In February 2012, Megan Twohey was looking at reports on the difficulties with international adoptions when she noticed a gap in coverage: What happened to the children after they reached the United States? She took to the Internet, scouring it for information on foreign adoptions, until she stumbled upon online forums for American parents who wished to offload their unwanted adopted children. Over the next 18 months, Twohey and her colleagues at Reuters uncovered an underground network for trading unwanted children: “The Child Exchange,” the report that emerged from their reporting, was released in installments last week.
Twohey, a member of Reuters’ investigations team, spoke to parents so desperate to give their adopted children away that they handed them over to strangers they had only met online; to the people who received those children, without government vetting or supervision; and to the children themselves, some of whom suffered abuse and neglect.
She decided to focus on one particular Yahoo group, Adopting-from-Disruption, and data journalist Ryan McNeill constructed a database which allowed them to analyze 5,000 messages posted in the group.
MT: It wasn’t uncommon for people who were participating in this Yahoo group to periodically issue warnings about people whom they regarded as predators, or frauds, who were coming into these groups and preying on desperate families and lying about their identities. I would see messages about Nicole and Calvin Eason saying, “Watch out for these guys. They travel around the country, taking kids, and they’re not who they say they are, and they’re very dangerous.”
Realizing the Easons would make compelling central characters for her narrative, Twohey tracked them down through police reports and records at the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services.
MT: I approached interviewing them the way that I approach everybody. My editor and I travelled out to Tucson, AZ, where I knew that they were living… And then we went up, and knocked on the door. I had spoken to Nicole on the phone a couple times and told her that I was working on a story about rehoming, and I understood that she was among the people who had taken in kids from failing adoptions, and would she talk to me about it. She agreed to; [she] sat down on the couch and she talked to us for an hour and a half.
Most of the other families Twohey contacted were just as communicative as Nicole Eason.
MT: A lot of these adopted parents felt like nobody listened to them, that they had been saddled with extremely difficult situations (and in some cases they felt like insurmountable challenges) with their adoptions. And that when they went to seek help from the adoption industry or the government child welfare system, that nobody was helping them, or listening to them.
A lot of people that have read the series were surprised that these adoptive parents talked, but I think that in some ways, they were grateful to have somebody who wanted to listen to what they had experienced.
“The Child Exchange” also incorporates videos, audio clips, and extensive interactive features, such as “Explore an online child market,” which includes real ads parents placed for their unwanted children.
MT: The goal was that we wanted to be able to produce not just lines that we could inject in the story, but also some sort of visual…I kept saying from the beginning that these [online forum] messages speak for themselves. So, there was early on a real desire to figure out some way to do that visually, and I think that the interactive that was constructed was really valuable.
It’s one thing to tell people that these exist, it was another thing to be able to see with their own eyes and click through the messages, which I think spoke volumes, in and of themselves.
“The Child Exchange” is the first time Twohey, who joined Reuters’ investigative team in January 2012, has spent over a year on a project.
MT: I think it was really cool to get the resources and support from a news organization to be able to work on something for this long. There were certain points where I thought I was having a big breakthrough, and a highlight, a climax of the reporting, and the editors here would say, “Hey, you’ve gotta keep going. We want more. We want more.”