Tracey and Dan Citron always wanted to have a baby together. After six unsuccessful cycles on infertility medication, they decided to forgo IVF treatments in favor of adopting a child. In 2009, they settled on a Lutheran-based adoption agency near their home in Eagan, Minnesota, and enrolled in classes to get their home-study approval. By 2010, they were "approved" and ready to make a match, when they realized they had a lot more work to do.
"Our agency was a big advocate of outreach, since most of their domestic open adoption matches occurred that way, and it seemed to be the trend," Tracey told Yahoo! Shine. After attending a seminar hosted by the agency that taught parents how to market themselves effectively, the Citrons were fired up.
The couple printed postcards and business cards promoting their adoption search, which they would hand out to everyone they met "When we paid waitresses we'd stick a postcard with our tip," Tracey, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom, recalls.
They created a website stocked with images and information about their marriage, their home, their pets, their work life (Dan runs a print marketing company), Dan's pre-teen daughter from a previous relationship, Jessica, who lives part-time with the Citrons, and their desire to grow their family. They launched a corresponding Facebook page as a kind of viral "word of mouth" campaign, as well as a Twitter account (@traceydanadopt) chronicling their process.
They even turned their car into a mobile billboard, plastering a 1-800 number for birth moms to call on their rear window.
The calls began to trickle in, but nothing was promising. Nothing, that is, except Craigslist. A month after taking the seminar, Tracey began posting an ad a day on the site just to see what the response might be.
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Around the same time, Tammy Nelson, a 24-year-old single mom in Arizona, had discovered she was pregnant for a second time. She was in the process of extricating herself from what she describes as an abusive relationship, and she couldn't afford to care for a second child. She worried that going to an adoption agency could put her and her child at risk if her ex found out. So one night she went online and plugged in the search terms "adoption" and "Phoenix, Arizona."
"Tracey and Dan's Craigslist ad was the second thing that came up in the search," said Tammy. "I was able to call them up and talk to them in secret without needing outside sources or having to drive anywhere."
"The Internet has changed everything about adoption," said Denise Bierly, President of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. "We will never go back to what it used to be."
According to statistics collected by the U.S. department of Health and Human Service, some 677,000 children a year are placed through private domestic adoptions. But as of now, it's unknown how many of those matches come from social networking and online community boards.
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In a small 2012 study conducted by the organization Families for Private Adoption, 40 percent of private adoptions were successfully matched online, the majority through paid adoption websites like ParentProfiles.com-an online database of adoptive parents. Only 5.7 percent of those surveyed were matched through other unspecified social networking sites.
But in an age where at least 2.5 million of American woman are trying to adopt (according to the National Survey for Family Growth) and international agencies are imposing stricter limitations on the process, hopeful parents are relying on their own homegrown social media skills to have a kid.
"It's a competitive market," said Faith Rousso, a private domestic adoption attorney based in New York. "The generation of women having children now are extremely visual and they're all online."
Websites, like ParentProfiles.com and Adoptomism.com, are playing online matchmaker for parents and birth moms. Agencies are encouraging parents to launch viral campaigns on Facebook and Twitter. And adoption consultants are coaching clients on optimizing their websites on search engines. Now there are even adoption marketing companies providing parents full-service web consulting packages for a price.
But according to the handful of hopeful parents Shine interviewed, it's Craigslist-the free community board for missed connections and apartment rentals-that's directing the most traffic to their personal adoption websites.
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So how does it work? Hopeful couples usually place ads in the community sections of the site. To stand out from the competition, they experiment with choosing the right headline. Tracey and Dan tested out dozens, from "Are you considering adoption?" to "Are you looking to place your child" to simply "Pregnant?" They also targeted college towns where the highest demographic of birth moms might be found. "We kept our ads brief, we explained we were a home-study approved couple and included the link to our website," said Tracey.
Because of state adoption laws, the Citrons were limited to posting only in areas of the country where it's legal for parents to advertise to birth moms directly. The Child Welfare Information Gateway, which houses a database of state adoption laws, counts Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas among them. Some states require home-study approval before placing an ad (Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin). Others only allow attorneys or agencies to place ads on their client's behalf (Florida, Indiana). In Alabama and Kentucky, adoption advertising of any kind is outlawed. In general, federal laws allow out-of-state adoptions but, depending on where you live, the protocols of crossing state lines with an adoptive child can get complicated.
For parents running their own campaign, it can feel like studying for a bar exam.
"The technology has opened the entire country to adoptive parents and birth moms," said Rousso. "But the laws aren't keeping up with the technology in adoption yet."
Legal mazes aren't the only traps parents need to watch out for on Craigslist.
"Scams are a big thing," said Shannon Barney, a 33-year-old Georgia-based woman who's been trying to adopt for three years. Last year, after two failed adoptions through her agency, she and her husband, David, took matters into their own hands and began posting ads on the message board.
One of the most famous red flags she's seen since she's been posting on the site is something called the "Cameroon scam." (In 2009, the FBI received a complaint about a fake Cameroon adoption agency posting to Craigslist, luring parents with the promise of a child in exchange for a starting fee of $300.)
"If you're well versed in these scams, it's something everyone knows to stay away from," said Shannon.
Andrea Mason, 34, another hopeful mom on Craigslist, has been approached with similar cons.
"Scammers will email wanting to know how much you'll pay but say they don't want to go through an adoption agency," Andrea said, "or they'll ask what you'll provide and say other parents will pay this much."
Andrea hasn't bitten on any fake bidding wars. But she has fallen to prey to what she calls "emotional scammers"-those people who are not looking for money, but an ear.
"I spoke with one woman for six weeks who told us she was pregnant with twins," said Andrea. "Our agency said there were too many red flags, but we were so hopeful."
Her agency was right: After a month and a half of constant phone conversations with the woman, Andrea discovered through a community message board that her potential match was notorious for sharing the same story with other moms in exchange for online friendship.
"Even if all parties are acting in good faith, there are still risks," said Bierly. "When people are connecting directly, there is the potential that no one has legal representation." That lack of regulation-combined with legal red tape-can result in a failed adoption, and compromise what she calls the "integrity of the process."
For someone like Irene, 40, who has done everything right-she's home-study approved, legally represented and armed with two years of adoption-seeking experience-Craigslist's filter-free environment can be frustrating.
"Anytime we get an email from Cameroon we're done," said Irene, who requested that Yahoo! Shine not disclose her last name. Irene, a Maryland-based accountant, and her husband, Greg, have been posting links to their adoption website on Craigslist for the past two years with mixed results. "There have been people who just need someone to talk to. With one girl, we'd talk for an hour or two a few times a week...We never did get a proof of pregnancy."
Still, the handful of initial connections she's made have kept her coming back.
"We've had actual real people contact us," recalled Irene. "One couple changed their mind about adoption and were very sweet and I became Facebook friends with them."
"The funny thing was when we first started I was adamant against using Craigslist," she said. "I said crazy people go on there but now we're getting 90 percent of our website hits from the site."
But with the adoption process, traffic isn't everything.
Fate may play a part. Tammy believes "the universe" was as much a factor in finding a loving home for her son as any website. "There were three or four other ads I looked at, but everything about Dan and Tracey's ad was perfect," she said.
"One of the pros [of internet-based adoption ads] is that it really empowers the expectant mother," said adoption attorney Bierly. "Without the filter of an agency, she can look at profiles of hundreds of families, rather than say five."
Tracey and Tammy clicked from the start. The first time they spoke on the phone, it was Tracey's 35th birthday-the idea that Ben might become their shared gift wasn't lost on either woman. But, after fielding enough Craigslist spam, Tracey was a pragmatist.
It wasn't long before the Citrons had hired an attorney in Arizona and were headed southwest to meet the woman who would eventually give birth to Tracey's adopted son, Ben, now 2 years old. When delivery was around the corner, the Citrons uprooted their Minnesota-based lives and rented a home in Arizona to be there for the birth, spending around $25,000 in full. (The Adoption Guide estimates the average cost of adoption ranges from $20,000 to $40,000.)
After Ben was born, Tracey remained close with his birth mother and still keeps in regular contact with her, sharing photos and providing updates on Ben's development through Facebook. One of the biggest developments in Ben's life so far was becoming a big brother. Less than a year after Ben's adoption went through, Tracey, who never thought she'd have a successful pregnancy, gave birth to a healthy son.
The Citron's journey into parenthood almost seems like folklore for hopeful parents, the kind of story shared after one too many spam emails and adoptive "missed connections."
But Tracey still believes persistence played a prominent role in her adoption story. She goes back to something she was told in that outreach seminar three years ago: "You don't wait for a job, you look for a job," she said. "Why would you sit around and wait for a baby? "
November 17 marks National Adoption Day, the pinnacle of a month-long awareness program launched by a coalition of adoption advocates. For more resources, data, and adoption information, visit their website at nationaladoptionday.org.
For a more information on adoption laws by state, visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway at childwelfare.gov. For resources on adoption attorneys nationwide, visit the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys website at adoptionattorneys.org
Tune into Nightline on ABC tonight at 11:35 for more on Yahoo Shine's report and their investigation into journey for parents from Craigslist to adoption. Check out the adoption websites created by some of the families in our story and in Nightline's coverage here, here and here.