When Michigan couple Sam and Dave Stewart set up an Instagram account, @findingbabystewart, in an effort to find a baby to adopt, they never expected to be the target of an adoption scam. Then one day, a pregnant teen from Atlanta named Ashley messaged them on Instagram: "Are you looking to adopt still?" Over many months, Ashley and her boyfriend, Chris, sent countless photos to the Stewarts and engaged with them in highly emotional exchanges at all hours of the day. Then suddenly, it all ended. Ashley and Chris disappeared and blocked the Stewarts' account. The two were left heartbroken and childless.
The Stewarts are one of many couples looking online for a child to adopt using hashtags like #hopingtoadopt and #waitingtoadopt, making them easy to find and thus vulnerable to these scams. Waiting lists to adopt babies are long and adoption agencies often encourage families to connect with expectant birth parents on social media. Private adoption, which allows families to link with birth mothers on their own, is legal in the U.S. The adoption itself is then formalized through an agency or attorney.
Under different names and using different backstories, "Ashley" has toyed with many families looking to adopt, including Sasha and Robbie, the couple behind Instagram account @journeytobe3. She follows a similar pattern each time: intense messages and phone calls with the unwitting couple hoping to adopt a baby that doesn't exist, occasional mismatched facts, and then disappearing either shortly before or after she claims her "baby" has been born.
But just as social media was used as a tool to cause emotional harm, it's also bringing victims of this cruel catfishing-type scheme together. Sasha and Robbie recently posted advice to anyone else "Ashley" plans to exploit. "It has to stop," the post proclaims. "If contacted by them, report it to the FBI and feel free to let me know as I am also keeping tabs on these sick folks and have spoken with an attorney in Georgia about it who wants to see them brought down."
Unfortunately, there will likely be no justice for these suffering families. Given that no money is exchanged, only hearts are broken, there are few options for legal action against these types of scams. But the former victims of the scam are sharing a list of fake names used by "Ashley" to offer some protection for hopeful couples talking to potential birth mothers on social media.
A recent investigation by the BBC offered some insight, revealing additional details about Ashley. She is, in fact, a real person living in Georgia with her husband and child. She was, however, completely unaware that her photos were used in this manner. She said she suspected that one of her Facebook friends, a former acquaintance of her husband, is the actual person behind the adoption scam.
As it turned out for Sam and Dave, their online efforts paid off in spite of the heartwrenching encounter with "Ashley." They found their baby, Parker, through a birth mother on Instagram. They said they'll continue to help others by sharing their story with the hashtag #adoptionscam under the new Instagram handle @wefoundbabystewart, but, as Sam told the BBC, "You bring your baby home and none of it matters."