Feb. 15, 2011 -- 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.
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.
"My grandmother picked me up from the hospital and she was probably the only one to meet my birth mother," Bernstein said. "My birth mother had said I think my daughter is going to a very nice home because that's a very nice blanket."
Along with kinship, members of the Facebook group trade tips on how to search for their biological families.
"I believe my natural mother would be frightened to contact me for fear of persecution," Bernstein said. "In any closed adoption, not having a birth name to start with is an obstacle in itself. It [being a Fenichel adoptee] adds more barriers because unlike an agency adoption, should any of my birth family seek to contact me, there is no one for them to tell that to and relay that message to me."
For Resources and More Information About Searching for Birth Families or Adoptees,Click Here.
Seymour Fenichel "Ringleader" of Adoption Scam
Fenichel, who was also a rabbi, worked with Childhaven to facilitate private adoptions for often wealthy, Jewish New York couples.
The ring encompassed at least 21 states and Canada. In the last four years of its operation, up to 160 birth mothers were involved. They would travel from across the country to stay in homes in New York, Pennsylvania and Florida. The women were paid at least $2,000. Appleton said that she was paid $8,000.
Couples who were adopting would pay up to $36,000 for a child.
At the time of his arrest in 1989, Fenichel was described by then-New York Attorney General Robert Abrams as the ringleader of an operation that "preyed on the emotions" of childless couples.
"I saw grown men and women cry… individuals not able to have a child spent a lot of time and money to have a child and when they got close, the rug was pulled from under them and the baby was sold to the highest bidder," Alfredo Mendez, a former assistant attorney general who helped prosecute the case, told ABCNews.com.
"Then you have birth mothers and the conditions they were under, the threats, allegations, being forced to give up the baby," Mendez said.
Fenichel would arrange for the babies to be picked up in sometimes bizarre places, like parking lots.
Lois Kaufman and her husband at the time, Steve Gralla, were one of the couples who enlisted Fenichel's help. They adopted two babies in the 1970s.
Kaufman, now 63, met Fenichel through her father in 1972.
"They were both religious men and so maybe they knew each other from the Jewish community as well as them both being lawyers," she said.
Desperate to have a child, Kaufman, her husband, her parents and in-laws met with Fenichel.
"He said it could take up to 18 months," Kaufman said. "He said he will only give a baby to us if the baby is formally converted so that it will be Jewish."
While she found that request odd, she agreed. Kaufman's father and mother left for a cruise the day after the meeting. Sadly, her father died on that cruise.
"Mr. Fenichel found out that my father passed away and he called me and he said to me that because my father died, he's going to move me up on the list and I would get the very next boy and he wanted it to be a boy so I would name him after my father," the woman said.
Within five weeks, Kaufman and her husband were flying to Miami to pick up their baby boy. They paid Fenichel $8,000 and named him Saul after Kaufman's father, like Fenichel had requested.
When they returned to New York, they went to court to sign the necessary paperwork for the adoption.
"We were escorted into a room...and they were all Fenichel babies, 10 families with little babies. The babies were all the same age and they all looked exactly like my son, blonde and blue-eyed. I thought it was the weirdest thing I've ever seen," she said. "My God, any of these little babies could have been given to me."
Two years later, Kaufman got a phone call and instantly recognized the person calling.
"I knew who it was immediately and I hadn't spoken to him or heard his voice in two years," she said.
It was Fenichel asking if the couple wanted another baby.
"I was shocked. I didn't know they came to you. I thought you had to go to them when you want one...I said this is too good to turn down, maybe it was meant to be," she said.
Kaufman and her husband agreed to pay Fenichel and the adoption agency $10,000 for a baby girl that they named Beni.
"I didn't think baby mill. I just knew it was weird and then who cares, I was so happy. I got the baby," she said.
Kaufman and her husband picked up the baby in the parking lot of a hospital in Utica, N.Y. While the couple waited in their car with their attorney, two attorneys who were associates of Fenichel came out of the hospital door with a woman.
"The woman was holding the baby and she handed the baby to my lawyer...I didn't see her face, but I saw that she was petite with blonde hair. She got into a cab with no family and I found that very sad because there was no one there for her," Kaufman said.
Happy to have a daughter, Kaufman thought nothing more about it. Kaufman even referred Fenichel to a friend who was looking to adopt a child.
Scott Tovin is the adopted son of the couple Kaufman referred to Fenichel.
"My dad had to run into the hospital to grab me and run back into the car," Scott Tovin said.
Tovin's birth mother was moved to Pennsylvania by her family for the last six months of her pregnancy, he said.
"I have a feeling that I might have been born at one of those houses and brought down to the hospital for my parents to pick up," he said.
Adoptees Face Uphill Battle to Unseal Birth Certificates
Tovin is still searching for his biological mom but is lucky in that his family knows her name.
"My [birth] mother was 15 years old. Her name is Rhonda Moore. They had none of my father's information at all. They think he was a mechanic," Tovin said.
Fenichel sometimes encouraged birth mothers to leave out the names of the babies' fathers on birth certificates which has made it difficult for Tovin and other adoptees to find their birth families.
Tovin now lives in Florida and is searching for his birth family so that he can pass down his medical history to his two sons. His 6-year-old son is autistic.
Tovin joined Seymour Fenichel Adoptees after reconnecting with childhood friend Beni Cunningham, Lois Kaufman's daughter.
Bernstein's group has already led to one reunion between Lori Appleton, the Jacksonville, Fla., teen who gave her baby up for adoption in 1985, and the woman she thinks is her daughter. Appleton's other daughter, Amanda Overdorf, saw a posting on the group's wall by a woman whose description of her birth mom seemed to match Appleton.
"I was in shock…I see a lot of resemblance…We still have to do DNA testing to get it finalized," Appleton said. "After finding out about the baby-selling, I thought I'd never find her."
Two months before Appleton was to give birth, the Lauers and Fenichel paid for her to fly from Florida to New York. Appleton stayed with the Lauers at their home along with another pregnant woman named Kim, she said.
Appleton said she was treated well, but that Kim was not.
"I definitely wanted to give the baby to a wonderful home, that was the only intention that I had," Appleton said. "I didn't really realize at the time that he [Fenichel] was shady and the practices that were going on."
Now 43, she still remembers the October day she gave birth.
"When I was done and ready to leave the hospital, they told me there would be a third party that would come into the main lobby. I went to sign the birth certificate," she said. "They placed the baby in my arms. I walked to the elevator, the elevator doors opened....[The third party] looked at me mean and took the baby... I turned around the corner and started bawling."
Fenichel had a car pick up Appleton and an envelope with $8,000 was there for her to take. She returned to Florida. Though she would marry and get divorced, Appleton kept her maiden name hoping that she might find her daughter.
Other birth moms and adoptees hope to have the same luck as Appleton.
"It's kind of like a Pandora's box. Every time you find one piece of information, it can be overwhelming to put that all together. It can be frightening sometimes…like frighteningly exciting. You feel so close, but yet so far," Teri Beeler, a birth mother, said.
Beeler's only glimpse of her daughter was at a Miami hospital in 1975 as she gave birth at 16 years old.
"The lights were so bright in the OR, I could see her reflection in the doctor's glasses," Beeler said. "It's a sacrifice…what better gift to give somebody than to give them life and to give them love, even if it means to give them away."
Beeler's maiden name was Hays.
"In my heart, I've always thought of her as Baby Girl Hays," she said.
For Resources and More Information About Searching for Birth Families or Adoptees, Click Here.