Erin and Justin signed up for a platform called Adoptimist (“We’re a technology company devoted to family-building. We are not an adoption agency or law firm”) and set up a Facebook page about their “adoption journey.” They filled their profiles with personal information, describing their love of basketball, football, and triathlons. Erin wrote that she came from a large Italian family and hoped to raise her children speaking Italian and English. They shared a picture of the two of them goofing around with a young nephew, another of them eating ice cream.
When they posted their profile to Adoptimist in 2017, Justin and Erin were approached by a woman from Las Vegas. She said she was pregnant with twins and had been diagnosed with cancer, and that she wanted the couple to raise the babies. After many texts and updates about the babies’ heart rates, and an invitation to come meet the twins in the hospital, they discovered the woman had never been pregnant.
She was what Erin described as an “emotional scammer,” someone seemingly uninterested in money who torments prospective adoptive parents for reasons known only to them. Erin said another woman on Adoptimist who claimed to be pregnant sent her a message saying she was hungry and asking her to order a pizza. This was, Erin said, how most of the couple’s interactions on the site went. (Philip Acosta, the president and cofounder of Adoptimist, said that the company has in recent years focused on combating scammers. The site now offers to review the IP addresses of anyone who contacts a prospective adoptive parent, and also alerts users to different types of scams on a “scam blog.”)
Justin and Erin joined a support group for parents seeking to adopt. Several of the couples in their group who had already adopted children passed along advice about using Facebook’s advertising analytics to hone their search. So Justin and Erin paid the social media company between $25 and $150 a month to promote their adoption page in the feeds of women age 15 to 65 in college towns around the US. This range, they reasoned, might reach a grandparent or a friend of a pregnant woman.
Soon after they started buying targeted Facebook ads, Erin’s mother became seriously ill. Erin flew to the suburbs of Detroit, where she was raised, to help. For a hectic few weeks, she and her sister took turns staying in the hospital with their mother and watching Erin’s five nieces and nephews.
One night, Justin called Erin and, sounding stricken, asked if she’d seen their adoption page. She hadn’t had time to check it. “Oh my God,” he told her. “You have to go look now.”
That night in Michigan, when Erin logged on to Facebook, she saw, interspersed with encouraging messages, a torrent of abuse. Perhaps because of the increased exposure Facebook analytics offered, their adoption profile had come to the attention of anti-adoption blogs and Facebook groups. Now their profile had been screenshotted and tagged and mocked on many other pages. “How will you have time for a baby while you’re resting your facelift, and getting all that work done?” one poster asked. Another proclaimed, “Get a dog, you stupid cunts.” “No child deserves her … even the ‘man upstairs’ saw that.”
In the guest bedroom in her sister’s house, Erin stayed up late into the night deleting the comments on their adoption profile and trying to report the users who posted them. “I was trying to plug the dam, but there wasn’t enough time. It was a 20-person job,” she said. “There was no one to talk to at Facebook.” (A Facebook spokesperson said, “We continue to improve the technology we use to find bullying and harassing content” and that it had “removed the content that violates our policies.”)
As she jumped from one anti-adoption page to another, Erin saw that she and Justin were far from the only targets. Other prospective adoptive parents were called “vultures trolling the net for babies.” One group had shared the Adoptimist profile of a gay male couple, asking sardonically, “Which one will be listed on the birth certificate as the woman who gave birth to the child?”
Erin was dumbfounded. “I didn’t even know anti-adoption was a thing,” she told me.