The Empty Crib


    FLORIDA: Tim and Jeanne Carroll's nursery has sat ready--and empty--for more than a year

    For six years, Kelly Kiser-Mostrom and her husband Ken Mostrom of Lincoln, Neb., had been relying on an established local agency to find a healthy baby to adopt. They had gone through the adoption gauntlet once before, with their first daughter, so they knew how long it could take. But they were getting impatient to "complete our family," as Kelly puts it. So they used their new computer to expand their search, browsing through online adoption sites. In April 1998, one of the sites referred them to Sonya Furlow and her Tender Hearts Adoption Facilitation Services, located in Philadelphia.

    Furlow soon fired off an impressive stream of documents: page after page of progress notes and consent forms from the possible birth mothers she said she had found. "Andrea" was a high school cheerleader. "Vivian" had worked briefly for a Pennsylvania state senator but was now in a battered women's shelter in Harrisburg.

    But the most promising match seemed to be with "Roxanne." Furlow, the adoption "facilitator," sent frequent e-mail updates on Roxanne and her boyfriend's soap-opera lives, and the Mostroms, in return, sent Furlow $4,500. Right after the baby was born, they bought plane tickets to Philadelphia, assured by Furlow that they could come pick up their baby. Kelly rushed out to tell her co-workers and buy an angel pin for Furlow.

    But when the couple arrived, Furlow reported that Roxanne was having second thoughts--not uncommon in adoptions. For days, the Mostroms sat in a hotel room and waited. "Basically, I just sat in the room and cried the whole time," Kelly remembers. At one point, Furlow even appeared at the hotel--dressed in light-blue hospital scrubs. She'd just helped deliver another baby, she said, but had to rush off.

    Only there was no baby, and there was no Roxanne. As the Mostroms would eventually learn, their story ran a predictable course. Over the past three years at least 43 other couples from as far away as California and Florida had signed Furlow up as their adoption facilitator--a sort of baby headhunter increasingly popular among adoptive parents because they work outside the constraints of traditional adoption lawyers or agencies. In almost every case, according to court documents, Furlow had fictionalized--in mesmerizing detail--all the characters in her act.

    Adoption lawyers and advocates say Furlow's scam is unusual because of the number of victims and the degree of her deception. But they report hearing more and more fraud stories, partly because of the Internet's way of lending legitimacy to anyone who can type. And since there are many states where facilitators are perfectly legal and completely unregulated, experts expect the rip-offs to keep happening.

    "People believe that if we license barbers and people who paint your toenails, there must be someone who licenses people who control something as important as adoption," says William Pierce, founding president of the National Council for Adoption. In fact, even states that outlaw or regulate facilitators find it is extremely difficult to enforce the rules, Pierce says. "It's easy money," says Jeanne Carroll, who claims she lost $15,500 to Furlow. "You're not dealing with selling a car. You're dealing with people's emotions."

    Furlow started Tender Hearts in 1997, at age 40. She set up a convincing website and took out a small ad in the Yellow Pages, decorated with tiny hearts. It is a testament to how ripe the adoption world is for fraud that within months Furlow was part of the industry buzz, getting referrals from lawyers and other facilitators across the U.S. In reality, Tender Hearts is not a registered corporation. The two addresses she gave for her business are both residences. Furlow's website--which remains up despite a court directive to dismantle it--goes deep and long. Upon closer inspection, most of it appears to have been copied from other sites.

    Furlow's background may have helped school her in the language of adoption. Right around the time she started her business, she worked briefly at Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson University Hospital as an account representative, greeting patients at an admitting desk. Before that, she attended Manatee Community College in Florida, studying "pre-nursing," according to the college's records.

    About two weeks after the first disappointing round with Furlow, Kiser-Mostrom flew back to the East Coast one more time at Furlow's behest. She says Furlow told her Roxanne had changed her mind. But in the end, Roxanne's mother supposedly took the child. When Kiser-Mostrom returned home to Nebraska, she noticed an Internet posting that made inquiries about Furlow. She replied and met Charles Elliott, a Philadelphia fraud examiner who had been hired to investigate Furlow by another victimized couple. He had posted the inquiry to find Furlow's other clients. Within weeks, he handed over the names of 10 couples to the FBI.

    Furlow pleaded guilty last month to three counts of mail fraud--part of an agreement with federal prosecutors who had indicted her in April on 20 counts. The charges followed a yearlong FBI investigation in which Furlow was found to have collected approximately $215,000 in fees from unwitting couples, according to the indictment. (Furlow did not respond to TIME's requests for an interview.) Her attorney, Hugh Clark, offered this speculation to a Philadelphia TV station: "I think she started off with the idea that she wanted to place prospective parents with their adoptive children. Obviously at some point she was unable to fill the commitment that she was making, and from there things started to spiral downwards."

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