One woman's story of domestic adoption fraud

Birth mother lands in jail after stealing money from adoptive families. Photo: Photo courtesy of Kelly Ensslin

RALEIGH, September 18, 2012 — The Red Thread is pleased to welcome guest columnist Kelly Ensslin.  An adoptive mother of five-year-old Ada and two-year-old Emmett, she is also an attorney in North Carolina.  

Here, she writes movingly about her quest to adopt domestically that ultimately ended with the birth mother in jail after she manipulates the domestic adoption system for personal gain.  Ensslin’s story serves as a cautionary tale since, as she writes, the domestic adoption system in the United States “is like the Wild West –lacking in any meaningful oversight, regulation or centralization.”

Kelly Ensslin with daughter Ada and son Emmett/Image: K. Ensslin

I am a victim.

These were the first words I spoke when I stood before a federal judge in April to tell my story of a fraudulent failed adoption.  I had been so ashamed and angry for the two preceding years that I scarcely spoke of the crime that had been committed against my family in the spring of 2010. 

Telling this story under any circumstance makes me wildly uncomfortable.  As an attorney, I have dedicated my career to ethical adoptions. As a result, the “victim” status fit me like an itchy wool sweater two sizes too small.  Still, the attorney and child advocate in me realizes how important it was to seek justice in this case – not for me alone, but for the sanctity of all adoptions and all children who need a family.

Let me start at the beginning.  I was someone who never really wanted children and couldn’t envision being a mother.  I always hedged the “no-baby” stance with the option of adoption, however, and in the spring of 2009, I became mother to an incredible baby girl from Vietnam. 

This international adoption was fraught with drama, delay and doubt, but ultimately, she became mine and I became hers.  My journey to this child was not easy, but I would do it all again in a second.  She changed every fiber of me and soon after she came home, I realized with great clarity that more children would be a blessing and a gift to our family. 

Sadly, Vietnam was no longer an option, thanks to the Department of State’s unsubstantiated allegations of corruption that led to the closure of all adoptions from Vietnam. International adoption in general was – and is – in a rapid decline and there appeared to be no real viable programs that met our family demographics and needs, despite the enormous need of unparented children around the world. Instead, domestic adoption appeared to be the way to grow our family, and I began to investigate the various ways we could adopt a child born here in the United States. 

The first thing I learned, much to my surprise, was that the process of domestic adoption is NOTHING like international adoption.  It quickly became clear that nobody minds the “store” for domestic adoption, as United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and Department of State do for international adoption. Unlike highly regulated and controlled international adoption, domestic adoption is like the Wild West –lacking in any meaningful oversight, regulation or centralization.  For example, in a routine domestic adoption, prospective parents are encouraged and even required to make payments to the birth mother for her housing, food, and medical care.  In an international adoption, any such gift would be labeled baby-buying and accompanied by outrage, condemnation, and an abrupt end to the adoption process. 

Undaunted by the enormous differences between international adoption and domestic adoption, I found a domestic adoption facilitator that I liked and trusted.  We had many conversations and I spoke freely of my concerns and hopes.  She was pragmatic and detached, almost clinical in her presentation of options and strategies.  I liked this about her and I felt good about working with her to find another child for our family.  Originally, I did not want to be matched with an expectant birth mom, instead preferring to be matched with a child that was already born, and in need of a home.  I realize now that this was simply me trying to make a domestic adoption feel as much like my international adoption as possible.  I had all sorts of rationalizations about why a child already born was a better fit, but now I see that it was fear of the unknown that made me reluctant.  Well, that and the whole idea of a newborn baby seemed scary and overwhelming.  Adoption was not a last resort for me, a place I landed because of infertility - adoption was my first and only choice for having children.

I had my international home study changed to a domestic home study, which amounted to simply removing pages of miniscule details about my family, my background, my finances, and presenting instead a quick summary of why my family was fit to parent a child.  We stood ready to be matched and waited for an opportunity that felt right. 

One day, in March 2009, my facilitator shared the story of an expectant mom with me.  Let’s call her Sally.  Sally was pregnant, due in mid-May, with a bi-racial girl who had been conceived in a violent gang rape involving at least seven assailants.  My heart went out to Sally. I had spent years working as a victim advocate and crisis responder for women and children who had been sexually assaulted. I had held the hands of dozens of rape victims in hospitals in the immediate aftermath of their assaults, and knew instantly that this child and mother deserved love and respect. Still, I wrestled with how I would handle questions about paternity from my family, friends, and most importantly, from this child as she grew older. I worried about the legal risk associated with an unknown birth father and any potential complications in the future should this man emerge. 

I struggled with how I could make an open adoption work well for everyone, especially my Vietnamese daughter who will likely never know the first thing about her birth family.  And yet, I came to believe that we could make this work, and that this child deserved a loving permanent home and her birth mother deserved a placement that would honor her courage and her choice.  And with that, we were matched.  I would adopt the child Sally carried.

Sally and I spoke on the phone and she immediately began sharing stories of her very difficult life.  The rape was one of many awful and tragic events in her life.  She had been married to an abusive man. She had lost children to death, state intervention, and adoption previously.  She had served time in prison. She had struggled with addiction. She had been homeless and penniless many times. 

Life had not been kind to Sally, but she was excited about our match and was eager to deliver this baby and place her with my family.  She also needed money right away to avoid being evicted, so we mailed her a check.

Almost immediately after she received that money, she called again needing more money to pay for a trip to the doctor and for some maternity clothes.  She had not yet been approved for Medicaid, and so her medical expenses were all entirely out of pocket.  And could I please wire that money to the casino where her aunt works because she didn’t have a bank account and cashing checks is hard?  Sure thing.  I sure could and I sure did.

I was eager to hear about her doctor’s visit and I began calling her, but couldn’t reach her for days.  This worried me. I couldn’t help but wondering what she had done with the money we had sent her.  When I finally did reach her, she had no good explanation for her absence.  I asked her pointedly whether she was using drugs or alcohol.  She was indignant.  What kind of monster did I think she was? I was embarrassed for asking, and renewed my commitment to honor and respect her.  Her righteous indignation was almost immediately followed by another urgent plea for money.  Rent was due again and the cupboards were bare.  Could I please wire some more money to the casino to keep the baby safe and fed and warm? Absolutely! Despite some latent doubts, I was getting consistent reports from Sally that the pregnancy was progressing normally, and she was predicting delivery in advance of her due date.  We were in the home stretch now.

One afternoon, in late April, Sally called saying she had been involved in a car accident. She had gone to the hospital to be evaluated, and learned that she was 3 cm dilated and beginning to efface.  She told me to pack my bags and be ready to fly on a moment’s notice across the country to meet my daughter.   And so I did.  I also readied the nursery, put my employer on notice, and was showered by my amazing family and friends with tiny pink things and all the accessories that are attendant with the addition of a newborn to a family. We lived on high alert, waiting for the call.  We passed the time, which seemed to stretch for an eternity, trying to narrow the list of names.  My daughter was especially interested in the name game for her new baby sister.  It seemed that every conversation turned inexorably to this new life that waited just around the bend – our family  + 1. 

As the days passed, reports of contractions and back pain continued to come from Sally.  The baby was on the way and we’d better be ready. Sally called one day nearly hysterical.  Her obstetrician had fired her, here so close to the delivery of this child.  What was she going to do? She needed more money to have a new doctor all lined up to deliver the baby, which by the way was imminent.  This struck me as so incredibly odd and unprofessional that I offered to contact the doctor directly.  I also sent more money, just in case.  She agreed to have me call the doctor.  Indeed, she had already met with an attorney in her home state and signed all sorts of forms including a medical release form.  I submitted the medical release form to her doctor and placed a call – the call that would change everything.

The office manager at the doctor’s office confirmed that Sally had in fact been terminated as a patient.  She recounted a recent scene where Sally had become belligerent and threatening, and where the staff felt physically unsafe in her presence.  This didn’t seem completely out of step with what I had come to know of Sally over the last several weeks, but I pleaded with her to deliver this child.  I reminded her that the baby was expected imminently and suggested that leaving Sally and her child without medical care could amount to malpractice. 

The line grew silent for a moment, and the office manager quietly apologized and said she would send me the records immediately.

Within a half hour, my world was shattered.  The medical records revealed that I had been told more lies than I could count.  This child was not the product of rape.  Sally was not due imminently. Her due date was not May but late July.  She had tested positive for drugs and the baby’s health had been put at risk.  The medical records Sally had previously provided me directly had been forged and altered, in almost every way. 

Indeed, the ultrasound picture she sent me did not even appear to be hers.  Finally, her file was full of requests for records from other adoption service providers, spanning from the start of the pregnancy to just a few days prior to mine. 

Records in hand, I called each of the adoption service providers listed in the records to try to understand what had happened.  Within a few hours, Sally had learned about my questions and called me in a fit of rage, screaming that she would not allow me to adopt her child and that she was keeping her after all.  It was O-V-E-R. 

Afterward, it took very little detective work to confirm what I already knew – that Sally was the worst kind of thief imaginable.  Sally had promised her unborn child to several different families, taking money from each of us to feed her addiction and poison the baby we each planned to love as our own.  In addition, I learned that this pregnancy was number nineteen (19!) which suggested a pattern and practice of child trafficking so despicable that I could not simply turn away. 

Fortunately, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina and the FBI agreed with me, and decided to investigate.  Within a few months, a Grand Jury returned an indictment against Sally for mail fraud and wire fraud, arising from the several thousand dollars she had stolen from my family.  Before she could be apprehended, she became pregnant with her twentieth child.  Because of her pregnancy, she was released to a drug treatment facility on pre-trial release.  She violated the conditions of her release by using drugs and disappearing.  Eventually, a Court decided she needed to be imprisoned while she awaited trial and she was extradited to North Carolina.

Ultimately, Sally pled guilty to the four counts of fraud. At her sentencing hearing, I was allowed to tell my story to the Court. Although I have appeared in Court many times as an attorney and advocate, I had never appeared as a participant or stakeholder in the process, much less a victim.  It was such a surreal experience that I recall very little of my allocution.  In fact, my dear friend who came to hold my hand and offer me support has provided many of the details of what I said as I stood before the Court. 

In a large and imposing old federal courthouse filled with onlookers for other cases, I asked the Court not to measure this crime by the amount of money she stole from me or others, but to consider instead the human damage she did to all of the victims of this crime, especially the child she delivered nine weeks early, weighing only 3 pounds. I told the Court that Sally was, in my estimation, morally bankrupt and a trafficker in her own babies.  I told the Court about a phone call from Sally three weeks after the baby was born and placed with a family in New York. 

Sally did not know that I was onto her at that point and told me she still wanted me to raise the baby and, of course, asked for more money.  I told the Court about my dad coming to take down the crib the day I learned of the scam because I simply could not stand to see the remnants of the life Sally stole. I told the Court about kneeling down to explain to my daughter why I was unpacking our suitcases, and why we would not be playing the name game anymore. I told the Court about sending my family out to return all the baby gifts to our neighbors and friends in hopes of avoiding the inevitable well-meaning parade of condolences and questions. 

I stood before the Court, with a trembling voice and broken heart, a victim of this crime. 

The Court sentenced Sally to four years in federal prison, a sentence double the federal sentencing guideline range and double what was being asked for by the federal prosecutor. In addition to imprisonment, Sally was ordered to have no contact with any of the victims. 

The Court ordered her to repay the money she stole from me and the other families and to obtain vocational training in prison so that she could work to make that restitution.  She must also undergo treatment for gambling, drugs, and alcohol while in prison and to endure a long and rigorous period of supervised probation following her release. 

The Court told Sally that this sentence was reasonable and justified because Sally, in the judge’s words, is a predator with no regard for the law.  The Court believed this sentence would instill in Sally a sense of decency and accountability previously missing from her life. I hope the Court is right, and I take comfort knowing that Sally cannot do this again for at least four years. 

Though she will likely never repay the money she owes me, I came away from that hearing no longer feeling like a victim.  I emerged from that wrenching experience with a renewed faith in justice and humanity and a renewed commitment to fight for ethical adoptions, domestic and international.  There is much work to be done, but even small victories must be celebrated and, in the end, this was a victory, for me, for the other families, and for everyone who cares about ethical adoptions.  

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Andrea Poe

Andrea Poe is a veteran journalist, whose work has appeared in thousands of publications, including Town & Country, Marie Claire and Entrepreneur.  She is the author of several books and her work has appeared in many others, including anthologies and college textbooks. 

Andrea serves as editor of the Travel & Food section at The Washington Times Communities.  Her love of travel has led her to cover everything from remote villages in the Andes to her hometown of New York, from Paris to Pittsburgh, from Beijing to the Bahamas.  No matter where she travels, she likes to uncover the unusual and share with readers those often-overlooked aspects of a place and its people.  She dubs her column Raven’s Eye as a nod to her illustrious (and, yes, infamous) relative, Edgar Allan Poe, a writer who knew more than a little something about the quirky and unique.  

Andrea is also mother to Maxine, who was adopted from Vietnam in 2006, and is the inspiration for The Red Thread column on adoption at The Washington Times Communities.   Andrea is currently at work on a book on international adoption.

In addition to her work as mother, writer and traveler, she is the founder and president of Media Branding International, a consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations craft and promote their image in media outlets around the globe.

Find Andrea at andpoe@Twitter, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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