said, “We continue to improve the technology we use to find bullying and harassing content” and that it had “removed the content that violates our policies.”)

As she jumped from one anti-adoption page to another, Erin saw that she and Justin were far from the only targets. Other prospective adoptive parents were called “vultures trolling the net for babies.” One group had shared the Adoptimist profile of a gay male couple, asking sardonically, “Which one will be listed on the birth certificate as the woman who gave birth to the child?”

Erin was dumbfounded. “I didn’t even know anti-adoption was a thing,” she told me.

The anti-adoption movement lives in Facebook groups and on blogs with names like the Wounded Adoptee, Changing the Adoption Narrative, and Adopted Ball of Hate, and it is comprised of people who wouldn’t have found each other elsewhere: older women who, as “unwed mothers” in the 1950s and ’60s, were forced to give babies up for adoption; women whose churches still pressure them to give up children born outside of marriage; adoptees who want to overturn laws in 40 states that deny them unrestricted access to their original birth certificates.

The people in this movement come to it from a wide range of perspectives. Some recognize the value of adoption in certain circumstances and have specific goals, like improving federal oversight, eliminating practices that are coercive to birth mothers, or giving them more time to reverse a decision to give up a child. Others see adoption as wrong in all cases, as an assault on some transcendent natural bond only possible between a biological mother and child. Some are finding community and expressing feelings of anger and pain for the first time; birth mothers describe pressure, regret, and lifelong mourning for the children they gave up, while adoptees talk about their sense of estrangement and about not knowing their medical history.

Members of these groups run an informal counter-messaging campaign to standard adoption narratives, one which incorporates their trauma and the role that poverty plays in adoption. When the economic devastation from Covid-19 shutdowns became apparent in April, Lifetime Adoption, an agency based in Florida, put up a blog post assuring prospective adoptive parents that the pandemic would open new opportunities. “Difficult times bring a greater need for adoptive parents,” the post read. “Lifetime Adoption has found that phone calls from potential birth mothers are three times what they normally are.” Anti-adoption groups took screenshots and critiqued the post, highlighting the more troubling issues underlying its assumptions, until the agency took it down.

The tactics that Erin encountered—targeting adoptive parents online, mocking their profiles, and calling them names like “womb wet baby snatcher”—are not the standard in the anti-adoption movement. The people who engage in those behaviors make up a small minority, but a vocal one.

For a while, one of the more aggressive anti-adoption posters and commenters was a woman whose online moniker is Julie Gray. She has been removed and blocked from many groups because of her use of harsh language to both birth mothers, whom she calls “relinquishers,” and adoptive parents. Gray was adopted, and she told me that one of her goals in trolling adoptive parents’ profiles was “to scare the crap out of them so they change their mind altogether. I want to stop other children from going through what I went through.”

When Erin told her adoption support group about the response to her profile, other couples acknowledged that they’d been trolled too. They told her, “Delete, block, and don’t engage,” Erin recalled.

But Erin wasn’t the type to back down. “I’m an attorney. I always advocate for my client, and now I felt I had to advocate for my family. I was not going to shut up and ignore it and walk away. I’m Italian, I’m hot-blooded. If I see something that’s wrong for me or someone else, I am not going to be silent.”

woman standing in a park carrying a child

Art by Amber Lee Williams; Photograph by Juan Diego Reyes

Whenever she saw adoptive parents being harassed, she reported it to Facebook. It seemed to Erin that Facebook removed a post only if a significant number of people reported it. (The company says one report is enough if a post violates its policies.) So in September 2017 she started a small Facebook group whose sole purpose was to monitor and report anti-adoption harassment. She sometimes commented acerbically on those posts she reported, and quickly became known in the anti-adoption community. One commenter wrote an ominous post saying she had eaten dinner at the restaurant on the ground floor of Erin’s Manhattan apartment building. Another post named the law firm where Erin worked and discussed strategies for getting her disbarred. At that point, Erin says, she filed a police report about the woman who claimed to have been in her building.

Although she was in frequent battle with the anti-adoption movement, Erin shared some of their concerns. She found that the inconsistency of laws from state to state created confusion and believed all adoptees should have access to their original birth certificates. At some point Erin had signed up for a newsletter from an adoption facilitator who connected prospective parents with birth parents for a fee. The emails included what the facilitator called “situations”: brief descriptions of children available for adoption along with a price, usually in the tens of thousands of dollars. The idea of putting a “price” on a child above basic expenses incurred by the birth mother disturbed Erin. She thought it might encourage birth mothers to place their babies  for adoption. She was especially horrified to see enormous race-based discrepancies: In one situation a white child was $45,000, while in another a Black child was $20,000.

Then, in the fall of 2017, a pregnant woman from the South reached out to Erin and Justin through Facebook. The woman was in a long-term relationship, was raising three other children, and had previously placed another child for adoption. Erin tried not to get her hopes up, but she had a good feeling as the months passed and the woman kept in regular contact. New York state has strict rules on payments to birth mothers: It permits prospective adoptive parents to give money only for certain expenses and in the final months of pregnancy and just after childbirth. The expectant mother was on Medicaid and didn’t need help with medical expenses, but Justin and Erin paid her $1,450 a month for three months because she said her doctor ordered her to stop working toward the end of her pregnancy.

As the baby’s due date neared, Justin and Erin drove south to meet the family. They all went out for dinner, and Erin gave the birth mother a spa package.

When the baby girl was born, Erin and Justin were in the hospital. They held her soon after she was delivered. Erin cut the umbilical cord. They were overjoyed. Erin and Justin stayed with her in the neonatal intensive care unit for several weeks—she had breathing problems—before returning to New York City.

Erin took down her adoption page, but she continued challenging the harassment she saw on Facebook. For a while, she settled into a kind of routine. She’d tell the trollers to get a hobby, or worse. Sometimes, she’d threaten legal action. There was an anti-adoption Facebook group called Ask a Birth, First, Natural Mom, which Erin had taken to calling Ask a Moron in her posts encouraging her group to report it. She saw the heated exchanges as mutual sport. “They know who I am and know that I troll those pages. They don’t block me. They like the engagement,” she told me. “It was a cat-and-mouse game.”

Then, in August 2019, something happened that changed the tone for Erin. The previous January, when her daughter’s adoption was finalized in court, Erin had posted an album on Facebook that she hashtagged #familyday and #gotchaday, a phrase sometimes used by adoptive parents. In addition to taking photos at court, Erin had made a poster with her daughter’s full name and stylized numbers showing her birthday and the date “you were forever ours.” Erin put a bow in the toddler’s blond curls and took pictures of their little family posed on a white leather couch in front of the framed poster.

Erin believed her personal Facebook page’s privacy settings allowed only friends to see posts. But months after she posted the celebratory picture, she received notifications that it had been shared on two anti-adoption sites: Ask a Birth, First, Natural Mom and a group Erin hadn’t heard of: America’s Taken.

On America’s Taken, which has more than 14,000 followers, the picture, with Erin’s daughter’s full name in view, was posted with Erin’s name along with hashtags about kidnapping and trafficking. Soon others shared the link, and the mocking comments began.

That was nothing new, but now Erin’s name and her daughter’s were spreading with those hashtags. “The last thing I want is for her picture and mine to be on a dark web, as if we were available for trafficking,” Erin told me.

Erin mobilized her group to report America’s Taken and emailed Facebook repeatedly. Eventually Facebook removed the picture from pages that posted it.

America’s Taken is run by Geri Pfeiffer, who lives in a trailer heated by a wood-burning stove in central Oklahoma, near the end of a narrow dead-end road. Pfeiffer, who is 61 and stands 6’2″, has a big laugh and wears clear Coke-bottle-thick bifocals. She identifies herself on social media as a “hell raiser,” “memaw,” and “activist,” and in her spare time she knits prayer shawls for a local church.

On the America’s Taken Facebook page, Pfeiffer posts pictures of children who have been removed from their homes by child protective services, placed in foster care, and then adopted by new families. There are 135,000 adoptions every year in the US, and about 40 percent are from foster care. The birth parents in those cases no longer have the right to visit their children. The children’s names are often changed, and many states still seal a child’s original birth certificate.

image of a high chair with spilled cereal and a crocheted blanket hanging on the arm

Art by Amber Lee Williams

Pfeiffer logs long hours advising birth parents all over the country on how to find their children. She can be relentless. She once sent Facebook messages to nearly every business owner in a small northwestern Washington town, asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of a child who’d been in foster care there. (It worked.) The tougher cases she brings to the online network of amateur detectives who are known in the adoption community as search angels. Many of them are former adoptees or birth parents, but some are just genealogy buffs with time on their hands. Most use online consumer tools like Ancestry.com or data-mining sites like Beenverified or Spokeo.

A typical post on America’s Taken might show a photo of a child (who a relative has asked Pfeiffer to locate) along with a message:

“As soon as you hit that 18th Birthday … your grandma and great grandma … will be waiting.

You weren’t hard to find.

They love you. They miss you. They have waited a long time.”

When she saw Erin’s “forever ours” post, Pfeiffer had thought nothing of sharing a few choice words about it; she frequently compares adoption to kidnapping and trafficking. But Erin fought back. That week, Erin and Pfeiffer—and their respective followers—got into increasingly heated exchanges. On her Facebook group page, Erin posted, “Looks like the tables have turned. How does it feel, Geri Pfeiffer?” When Pfeiffer got online again, she composed a message to her followers with Erin’s name: “To think that this attorney has adopted a child is another adoption horror story in the making. A child that was adopted to satisfy the narcissistic need of a psychopath attorney to be a ‘mother.’”

Pfeiffer started America’s Taken because of her own experience with child protective services. In 2009, one of Pfeiffer’s sons—who was 19 at the time—learned that he had become a father. Neither her son nor the mother was prepared to raise a child, Pfeiffer told me, so Pfeiffer took over caring for the baby. “I just held him that whole first year,” she remembered. “His skin was paper thin.” She had the boy baptized in a white tuxedo. When her grandson was old enough, she enrolled him in preschool through Head Start.

Then, when he was 4, everything fell apart. On Halloween morning in 2013, a witness said she saw Pfeiffer swinging her purse at the boy in front of his preschool, “with such force causing the child to be knocked approximately 10 feet down a concrete ramp causing scrapes to his left and right forearms and face and head,” according to court records. When we spoke, Pfeiffer denied that this happened; in a court record she had said “he was spanked outside of school grounds.”

When the Halloween report was filed, Pfeiffer was on probation for an incident of assault and battery. (In an official statement, she said a woman she knew attacked her with a tire iron, and “I fought off the blows with a rake. I ran to her truck and put it in neutral, and it ran down the hill and into a tree.”) Her grandson went into foster care.

Both Pfeiffer and her son say they tried to get the boy back. Pfeiffer completed an anger management course. Meanwhile her grandson bounced from one foster placement to another. Records from family court are sealed, so it is not possible to know the full details of this case.

Eventually one of the boy’s foster families filed adoption papers. The last time Pfeiffer saw her grandson was at their final visit in the county Department of Human Services building.

Afterward, Pfeiffer fell into a sleepless depression. She shut the door to her grandson’s room and didn’t open it for two years. She finally cleaned it out when her teenage granddaughter asked to take it over. Her granddaughter hung up a tapestry with an elephant on it, and Pfeiffer moved the boy’s belongings into storage containers. During my visit, she unpacked one that held the preemie outfit the baby wore the day she first met him, the small white tuxedo from his baptism, a plastic octopus he used to fall asleep with, his Spider-Man wallet, and a lock of dirty-blond hair from his first haircut.

“Precious memories from a boy that doesn’t exist anymore,” Pfeiffer said sadly.

She still occasionally feels something embedded in the corner of her quilt and discovers a crayon or Lego sword lodged in the fabric. “Right now the grief is not even acknowledged once your rights are terminated,” she said. “You’re just relegated to the trash heap of life.”

The termination of parental rights has been called the “civil death penalty,” because of its severity and finality. It is overwhelmingly levied against poor families. Some children are taken away from parents who abuse them horribly—and others who should be removed are not and die at the hands of abusers. Nationally, the majority of children are removed from their homes by child protective services not for abuse but neglect, which can be a more subjective state. Neglect can mean a child was left in a hot car for hours or that a child’s parent is an addict. Or it can mean that a child was alone at home while their mother worked an overnight shift or went to the store, or that there’s not enough food in the fridge. In other words, poverty can create conditions that lead to neglect, and the exigencies of poverty can also be interpreted as neglect.

child's jacket and boots

Art by Amber Lee Williams

Many anti-adoption advocates, as well as some experts in child-welfare reform, argue that helping families get what they need—rehab, food stamps, child care subsidies—should be prioritized over permanently removing children from their parents. In a 2019 paper, “A Cure Worse Than the Disease? The Impact of Removal on Children and Their Families,” Vivek Sankaran, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, and his coauthors note that removing children from their homes is traumatic for both parents and children, and that standards for removal vary from state to state. In some states there must be evidence that a child is in immediate danger; in others, suspicion of neglect is sufficient cause. Some states allow a parent to appeal the removal within 24 hours; in others a parent may have to wait 10 days. As a result, the authors note, states and even individual counties have widely varying rates of removing children. In 2017, West Virginia removed 10 times as many children from their homes as neighboring Virginia did. In Oklahoma, where Pfeiffer lives, the number of children who are adopted from foster care is far higher than the national average.

Other child advocates, however, point out that, whatever its cause, neglect can be profoundly damaging to children. Elizabeth Bartholet, director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, agrees that “if we eliminated poverty in this country, that would be the best abuse- and neglect-prevention program.” But protecting the welfare of children, she says, has to take priority over parental rights.

In some cases, a judge will rule that a birth parent poses a danger to a child and will prohibit the parent from making contact. But many avenues exist for a birth parent to reconnect with a child unsupervised. The internet, along with widely available genetic testing, has dismantled the possibility of a truly closed adoption. “Judges’ strictures mean nothing if a child can search for his birth mother without [adoptive] parents knowing,” says Pertman, now the president and CEO at the National Center of Adoption Permanency. “But that doesn’t mean an 11-year-old should be forming relationships with people he doesn’t know without parents’ knowledge.”

Martin Guggenheim, an advocate for parental rights and a professor at NYU Law School, who believes many removals are unjust, is not surprised that birth parents and relatives attempt DIY reunions through the web. When he saw the America’s Taken Facebook page, he told me, “When you think about it, how do you not create this website?”

Other online groups have emerged where there are gaps in adoption processes. Adoption-disruption groups on Facebook, where adopted children are “re-homed,” emerged at least partly because there is little post-adoption support and monitoring; some families know almost nothing about the issues their overseas-adopted children faced or how to cope with their medical or behavioral challenges. In private adoptions, the lawyer who represents a birth mother is often paid for by the adoptive family, and some adoption agencies fund flashy public relations campaigns that paint the experience in sunny tones. There are no major organizations that share with expectant mothers potential downsides or that help them with their rights.

Renee Gelin started an organization and Facebook group that plays that role by crowdsourcing assistance and advice that birth mothers might not have access to. As a single parent, Gelin gave up her second child for adoption 10 years ago because she was under crushing financial pressure at the time. Her job as a contractor in IT offered no maternity leave, and her health insurance would not cover her high-risk pregnancy. She was paid too much to qualify for Medicaid.

Just weeks before her son was born, Gelin agreed to place him with a family in another state. As soon as he was on the plane, she regretted the choice. Although she had arranged an open adoption for her son, she says that the adoptive family ended the relationship when they found critical blog posts she had written expressing grief about the process. Gelin felt she hadn’t understood that open adoptions exist at the discretion of the adopting family. In fact, they are not legally enforceable in all states, and where they are enforceable the cost of a lawyer can be prohibitive for a birth mother.

Gelin’s organization, called Saving Our Sisters, tries to persuade birth mothers that financial strain shouldn’t prevent them from keeping their children. When a woman who is having second thoughts reaches out to SOS online, the group tries to find a “sister on the ground” nearby to bring her diapers, a month’s rent, or a baby swing. Gelin says SOS has had around 90 “saves”—adoptions in process that the group helped reverse—in the past six years. Gelin transferred the blog about her adopted son to a public Facebook page years ago and still posts letters and updates to him, often signed, “Mom.”

The woman who adopted Pfeiffer’s grandson once gave her a framed image of the boy’s handprint. Pfeiffer took the handprint, painted it red, and made it the bloody-looking logo of America’s Taken. She printed up T-shirts and signs and stood outside the family court in Guthrie in front of her truck, which had a decal that read “my grandson is a victim of forced adoption in logan county.” She handed out pamphlets and told her version of the story to anyone who would listen. At the time, her message did not get much further than the Guthrie courthouse steps.

But in 2013, Pfeiffer enrolled in a University of Oklahoma Medical Center study on congestive heart failure. The hospital gave her an iPhone 4 so she could access a medical app she needed for the study. She had never used a smartphone, or even a computer. “I ran a laundromat,” she told me, “and you don’t need computers to clean people’s underwear.”

One day, as she entered her health data in the iPhone app, her brother asked her if she knew she could use it for other stuff. She didn’t know. He showed her how to text and then helped her set up a Facebook account. Pfeiffer immediately saw the possibilities. Here she could hold up her sign 24 hours a day, all over the country. The first post she wrote was about her grandson. Within minutes, other people were posting stories to her page of children they were looking for. “It just snowballed,” she told me. “The first person replied within a minute, and it just kept climbing and climbing.”

As Pfeiffer got more familiar with the phone, she started tracking her grandson’s adoptive family. Pfeiffer has liver disease as well as advanced heart failure, and she told me it’s unlikely she will live long enough to see her grandson turn 18, the age at which she could seek him out. She leaves messages for him on the internet. “I want him to know how hard we searched for him,” she says. “And I’m going to spend every minute I have left searching for other taken kids, teaching other parents to leave clues in cyberspace.”

In June 2019, Erin got a new message from her daughter’s birth mother. The woman thought she might be pregnant again and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She eventually asked if Erin and Justin wanted to adopt the new baby.

Erin had loved becoming a mother. She and Justin had recently put their adoption journey Facebook page back up, hoping to add to their family. The prospect of a biological sibling for their daughter was more than they had dreamed of.

man in park carrying a child on his shoulders

Art by Amber Lee Williams; Photograph by Juan Diego Reyes

I spoke to Erin when the birth mother was six months pregnant. At the time, Erin saw her adoption story as a rebuke to the ones she often saw on anti-adoption websites. The birth mother had reconnected unprompted, which confirmed to Erin that she had never felt bullied or coerced. Erin said she had made a book of pictures of her daughter’s birth family that she read to her, and she shared pictures of the girl with the birth mother.

But when we talked again a few months later, Erin’s view had changed. In February, the birth mother had abruptly stopped returning her messages. Erin grew increasingly frantic and eventually learned that the baby—a boy—had already been born and was in the NICU, along with another couple who also believed they were the baby’s adoptive parents.

It turned out that, some months earlier, the birth mother had posted anonymously on a Facebook adoption group and had connected with the other family. Justin and Erin rushed south with their daughter. When the boy was ready to leave the NICU, they were given temporary custody. They brought him to a townhouse they had rented, where their daughter was thrilled to meet her brother. They nested for almost four months.

The custody case became baroque. The birth mother was indicted for unlawful exchange of money in an adoption, a charge she said she was fighting as of early March. A judge ruled that the boy should be placed in foster care until custody was decided, with both couples granted an hour per week to visit him. The birth mother and her aunt also filed for custody. The birth mother and Erin described a scenario in which all four families visited the baby once a week in the midst of the pandemic. Eventually the second couple dropped their custody claim, and the baby was sent home with his birth mother, where he has lived for months. Erin and Justin are still pursuing custody.

Erin told me about this turn of events in June 2020. At the time, she was hunkered down in the rental, awaiting the final custody decision. She was sad and seething. But for the first time since we initially spoke nearly two years earlier, her target had changed. “The anti-adoption folks? Honestly, I get it now. I get why they say some of the things they say. A lot of their concerns are legitimate,” she told me. “There’s a dark side to adoption.”

In the months she and her husband had spent with their daughter and her brother, she felt they had bonded. Then the boy was put in foster care. In her years of monitoring anti-adoption groups, Erin had read again and again about the trauma a child suffers when removed from his family. Now she was haunted by the rupture and the baby’s experience of losing the “only home he ever knew.”

“It tore me up inside,” she said. “I can’t imagine what he must be thinking and feeling.”

The experience confirmed to her the need for federal adoption reform. Maybe, she said, it made sense to have 50 different sets of state adoption laws when adoptions were done locally. But in a world where a child’s future may be mediated on various digital platforms with little accountability, one set of rules is needed. For starters, “there needs to be a federal register of hopeful adoptive parents and birth moms,” Erin said. “There should be a registry to see if someone is matched or not matched.”

When I reached the birth mother in February, she told me that she had decided on adoption for her daughter, another child, and initially planned on it for her son, because she was raising three other children and is against abortion. She thought the kids would have a better life. But it was not easy. In the hospital, she told me, she asked for the baby to be put in a separate room with the adoptive parents. “After giving birth knowing the baby was going with someone else,” she said. “That’s a lot to endure.” She got very quiet on the phone. “I step away because it gets harder and harder to say, ‘Well, yes, this is what I want to do.’”

She had liked the idea of getting to know a family directly through Facebook. But the bitter fight over her son had convinced her she had not really known the people who adopted her children. She told me, “Never again would I choose adoption.” The baby is now a year old.

When we spoke in June, Erin said she had mostly stopped following anti-adoption groups on Facebook. But the activists were on her mind as she navigated a chaotic custody case born out of unverified Facebook threads. In a vacuum of oversight, the anti-adoption groups seemed to be the only ones tracking, however imperfectly, the adoption industry. More than once when we spoke that day, she said, almost wistfully, “I would be really curious to hear what they would say about this.”


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