Adopting a child can be a momentous occasion, but it is also a very vulnerable time in both adoptive and birth parents' lives. But some agencies are preying on this vulnerability to make a profit.
Despite well-meaning laws in Illinois, the internet is changing the face of adoption. In many cases it's no longer the size of your heart that counts in bringing home that bundle of joy, but the size of your bank account.
"We can show you websites where children are advertised by race, gender, due date and price tag," says Julie Tye, who runs an Evanston adoption agency called The Cradle. "That looks like trafficking to us."
The Cradle has matched thousands of infants with adoptive parents over 90 years. Newborns are cared for in nursery until their adoptive parents are ready to take them home. Like all licensed adoption agencies in Illinois, The Cradle is non-profit, meaning they're not in it to make a buck.
In 2005, state lawmakers approved sweeping adoption reforms aimed at taking the profit motive out of the adoption process, but that hasn't stopped out of state agencies from throwing big dollars into Illinois.
"We're seeing the invasion, if you will, of providers who only exist in cyberspace in many cases, who are trolling on the internet in Illinois for pregnant women, for prospective adoptive parents," Tye explains. "They're not subject to any of the standards that we are subject to."
Just go online and search for adoption and their ads pop up almost immediately. Even though they've been banned from advertising in Illinois, these for-profit agencies are doing big business in the state, and, critics say, driving up the cost of adoptions at the expense of the children.
"The costs of doing an adoption can be $20,000-$50,000 and more," Adam Pertman with the Donaldson Adoption Institute says. "So there's significant money involved."
Online adoption expert Adam Pertman recently testified at a legislative committee hearing on adoption abuses. He says the internet has opened up a wild west of potential problems.
"I'm not accusing anybody of anything. I'm saying we don't know," Pertman tells FOX 32. "And if we don't investigate, if we don't monitor, if we don't regulate, then we take very big risks with the lives of everyone involved, including those kids."
To test whether out of state agencies are ignoring Illinois laws, several students in a DePaul investigative journalism class recently posed as expectant mothers and contacted the for-profit agencies advertising online.
"I said blatantly I was going to school in Chicago, that I lived in the area, and it really didn't faze them at all," student Christy Kostaken says.
"I called around noon on a Tuesday and 10 a.m. Wednesday morning this packet arrived," student Hannah Callas says, showing off the packet. "It was overnighted from California."
In several cases the agencies began texting and calling the women they believed were pregnant and even offered the possibility of flying them out of state to have their children.
"She said they have housing over there and they have someone who could take care of me, that I wouldn't be alone because there are already a couple of other birth mothers living over there in the housing that they have," a third student, Qudsiya Siddiqui tells FOX 32.
"They're being isolated," Tye adds. "So, when they give birth they will sign on that dotted line, and they will relinquish that baby without anyone pushing back and saying 'are you sure you want to do this?'"
Last week, Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office filed a lawsuit against the Adoption Network Law Center of California, accusing it of violating the ban on in-state advertising by for-profit adoption agencies, and recruiting birth mothers and adoptive parents in the state.
Yet some lawmakers are wondering what took so long.
"We don't pass these laws for nothing," Representative Mary Flowers argues. "They're supposed to be protecting children."
"Because of the borderless nature of the internet we have found this law to be particularly challenging, as out of state agencies have frequently advertised in this state through the internet," an employee of Madigan's office explains.
Kristin Yellin is the owner of that California agency that is being sued by the attorney general. She told FOX 32: "we abide by all laws and we believe this lawsuit to be unfounded."
In a letter to the attorney general, Yellin further argues that Illinois has no constitutional right to tell an adoption agency in another state where or how it may advertise or do business.