May 14, 2008 — -- Moments after their newly adopted adolescent daughters stepped off the plane from India in 1998, Desiree and David Smolin knew something was wrong.
"The agency told us the girls were eager to be adopted and eager to come to the U.S.," Desiree Smolin told ABCNEWS.com. "But in reality, the girls were in terrible, terrible emotional shape. They were avoidant and deeply depressed; one of them was suicidal. I had never seen people so emotionally disturbed in my entire life."
It took weeks before the couple learned the reason for the girls' distress.
Manjula and Bhagya told their adoptive parents that they had not been parentless orphans in need of a home as the Alabama couple had been told, but rather had been kidnapped from the orphanage where their mother had placed them temporarily and unwillingly put up for adoption.
"When I heard that I was flabbergasted," Desiree Smolin said. "I knew I had to keep moving forward and try to just keep these girls alive, but as a mother I knew we had to find their mother."
Nine months earlier the Smolins, already parents of five biological sons, had heard of the "millions of Indian orphans languishing and in need of a home" and decided to adopt difficult-to-place older girls.
"The stories of female infanticide really got to us," Smolin said. "We perceived there was a great need and we wanted to share what we had. We loved being parents and we loved kids."
Smolin says the couple did their due diligence, finding a well-established agency and asking the questions they thought they were supposed to in order to determine everything was above board.
"We asked that the agency speak with the girls and make sure they wanted to be adopted," she said. "They assured us the girls wanted to be adopted and the mother had willingly signed them over. Unfortunately, much of what they told us would turn out to be false."
The couple were told that Bhagya and Manjula were respectively 9 and 11 years old, but they now believe they are actually older.
When the girls arrived at the Atlanta airport in November 1998, they were just two of the 478 Indian orphans adopted by American families that year. In the years since, about 3,950 Indian orphans have found homes in the United States, according to State Department statistics.
Only this year did the United States implement the Hague Adoption Convention, which establishes international rules for vetting children to determine they are true orphans and not the victims of kidnap.
Under the treaty, U.S. adoption agencies will for the first time be accredited by a national agency and have to register with the State Department.
About 19,613 children were adopted from foreign countries last year, according to the State Department. The department does not keep statistics on how many visa applications are turned down for lack of proper documentation, or how many adoptees are ultimately discovered to have been kidnapped, but one official speaking on the condition of anonymity said such problems are unfortunately a fact of life.
"These issues come up and are not uncommon," said the official. "That is one of the reasons we joined Hague and encourage other countries to join the convention. In order for agencies to work in Hague partner countries, they have to be accredited by a U.S. body. Over 190 agencies have been accredited to determine that they properly review documents, make site visits and are legit."
Smolin and her husband adopted the girls before the Hague Convention was implemented and used an agency they believed took the proper steps to fully vet the orphanage and the girls. Smolin would not disclose the name of the agency she used.
"We talked to a lot of people and found a well-respected agency. We thought we asked all the right questions. In the nine months it took for the adoption to be completed there were some things that worried us. In retrospect, had we known more about how international adoptions work we would have put the brakes on. We thought only ethical agencies could be in business and we thought they had checked out everything. We had faith in the system," she said.
"By the time the girls arrived we knew that we had been lied to."
The Smolins later learned that the two orphanages in which the girls had lived near in Hyderabad were implicated in a far-reaching scandal.
Beginning in 1996, several orphanages, including the one in which the girls were placed, were accused of baby buying and falsifying documents. By 2001, after several scandals in Andahr Pradesh, the Indian government had banned all adoptions from that region.
Another American family's adopted Indian child who had lived with the girls at the orphanage revealed to her adoptive parents that the sisters had been stolen and unwillingly adopted.
When the Smolins confronted the girls, they broke down and admitted the story was true.
"The girls started crying and said the story was true. They had been threatened and forced to lie to the embassy official that interviewed them. Their mother had put them in an orphanage. It's not unusual for the poor to temporarily place their children in orphanages, which provide free education, housing, food and basic care, in a kind of boarding school setting."
When the family learned the truth, the girls had only been in the United States for six weeks. Immediately the family contacted the agency to conduct an investigation, but according to Smolin the agency did nothing of the kind.
"Had they investigated and found the mother we would have returned [the] girls. Instead, they denied the story could possibly be true," she said
"The agency said they had double-checked right before the adoption went through and the mother had relinquished the girls, but when we asked them to check again -- just six weeks later -- they said they could no longer find her. Some in the adoptive community said the kids had made the story up to make themselves feel better and that parents sometimes stage a scene when they relinquish the children to trick them. We were made to feel bad and told that we were looking for a problem because we weren't committed."
The State Department does not comment on specific cases, but Ethica, a nonprofit agency that tracks ethical and legal problems in international adoptions, as well as an Indian researcher involved in locating the girls' mother, confirmed the Smolins' story.
Of the nearly 20,000 children adopted annually from outside the United States, most are legitimate orphans in need of loving homes, said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, an adoption policy think tank.
"The truth is there are problems with the international adoption system. But American parents are often saving children from poverty, pestilence and war and we should not let the bad guys taint the good work many agencies are doing," he said. "If there is one child kidnapped and adopted, that is one too many. I can't speak about every adoption and bad stuff does occur, but the majority are above board."
"Parents need to be careful. They need to be good consumers -- not consumers of children, but of services. Too many people get caught up in getting a child that they miss the red flags," he said.
On the whole, India is not one of the more problematic countries, said a State Department official on the condition of anonymity. Adoptions from India peaked in 1998, the year the girls were adopted, and have been slowly on the decline, mirroring an overall downturn in foreign adoptions.
It took a year to settle the girls emotionally and get them into school. It would be an additional six years before the girls -- then women in their own right and very much acclimated to America -- would be reunited with their birth mother.
"Through e-mail and other contacts, various people told us they would help us locate the girls' first mother. We had the full name of their mother, father and brother and we knew name of their ancestral village. Every time we thought we were close to finding their first mother, the trail would go cold."
In November 2004, local activist Gita Ramaswamy tracked down the girl's mother and a year later, the older of the two, Manjula, visited her in India.
"When I found the girls' mother, Lakshmi, and told her that her daughters were alive and well and looking for her, she wept for a long time," Ramaswamy told ABCNEWS.com from Hyderabad. "I couldn't speak. I was overwhelmed. Lakshmi could not stop weeping -- it was a dam that had burst. She was so keen to see them, to speak with them."
"One hears crazy stories like this in India all the time. The girls' story sounded authentic and when I had first confirmed it with another relative, and then met with Lakshmi, I knew they had been taken."
Ramaswamy was at the December 2005 reunion when Manjula saw her mother for the first time in six years.
"It was very emotional. Manjula was quiet, but the mother was very vocal. We Indians in time of grief and great happiness sing songs, and Lakshmi began to sing and chant. She chanted about how she gave birth and lost her girls, how she didn't know where they were and how she was reunited with them."
The following year, after she turned 18, Bhagya also returned to India to visit her birth mother.
"It was just an incredible reunion. By that the time the girls were different people. They had become Americanized and were used to all our modern comforts. They feared what would happen if they went back, would they have to live in the village, would they be married off," Smolin said.
Neither Manjula nor Bhagya wanted to be interviewed by ABCNEWS.com, but Smolin said they both continue to the live in the United States.
"We and the girls are still in close touch with their Indian family. We are a part of their life and they are a part of ours," she said.
Smolin now operates a Web site, in which she catalogs international adoption injustices and offers advice to adopting parents.
"Don't blindly trust your agency," she said. "Don't blindly trust the Hague convention. Do your homework. Dig for dirt. Love your kids."