Black Market Babies Seeking Answers Through Facebook

Photo: Beni Cunningham and Rachel Bernstein
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Lori Appleton was 18, unwed and pregnant in 1985. Unprepared to tackle motherhood, Appleton chose to give her baby up for adoption, not knowing the adoption agency she chose was an illegal baby-selling ring.

"There was an ad in the paper that said, 'Are you a young, pregnant mother? Do you need help? Please call this number,'" Appleton said.

Appleton, who was living in Jacksonville, Fla., at the time, said the number connected her to a Brooklyn, N.Y., couple running a private adoption agency called Childhaven of Northeastern Pennsylvania. The couple, Harriet and Lawrence Lauer, never registered to operate their agency in New York. By the time they were caught by New York authorities in 1988, their license in Pennsylvania had expired too.

The Lauers and a lawyer for the agency, Seymour Fenichel, would ultimately face a 144 count indictment that alleged they illegally sold babies to the highest bidder and intimidated birth mothers to falsify birth certificates and go through with adoptions even when they had second thoughts. Also indicted was Fenichel's daughter, attorney Deborah Greenspan.

All avoided trial by pleading guilty to the felony charges that included grand larceny, conspiracy, fraud and filing false documents. The plea deal allowed them to avoid jail time.

Fenichel's crude tactics included briskly handing off babies in parking lots or in quick exchanges in the doorway of a hospital elevator. Some birth mothers walked with their babies to what they thought were neutral third parties, but were actually family members of the adoptive parents. Other birth moms weren't allowed to look at or hold their babies after birthing them. Some families seeking to adopt spent thousands on what they thought were agency fees and never received a child.

Lori Appleton seen here in the 1980s gave her daughter up for adoption using Fenichel and Childhaven. (Courtesy of Amanda Overdorf)

The children adopted through Fenichel are now grown up and banding together through Facebook to find their birth families. Rachel Bernstein formed the group "Seymour Fenichel Adoptees" on Facebook about a year ago.

"The group is a kinship. We are all connected, we speak the same language and we know what it feels like to live life starting at chapter two instead of one…I started this group to encourage others to not give up on their searches because of the bad things they read about Fenichel online," Bernstein said.

While the Fenichel adoptees ABC News talked to said that they ended up in good homes and are thankful for their adoptive families, the search for their biological families and their origins is muddied by Fenichel's illegal adoption scam.

"It makes you wonder, was I kidnapped?" Sonya, a Fenichel adoptee who did not want her last name published, said. "You had this daydream that your mother was in this room and there were 10 babies and she chose you. Then you think, no, my mother just had more money."

Bernstein, the founder of the Facebook group, is still searching for her biological mom. She and her three siblings were all adopted through Fenichel. All she knows about her birth mother is that she is 5-foot-4, came from the South to give birth in New York and her ancestry is French, Italian and Native American.

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