A true libertarian believes in a free market in human babies

I read somewhere, ages ago, that the best test of a libertarian, if they are willing to follow through with their selfish-individualist and noeliberal thinking, is whether or not they are happy with the idea of there being a free market in human babies.

I ran across this at the Bewilderness the other day:


Unfortunately, a brief search couldn’t find the source of that specific quote, but I did find the original book ‘The Ethics of Liberty’ by Murry Rothbard (I have read chapter 14):

Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive. (Again, whether or not a parent has a moral rather than a legally enforceable obligation to keep his child alive is a completely separate question.) This rule allows us to solve such vexing questions as: should a parent have the right to allow a deformed baby to die (e.g., by not feeding it)? The answer is of course yes, following a fortiori from the larger right to allow any baby, whether deformed or not, to die. (Though, as we shall see below, in a libertarian society the existence of a free baby market will bring such “neglect” down to a minimum.)


But when are we to say that this parental trustee jurisdiction over children shall come to an end? Surely any particular age (21,18, or whatever) can only be completely arbitrary. The clue to the solution of this thorny question lies in the parental property rights in their home. For the child has his full rights of self-ownership when he demonstrates that he has them in nature — in short, when he leaves or “runs away” from home. Regardless of his age, we must grant to every child the absolute right to runaway and to find new foster parents who will voluntarily adopt him, or to try to exist on his own. Parents may try to persuade the runaway child to return, but it is totally impermissible enslavement and an aggression upon his right of self-ownership for them to use force to compel him to return. The absolute right to run away is the child’s ultimate expression of his right of self-ownership, regardless of age.

Now if a parent may own his child (within the framework of non-aggression and runaway-freedom), then he may also transfer that ownership to someone else. He may give the child out for adoption, or he may sell the rights to the child in a voluntary contract. In short, we must face the fact that the purely free society will have a flourishing free market in children. Superficially, this sounds monstrous and inhuman. But closer thought will reveal the superior humanism of such a market. For we must realize that there is a market for children now, but that since the government prohibits sale of children at a price, the parents may now only give their children away to a licensed adoption agency free of charge. This means that we now indeed have a child-market, but that the government enforces a maximum price control of zero, and restricts the market to a few privileged and therefore monopolistic agencies. The result has been a typical market where the price of the commodity is held by government far below the free-market price: an enormous “shortage” of the good. The demand for babies and children is usually far greater than the supply, and hence we see daily tragedies of adults denied the joys of adopting children by prying and tyrannical adoption agencies. In fact, we find a large unsatisfied demand by adults and couples for children, along with a large number of surplus and unwanted babies neglected or maltreated by their parents. Allowing a free market in children would eliminate this imbalance, and would allow for an allocation of babies and children away from parents who dislike or do not care for their children, and toward foster parents who deeply desire such children. Everyone involved: the natural parents, the children, and the foster parents purchasing the children, would be better off in this sort of society.

Some of this may sound good, superficially, but, it ignores why a child might run-away; a child escaping intolerable abuse has not proven themselves capable of ‘existing on their own’, they are acting out of desperation, and, in the real world, are most likely to be exposing themselves to more abuse. The scenario Rothbard describes above bears no resemblance to the real world, as if any 12-year-old can simply leave home and move in the same day with a nice new foster family who will definitely want them; or perhaps the 12-year-old can go to a hotel to tide themselves over until they can find a flat to rent? Rothbard, surprise surprise, is in favour of child labour, so presumably our putative 12-year-old can find a well paying job, just like that, and they won’t have to resort to survival prostitution, sorry ~juvenile sex work~ to survive economically (Rothbard is also against compulsory education, so this 12-year-old could have ‘chosen’ to be illiterate).

Rothbard’s ideas ignore that there is only a demand (in the west) for healthy white babies, very few potential adoptive parents actively want an older child, especially not one with psychological problems caused by abuse or neglect (presumably, under Rothbard’s system, all disabled babies will be left to die after birth, so how to place disabled children with a new family won’t be a problem). It also ignores that abusive parents may not actually want to give up their children, they may want to keep them to carry on abusing them. A father who is raping his 12-year-old girl or boy, isn’t going to let her/him run away to a nice new foster family – and this assumes that these potential foster parents are all benign themselves, and not just looking for a child to abuse. Rothbard does say that forcing a child to stay is a crime against that child, but he also reinforces the privacy of the family against state interference, and says nothing practical about how such abuse might be detected.

Rothbard also ignores cases of neglect that are not due to the sadism of the parent, but due to poverty or the ill health of the parent. Rothbard’s system would not remove the child from a parent who couldn’t afford to feed them, but it would leave a loving parent with only the options of watching their child starve, or selling them to better-off adults (there is, obviously, no social safety net in this system to help keep poor families together).

Rothbard states that the parental ownership of the child does not extend to the right to torture or mutilate that child, but we know, out here in the real world, that such abuse is carried out in secret, in the privacy and isolation of the family, privacy and isolation that Rothbard reinforces with his libertarian emphasis on property.

He does criticise the fact that children were not (at the time of his writing) fully protected from adult violence:

until recent years, the parents were rendered immune by court decisions from ordinary tort liability in physically aggressing against their children—fortunately, this is now being remedied

But with no acknowledgement of the real-world difficulties small children have in standing up to their parents in any way; cases occurring this year in the UK demonstrate the powerlessness and helplessness of children in the face of adult aggression, and Rothbard also ignores the fact that when children do speak out, they are often disbelieved.

Rothbard then goes on to say:

On the other hand, the two other grounds for seizing children from their parents, both coming under the broad rubric of “child neglect,” clearly violate parental rights. These are: failure to provide children with the “proper” food, shelter, medical care, or education; and failure to provide children with a “fit environment.” It should be clear that both categories, and especially the latter, are vague enough to provide an excuse for the State to seize almost any children, since it is up to the State to define what is “proper” and “fit.” Equally vague are other, corollary, standards allowing the State to seize children whose “optimal development” is not being promoted by the parents, or where the “best interests” of the child (again, all defined by the State) are promoted thereby.

Followed by some cherry-picked examples of children being taken away from their parents for reasons Rothbard finds spurious. The reasons may well have been spurious, and an infringement of the parents rights, but the point is that Rothbard does not think the state should interfere at all in how a parent raises their child, unless they are actively assaulting them – remember, Rothbard doesn’t think that parents are under any legal obligation to feed their children, and in one of the examples he cites, a child was being used to hand out religious literature, strongly implying that Rothbard has no problem with parents using their children as unpaid labourers.

An abused three-year-old does not necessarily have the capacity to call the police, or a lawyer, when they are being abused. If their parent, the person they are entirely reliant upon, and who sets the baseline standards for ‘normality’, is telling them that they are bad and they deserve to be hurt, that three year will likely believe them. If a father is sexually abusing his three-year-old, and tells them that this is what daddies do to show how much they love their child, the child may believe them. Rothbard seems to have no understanding at all of the sheer vulnerability of very small children.

Rothbard is in favour of child labour, and sees education as oppressive. There is, of course, vast room for improvement in the education systems of the western world, and he does make some good points about how children who cannot fit into the mainstream system are criminalised, but it still ignores the vulnerabilities of children. Employers like child labourers because they are easier to control and exploit, and can be paid less (Rothbard, is, naturally, against a ‘living wage’ as being coercive to employers).

The rights of children, even more than those of parents, have been systematically invaded by the state. Compulsory school attendance laws, endemic in the United States since the turn of this century, force children either into public schools or into private schools officially approved by the state. Supposedly “humanitarian” child labor laws have systematically forcibly prevented children from entering the labor force, thereby privileging their adult competitors. Forcibly prevented from working and earning a living, and forced into schools which they often dislike or are not suited for, children often become “truants,” a charge used by the state to corral them into penal institutions in the name of “reform” schools, where children are in effect imprisoned for actions or non-actions that would never be considered “crimes” if committed by adults.

It has, indeed, been estimated that from one-quarter to one-half of “juvenile delinquents” currently incarcerated by the state did not commit acts that would be considered crimes if committed by adults (i.e., aggression against person and property). The “crimes” of these children were in exercising their freedom in ways disliked by the minions of the state: truancy “incorrigibility,” running away. Between the sexes, it is particularly girl children who are jailed in this way for “immoral” rather than truly criminal actions. The percentage of girls jailed for immorality (“waywardness,” sexual relations) rather than for genuine crimes ranges from 50 to over 80 percent.

Again, Rothbard makes some very good criticisms of the juvenile criminal justice system, as it existed, for real, in the USA up until the 1980s when the book was published, but that doesn’t automatically make his libertarian solutions the right ones.

There is something dishonest about referring to any intervention in the life of a child as ‘imprisonment’ – babies and toddlers are simply incapable of taking care of their basic needs, and young children are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse from malign adults when they are ‘freed’ to fend for themselves on the street. It is also dishonest to treat this as a polarised, all-or-nothing issue: if you’re not in favor of child workers competing with adults in a neoliberal anarcha-capitalist free market, that means you want 15-year-old girls to be locket up for being sexually active (I think Laura Agustin must be a fan of Rothbard!). There is, obviously, much room for improvement in the way that society treats children, but giving parents the freedom to starve them until they run away to a nice new foster home (that absolutely won’t be exploitative either, because the world is so cleanly cut into adults who ‘have’ children, but don’t want them, and those who would be absolutely wonderful parents, but just can’t have children – ever considered that such adults might not have turned out well if they’d been able to have their own children in the first place?) is not the solution.

13 responses

  1. Interesting post: I wasn’t aware of this writer before.

    There was a pretty free market in children in the Roman Empire, I believe, with the parent (actually the father: the female parent did not count) having the right to expose babies he found surplus to requirements, to kill the child if it displeased him (perfectly legal, although frowned upon in high society as a bit of a gaffe) and to dispose of male and female children as he wished up until the male children became adults and without age limit for the female offspring.

    There was also slavery, bond slavery, concubinage and a great deal of sexual slavery. The buyers of unwanted babies and children seem to have been mainly brothel-keepers, the main economic value of small children being in sexual exploitation of them, as they are seldom skilled enough and obviously not strong enough to do much work. Plus, if you pick up exposed babies – as many brothel keepers and slave factors did – you obviously want them to start earning as soon as possible, because you’ve got to feed them, haven’t you.

    What put a stop to this was, pretty much, Christianity, which in early days was much derided as the ‘religion of slaves and women’.

  2. How exactly can creating a child and then letting it starve to death create PROFIT for the family though? It mostly costs mom. I wouldn’t say let the parents decide. MOM should be the one.

    What circumstances would you have to be in to kill or let die a child? Really really really really bad. And to send the law only makes *any problem* worse. The law is not on our side anyway. Never was. We need to just leave other moms the frick alone, stop judging them, and assume they’re doing their best. Because we all have plenty to look after in our own lives. That is unless you don’t, in which case spread the word far and wide so the distraught moms can hand over their formerly doomed tots to you.

    So in order to be an ethical libertarian (law abolisher), you also have to be individualist. Everyone in the world needs to know the motto of the individualist:

    ___the individual is an end and never a means____

    Cleans up that trafficking scenario.

  3. Bluecat,

    “The buyers of unwanted babies and children seem to have been mainly brothel-keepers, the main economic value of small children being in sexual exploitation of them, as they are seldom skilled enough and obviously not strong enough to do much work.”

    Exactly! An eight-year-old running away from a family that starved them wouldn’t have a lot of employment opportunities.

    Rothbard’s theories (in this one and only chapter of his that I’ve read, but I doubt the rest of his book is much better) seem to come from a man who has had no contact whatsoever with real babies or children, and precious little with adult humans either.

    How is a neglected baby supposed to get away from their parents to these lovely foster parents that supposedly exist? We can imagine some dystopian sf future where all babies are automatically hooked up to some kind of cross between ebay and facebook, where childless adults can bid against each other to be the foster parents; perhaps some kind of AI could act on behalf of the child?

    Actually, that’s not a bad idea, an unemotional, disinterested party that would be a proxy stand-in for the baby her/his self and act in their interests (and can call the police if the parents start mutilating or torturing them) until they are old enough to act for themselves might be a good thing – but then who programmes the AI?

    With the ebay/facebook bidding war, you can see an older kid using it to their advantage, threatening to leave home every time the parent tried to make them go to bed or eat their vegetables.

    Of course, Rothbard’s scenario assumes an endless supply of willing foster parents, happy to take on an older, possibly psychologically damaged, child (rather than a healthy white baby); with modern fertility technology, middle-class couples are more likely to go for rounds of IVF than to consider adoption. None of it seems likely to work in the real world.

    Rothbard’s scenario ignores the fact that children do actually need to be emotionally nurtured in order to develop properly, and by the time they’re old enough to run away, the damage is already done. The same with a starved child, if they grow up with a lowered IQ due to malnutrition, they’re not going to be an attractive prospect to these putative foster parents, if they even survive until they are old enough to run away.

    truthful nacho,

    “I wouldn’t say let the parents decide. MOM should be the one.”

    Are you really saying that a mother has the right to kill her children? Through neglect, or is active murder ok with you?

    “We need to just leave other moms the frick alone, stop judging them, and assume they’re doing their best.”

    Well unfortunately, that doesn’t actually work in real life. There was the case in the UK very recently, of a woman who let her son starve to death, she was obviously suffering from some kind of mental illness, and the law always treats women more harshly than men, but the state should have interfered in that child’s life sooner.

    The simple fact is that adults hurt children, all the time, and seeing ‘the family’ as some impenetrable fortress of property and privacy, makes things very very dangerous for large numbers of children.

    Your language alone is telling: ‘leave moms alone’, what about abused and neglected children, what do they need?

    You ask where the ‘profit’ is in neglecting and abusing a child; libertarians reduce all human beings to economic units, and all human interactions to economic transactions. There is no good, profit driven reason – in the developed world where children are not needed as labourers – to have children, children are an expense, they turn no economic profit. Lots of people find parenthood emotionally rewarding, but this isn’t something you can quantify and put a price tag on. Lots of parents abuse their children in a variety of ways, some do it because they are acting out the damage they suffered as children, and can’t find a way out of that cycle, some get sadistic pleasure out of it (there’s your ‘profit’).

    “That is unless you don’t, in which case spread the word far and wide so the distraught moms can hand over their formerly doomed tots to you.”

    This is the problem with reducing all human experience to a simplistic neoliberal model driven by market forces. Poor mothers can hand their babies over to rich people in return for money, and all problems are supposedly solved. Forget that the child may already be damaged, and the foster parents may not want it once it starts acting out that damage; forget that mothers and babies actually bond, and separating them can be traumatic; forget that there are plenty of mothers out there who are only ‘bad’ because they are not middle-class and white; forget that white middle-class parents can be abusers too.

    “the individual is an end and never a means”

    That’s a very nice sentiment (Kant’s originally, do you know that?), but it doesn’t actually add up with creating a free market in human babies, ie, turning babies into a product that can be bought and sold – pretty objectifying, I would say. You are operating under the same naivety (or disingenuousness) as Rothbard did and all other neoliberal libertarians do, assuming that all human actions are rational, market driven, selfish and good.

    It’s incredibly naive to think that an adult acting in their own selfish interests (I want a baby, I can afford to buy one) is going to be acting in the best interests of a child.

    Libertarianism generally seems to fall down over the question of children and mothers, because both are socially vulnerable and unable to act selfishly or as individual economic agents; the best libertarianism can offer to mothers and children is that they should contract themselves to the highest bidder and hope for the best.

    Under a libertarian model, only those who are lucky enough – sorry, have pulled themselves up from nothing by their boot-straps – get to be ‘ends in themselves’, the rest of us aren’t even entitled to a living wage; if that isn’t treating people like things, I don’t know what is.

    “Cleans up that trafficking scenario.”

    How? Again, you are assuming that all human decisions are economic decisions and that all economic decisions are good. What about a desperately poor mother who does not want to sell her baby? What about a foster parent who, despite really really wanting a child, turns out to be a bad parent after all? What about the profit motive for tricking poor mothers into giving up their babies (something that has gone on all over the world)?

    Also, libertarians are not ‘law abolishers’, they believe in the laws protecting contracts, property and boarders, and in police and military protection of those laws; Rothbard was very much in favour of police action:


  4. Rothbard’s fundamental error is in failing to recognize that private property is itself a mutated form of statism.
    As for your use of “libertarian”: Rothbard is what we call now an “anarcho-capitalist,” not a Libertarian (as in Party) or a libertarian (as in anti-authority). I am a libsoc (libertarian socialist) and don’t believe in the power of markets, competition, selling children, neo-liberalism, or any such nonsense.

  5. Fair enough, the labels may shift over time, but the core concepts under discussion remain identifiable – I think a lot of your anarcho-capitalists are still calling themselves libertarians.

  6. Yea, the etymology of “libertarian” is all over the place. Same for “liberal.” And let’s not start about “feminism.” 🙂

  7. Everyone wants a cool label for their ideology – watch the funfem tumblr-tots try to ‘reclaim’ radical, by not knowing that it means ‘going to the root’, but thinking it just means ‘really really cool’.

  8. Here’s what a free market in human babies looks like in the real world:

    A few ads offering free children on the Internet:

    “Born in October of 2000 — this handsome boy, ‘Rick,’ was placed from India a year ago and is obedient and eager to please.”

    “We adopted an 8-year-old girl from China. … Unfortunately, we are now struggling, having been home for 5 days.”

    “Prayerfully seeking a loving and nurturing family for our 14-year-old daughter who has been with us for almost a year. She honestly is almost a model child.”

    This is “private re-homing,” something that once meant finding a new home for a dog that barked too much. Now it refers to families recycling their adopted children, often through Internet postings.

    There are commonly no courts involved, no lawyers, no social service agencies and no vetting of the new parents. There’s less formality than the transfer of a car.

    Private re-homing of adoptive children was explored in a devastating five-part investigative series this fall from Reuters. The reporters found that on one Yahoo message board, a child was offered for re-homing on average once a week (Yahoo has since closed the board). Most of the children ranged in age from 6 to 14 and had been adopted abroad, but some were American-born.

    When one troubled Russian girl was 12 years old, she was re-homed three times within six months and told Reuters that, by the time she was 13, a boy at one of the homes had sex with her — and then urinated on her.

    A Chinese girl crippled by polio ended up in a home where a woman with an explosive temper was eventually overseeing 18 children. The girl says that the woman confiscated her leg brace, which she needed to walk. And, according to court records, the woman, as a form of punishment, once ordered her to dig a hole in the backyard — for her own grave.

    “You die here and no one will know,” the Chinese girl quoted the woman as saying. “No one will find you.”

    The families handing over the children are at wit’s end. They typically adopted children with serious emotional troubles who, they say, brought fear, chaos and sometimes violence to their homes. Parents of one adopted boy said they felt they had to lock him in his room every night for the safety of everyone else.

    “I am totally ashamed to say it, but we do truly hate this boy,” one woman in Nebraska wrote about her 11-year-old adoptive son from Guatemala.

    Another mother wrote of re-homing her 12-year-old daughter: “I would have given her away to a serial killer, I was so desperate.”

    By some accounts, 10 percent to 25 percent of adoptions don’t work out. That could mean 24,000 foreign-born children are no longer with the families that adopted them, Reuters calculates.

    When an adopted child is American, he or she can go into the foster care system. With foreign adoptions, it can be harder. State foster care systems are more reluctant to take custody of children from international adoptions, and giving a child to the authorities may entail an investigation for abuse or paying for the child’s care until new parents are found.

    For those who take in re-homed children, it amounts to free adoption, saving many thousands of dollars. A dangerous pitfall is that because there is often no screening to protect the vulnerable children, re-homing can lure pedophiles.

    The heart of the Reuters investigation concerns a woman, Nicole Eason, who lost custody of her own two children after one suffered broken bones and who was the last to see a friend’s baby alive before he drowned in a bathtub. Eason acquired six children through re-homing on the Internet.

    Meanwhile, Eason’s former housemate, Randy Winslow, used the screen name “lovethemcute” on one pedophile site on the Internet, Reuters says. Before being arrested and convicted on child pornography charges, Winslow explained his thinking in one chat room: “just have to raise them to think it’s fine and not tell anyone.” He added: “what is done in the family stays in the family.”

    Eason contacted an adoptive mother one morning and Eason and Winslow took custody of her 10-year-old son that same day in a hotel parking lot.

    A first step to address this issue would be to make adoption agencies responsible for children they bring to America, including finding new homes when adoptions fail. If we have rules about recycling bottles, we should prevent children from being abandoned and recycled.

    The larger point is a more basic failing in America: inadequate child services. Kids don’t get the protection they need from predators, nor the nutrition they need, nor the books and reading programs they need for mental nutrition. The threat to the food stamp program, whose beneficiaries are 45 percent children, is emblematic of this broader problem. Children don’t have votes and are voiceless, so America’s most vulnerable become its most neglected.


    This is the Reuters Investigation referenced:


    Found via the Bewilderness:

    From that post, by supraliminally (can’t find link to original):

    semiannual reminder to new and old followers that there are people in this country (a weird unholy mashup of white evangelicals and rich white liberals) who actually do this shit. there are a million stories like this and they pretty much all go the same way (the similarities are actually fucking eerie):

    1. adopt nonwhite child from other countries in a manner that may or may not amount to human trafficking. sometimes includes selling of children, kidnapping, coercing mothers into giving up their children, etc. pay thousands of dollars in adoption fees which are at the very least ethically dubious.

    2. realize that raising children is not always a cakewalk. some children are disabled, in poor health, traumatized by abuse/abandonment/etc. some children need time to adjust to a new family and may in the first few years of life experience attachment problems (basically, not being 100% sure who their “parents” are, since they may have switched caretakers a lot), making them not function as instant love dispensers for you.

    3. abuse the child in an effort to force them to love and obey. this can include hitting children with a switch, starving them, beating them with hoses, forcing them to drink water or eat salt until they become sick, withholding food, enforcing absolute silence and/or stillness for long periods of time, etc.

    4. when the child becomes upset about the abuse, diagnose them with “reactive attachment disorder,” which you claim is a mental illness that makes your child more or less a proto-serial murderer, a violent psychopath incapable of love. say that in reality, you are the victim of abuse, and your prepubescent child is the abuser. depending on your politics, suggest that the child may be possessed by the devil.

    5. with adoption having lost its shiny new appeal, hand off the child to some other poor schmuck and move on with your life. don’t worry whatsoever about the fate of the child, it’s not your problem anymore.

    this is the reason that you should think twice before reblogging “inspiring” pictures of attractive white people and their transracially adopted kids, as if adopting transracially is some enormous act of charity that people should be lauded for. that kind of mindset directly feeds this cycle by encouraging people to adopt nonwhite children as accessories along the lines of livestrong bracelets and hrc pins.

  9. In an interview earlier this year, Nicole Eason – the woman who disappeared with Quita – referred to private re-homing as “non-legalized adoption.”

    “The meaning of non-legalized is, ‘Hey, can I have your baby?'” Eason said.

    She discussed why she was so motivated to be a mother. “It makes me feel important,” she said.

    And she described her parenting style this way: “Dude, just be a little mean, OK? … I’ll threaten to throw a knife at your ass, I will. I’ll chase you with a hose.

    “I won’t leave burns on you. I won’t leave marks on you. I’m not going to send you with bruises to school,” she said. “Make sure you got three meals a day, make sure you have a place to live, OK? If you need medication for your psychological problems, I’ve got you there. You need therapy? You need a hug? You need a kiss? Somebody to tickle with you? I got you. OK? But this world is not meant to be perfect. And I just don’t understand why people think it is.”

    The story of the Easons and the girls and boys they have taken through re-homing illustrates the many ways in which the U.S. government fails to protect children of adoptions gone awry. It shows how virtually anyone determined to get a child can do so with ease, and how children brought to America can be abruptly discarded and recycled.


  10. Anna Barnes was 13. She had already been re-homed once since she was adopted in Russia and brought to the United States at age 7.

    Her second set of American parents, the Barneses of Tolar, Texas, had come to regret adopting Anna. They had talked with her original adoptive parents before taking custody. But the Barneses quickly suspected that they hadn’t been told enough about the emotional and behavioral problems Anna brought to America.

    “This is a bad analogy, but it’s sort of like selling a used car,” Gary Barnes says of why he and his wife weren’t told more. “If you tell someone it breaks down every day, nobody’s going to buy it.”

    The Barneses, who breed miniature horses for a living, found Anna to be defiant. Counseling proved too expensive and inconvenient. A home for troubled kids told them she wasn’t a good fit for its program. If they turned Anna over to the state of Texas, the Barneses say they were told, they would be considered unfit parents and have to pay child support until she turned 18.

    “We spent the first year trying to help the child and fix the problem,” Gary says. “Then a light comes on and you realize you can’t fix the problem, that you need to get away from the problem.”

    The Barneses wrote an ad about Anna and posted it online, in a Yahoo forum called Respite-Rehoming.


  11. Inga spent most of her childhood in a Russian orphanage, longing for parents who would protect her.

    Her biological mother, a prostitute, had abandoned her when she was a baby. She never knew her father.

    At the age of 12, her life was about to change. It was 1997, and an American couple was adopting her.

    “My picture was, I’m gonna have family, I’m gonna go to school, I’m gonna have friends,” Inga says today.

    Less than a year after bringing Inga home, her new parents, Priscilla and Neal Whatcott, gave up trying to raise her. They say the adoption agency never told them that Inga struggled to read or write, that she suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, that she smoked.

    The Whatcotts say they tried therapy and support groups. They even reached out to a Russian judge to undo the adoption.

    When nothing worked, they turned to what Priscilla now calls “the underground network.” In an early example of adoptive parents using the Internet to seek a new home for an unwanted child, Inga was orphaned repeatedly.

    In the next six months, the Whatcotts sent her to three different families. None wanted to keep her. In one home, Inga says she had sex with a sibling who then urinated on her. In another, she says the father molested her.

    Sent to a Michigan psychiatric facility at the age of 13, Inga says she had sex again – this time with her therapist. Michael Patterson, the therapist, was acquitted of first degree criminal sexual conduct and remains a licensed social worker in Michigan. He says he “did not cross the line” physically with Inga and remembers her as “a very troubled child.”

    On Patterson’s last point, no one disagrees. When Michigan institutionalized her, officials characterized Inga’s troubles this way: “substance abuse, domestic violence, separation from parents, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, attachment issue and mental health issues.”

    To Inga, the situation seemed bleak: “My parents didn’t want me. Russia didn’t want me. I didn’t want to live.”

    More than a decade ago, when foreign adoptions were booming, Priscilla Whatcott spoke out about her experience with her damaged Russian daughter and the perils faced by Americans who adopt from overseas. In Congressional testimony and media accounts, she couched the case as a consumer-rights issue: Adoption agencies, she warned, face no repercussions for failing to disclose pre-existing problems of children they place. Today, 16 years on, Whatcott still compares adopting Inga to buying “a pig in a poke” or being “sold a bill of goods.”

    The story of Inga herself has never been publicly told. Now 27, she is one of the roughly quarter-million foreign children brought to this country through adoption since the late 1990s. Their fate in America has never been systematically examined.

    A Reuters investigation has revealed how Americans who adopt from overseas can easily offload troubled children to virtual strangers they meet on the Internet. Through a practice called “private re-homing,” parents market their unwanted kids online and pass them along to others – quickly, often illegally, and almost always without consequence for the adults.

    In a single Internet bulletin board examined for this series, a child was offered to strangers once a week, on average. Most of the children – 70 percent – were listed as foreign-born. They came from at least 23 foreign countries, including Russia, Ethiopia, China and Ukraine. (Yahoo took down the bulletin board in response to what Reuters found.)

    Adoptive parents say they turn to Internet groups because they have no alternative. In an interview with the Associated Press in 2001, Priscilla Whatcott said life was so bad that she wondered whether Inga would simply be better off dead. “Some days I think that the very best answer is for God to take her,” she told the AP. “Release her and be done with it. There is no happy ending here.”

    Whatcott’s solution was tougher liability laws. “Clearly, we would have avoided much of this heartache and tragedy if consumer protection laws pertaining to international adoption had been in place,” she wrote in testimony submitted to Congress in 1999.

    Stephen Pennypacker, a child welfare official in Florida, says adoptive parents aren’t consumers and their troubled children can’t be treated like faulty products.

    “Children don’t come with a warranty,” says Pennypacker, who wrote a 2011 memo warning state authorities to be on the lookout for Internet child swaps. “When you adopt a child, that’s your child. You have the same responsibility to raise that child as I had to raise my biological children, regardless of what their problems are.”


    In October 1997, when the Whatcotts arrived in Russia to adopt her, Inga says she didn’t know how to be a daughter. After the Whatcotts took her, she remembers hiding beneath a blanket on the train ride from the orphanage in St. Petersburg to Moscow.

    The Whatcotts and their three younger children, two of them adopted from China, were living on the Marshall Islands at the time. Neal Whatcott, an engineer, worked as a government contractor there. Priscilla was a stay-at-home mother.

    Only after meeting Inga did they learn that she was four years older than they had been told. She displayed emotional and behavioral problems that they say had not been disclosed by the adoption agency. The Whatcotts had no training to deal with the challenges Inga presented. Even so, they went ahead.

    “When we got her home, it was a disaster,” Priscilla says.

    Inga sometimes tried to sneak out a window. She would crouch in the back of her closet, refusing to come out. “I was hurting,” Inga says.

    Once, Priscilla recalls, Inga set a fire in her bedroom. (Inga denies that).

    Within a year, the Whatcotts reached their breaking point. A fight between Priscilla and Inga turned physical during a vacation in Hawaii. “She’s got to get out of this family,” Priscilla told her husband.

    The California adoption agency that led them to Inga, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, suggested the Whatcotts enlist the help of a therapist who also had adopted a Russian girl.

    The therapist took Inga into his California home. The two Russian girls grew close. Inga says she was grateful for the new friend who spoke her native language.

    The arrangement was temporary, and the Whatcotts say the adoption agency wouldn’t provide additional help. Today, Nightlight says it “cannot discuss the specifics of any case.” In the years since the Whatcotts used the agency, it says, everyone involved in international adoptions has come to recognize “the need for post-adoption support.”

    At the time, the Whatcotts turned to the Internet for that help, and Priscilla became active in a Yahoo group for families who had adopted children from Russia.

    “There are a lot of these Yahoo groups,” Priscilla says. “Everyone is chatting about various challenges with their children. I expressed what was going on. People started saying talk to so-and-so.”


    Soon Priscilla was on the phone with Mary Gayle Adams, an adoptive mother who sometimes offered to help parents find new homes for children. Reuters found numerous cases of freelance middlemen like Adams who assist parents with re-homing. Many are adoptive parents themselves. Some perform services, such as posting ads of available children, that under the laws of some states can only be handled by licensed professionals.

    Pennsylvania, where Adams lived then and now, requires no such license to handle re-homings. Adams, 68, isn’t a licensed social worker. She’s a former elementary school teacher. Today, she says, she lives in a former school with 25 children she adopted, some who came through re-homing. She says she still finds time to volunteer as a go-between in re-homing cases, and sometimes reaches out to families through the online bulletin boards.

    Adams says she doesn’t recall Inga, the Whatcotts or the families she recommended for them. But Priscilla Whatcott says the homes Adams identified were “in no way” approved by government authorities. When the government places children in foster homes, prospective families are vetted and a social worker examines their suitability as parents.

    The first replacement family the Whatcotts found for Inga lived in Maryland. Inga remembers little about her stay, except that it lasted less than two months. The parents decided she was too difficult to handle.

    As with the first family, the Whatcotts say they located the next two through Adams, the volunteer. “I kept calling her back,” Priscilla says of Adams. “She’d say: ‘I have another one.'”

    The second family lived in Michigan. The parents routinely took in children and had adopted almost a dozen. The Whatcotts never met the family before sending Inga there. She wouldn’t stay long.

    She stole liquor from the family and ran away from home, Inga says. She and the mother exchanged slaps across the face, and Inga says she was beaten up by some of the other children living there. She had sex with one of the boys, she says, and he urinated on her afterward. She had just turned 13; she doesn’t recall the boy’s age.

    The mother says she never slapped Inga. She says she doesn’t believe Inga was beaten or had sex with the boy.

    Months after Inga had left the house, court records show, the mother was found to be “neglectful” of one of the children there. Authorities also told the mother about “allegations of sexual abuse between the siblings,” court records show. Inga’s accusations weren’t mentioned.

    When the Whatcotts refused to take Inga back, Adams helped locate a new family, also in Michigan. In her third re-homing since arriving in America, Inga joined a family of at least eight biological or adopted children.

    The Whatcotts never met the parents before sending Inga to them, but Priscilla says the couple seemed nice over the phone.

    Inga says the father was violent. He and his wife later divorced, and the estranged wife described his alleged behavior in a sheriff’s report filed after Inga had left the house.

    “It was nothing for him to get angry at one of the older, adopted children, and grab them by their throats and press them up against the wall, and there were incidents where he actually left bruises on the necks of the children,” the ex-wife told authorities. The assaults continued, the ex-wife told police, even after she reported her husband to child protective services. The man and woman couldn’t be reached for comment.

    The woman also told police that her former husband “had a problem” with pornography.

    Inga says it went further. The man fondled her on several occasions and sexually assaulted her, she alleged in a subsequent police report. “He’d kick out the other children, watch porn with me and say, ‘I bet you can’t do that,'” she says today.

    Inga told authorities about the alleged encounters, but says she feared the man and didn’t want the case pursued. Because she wouldn’t testify, the prosecutor dropped a criminal sexual conduct charge against him.


    In March 1999, when no family would take her, Inga was taken into state custody. She was admitted to Fieldstone Center, a psychiatric hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan. There she met Patterson, the social worker who helped treat her. Patterson, 41 at the time, had recently joined the center as a therapist in its adolescent residential unit.

    “I was really hurt inside,” Inga says. “Every night I’d cry hysterically.”

    In June 2000, Fieldstone fired Patterson, and the state of Michigan’s Board of Social Work filed a complaint. It alleged that he had shown negligence in his dealings with two patients at Fieldstone. One of the patients was Inga.

    The complaint alleged that Patterson had talked with a caseworker, Inga’s court-appointed attorney and Inga herself about a “possible plan for him to become her foster parent.”

    The complaint says nothing about what Inga would allege to Fieldstone staff the next year, in August 2001: that she and Patterson had been having sex at the facility.

    Patterson had sex with her more than a dozen times in 1999 and 2000, Inga told police. “She said that he promised that if she would have sex with him that he would adopt her and that he told her if she told anybody about their sexual relationship that he would not adopt her,” according to a report by the Battle Creek police.

    Police also interviewed a patient who lived across the hall from Inga’s room. Inga’s door was partially open one day in April 2000, the patient said. That’s when the patient said she “saw Patterson kissing” Inga, the report says.

    The police report states that Patterson had been fired by Fieldstone for “inappropriate conduct with patients.” Today, Inga says she told staff the details about her interactions with Patterson because she suspected he may have had sexual relationships with other patients. Citing patient privacy guidelines, a Fieldstone spokesman declined to comment.

    In 2002, Patterson was charged by authorities in Calhoun County, Michigan, with criminal sexual conduct in connection with Inga. In testimony at preliminary hearings, Inga often seemed confused – about when and where the sex allegedly occurred, and by the English language, which she spoke poorly.

    No translator was present in court. She testified that she was born in 1995, not 1985 – a misstatement that would have made the 17-year-old girl 7 at the time she was testifying. She also said she didn’t understand what “recollection” or “accurate” meant.

    Patterson was acquitted. In his verdict, Judge Allen L. Garbrecht said Patterson showed “extremely poor judgment” by telling Inga he might seek custody of her. But as to the sex charges, Garbrecht said he was “not convinced that the prosecution has proven that element beyond a reasonable doubt.” The case, the judge noted, was essentially Inga’s word against Patterson’s.

    State regulators in Michigan put Patterson on professional probation. He was required to complete 16 hours of “continuing education courses in ethics and boundary issues.”

    Patterson says he never had any sexual contact with Inga. His acquittal vindicated him, he says, as did the actions by Michigan regulators.

    “If the state thought I was a horrendous person, they wouldn’t have just given me probation,” Patterson says.


    When Inga was taken into state custody by Michigan in 1999, Calhoun County authorities accused the Whatcotts of neglect.

    Now living in Washington state, the Whatcotts were refusing to pay the full cost of Inga’s care. They travelled to Michigan for one hearing in the case. Inga recalls that they took her to a restaurant where they told her she would not be coming home with them.

    Priscilla says they withdrew money from their bank account and hid the cash under their bed so Michigan officials wouldn’t know they had it. Though they lived halfway across the country, they instructed their other children not to answer the door in case child welfare workers visited.

    “The judge had a chip on his shoulder … and threw the book at us,” Priscilla says. “He said, ‘I’m not going to let people like you take kids into this country and then dump them into the system.’ … We lived with fear.”

    In 2003, about four years after Inga was admitted to Fieldstone, the judge granted the Whatcotts’ request to essentially nullify their responsibility for Inga. They were ordered to pay $5,000 to the state and to help Inga become a naturalized U.S. citizen.

    Shortly after, a judge appointed Inga a legal guardian, Jodi Farleigh.

    Farleigh took legal responsibility for Inga as the girl transitioned out of Fieldstone and government-sanctioned foster homes.

    “She took a place like my mom,” Inga says. “No matter how I behaved or stressed out, whatever, I had problems in my life, she’d always be at my side.”


    Because Inga had never attended school regularly, she didn’t know how to read or write in English. She struggled with violent outbursts, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.

    “I get afraid of freedom,” Inga says. “I wasn’t ready for that.”

    Farleigh pushed to get Inga more schooling and therapy. With the first consistent parent figure in her life, Inga says she started to improve.

    “She has a heart of gold,” Farleigh says. “She had to learn how to love and trust.”

    Sitting in a restaurant in Battle Creek recently, Inga said she often thinks it’s her fault that the Whatcotts sent her away.

    “I let my parents down,” she said, tears slipping down her cheeks.

    Farleigh grabbed Inga’s hand.

    “You can’t look at it like that,” Farleigh told her. “You’ve got to look at it a different way, that you have a new family now.”

    Inga has friends and sometimes goes on dates. An elderly couple at her church – she calls them grandma and grandpa – welcomes her for holidays.

    She studies writing and math at the YMCA. She works part-time at a Burger King. She takes cooking classes and goes on camping trips. At a recent kickball game, she sent a ball flying into left field and darted for first base. “Go Inga!” her teammates screamed.

    Although she hasn’t seen the Whatcotts in years, Inga still reaches out to Priscilla.

    “She says, ‘Tell dad I love him. When are you going to come visit?'” Priscilla says. “I say, ‘That’s not possible right now.’ She has a fantasy about our family.”

    Inga lives today with a roommate in government-assisted housing, where staff help with maintenance, medication and scheduling.

    On a recent day at her apartment, posters of fairies adorned the bedroom walls. Her cat, Shian, a swirl of brown and gray fur, lounged on a chair. On her bed lay two ragged stuffed animals – a rabbit and a bear, the only items Inga kept from her childhood in Russia.

    Atop her dresser stood a photo, framed. It was a picture of the Whatcotts.


  12. Here’s another example of ‘benevolent’ baby buyers:

    An Australian man and his partner purchased a baby boy in Russia in 2005, presenting themselves as a devoted pair of gay fathers.

    In reality, behind closed doors, they were sexually abusing the boy and allowing others to do the same from when he was less than two years old.

    On the weekend Australian citizen Mark Newton was sentenced in the US to 40 years in prison. His partner Peter Truong is awaiting his sentence.


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