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A Heartbreaking Adoption Scam

The adoption of my daughter was a fluke. A miracle. There was never a wait-list or massive amounts of money changing hands. It just happened. Because that's something I frequently write about, I often receive emails from people searching for some magic of their own. But an email I received on February 18th was like nothing I'd encountered before. It sent me on an obsessive quest that would expose an amazingly brazen scam artist — and a crack in the adoption system that all would-be parents should know about. Here's how it all began:

At first I didn’t know how to respond to this email from "Sarah H."* It’s not every day that someone writes to you offering her baby for adoption. This "Sarah" had obviously been reading my blog for a while, as she referred to my hating the term “birthmother” — something I'd only mentioned a handful of times. I clicked on her blog before replying, and most everything there seemed fairly legit—including the fact that she had photos available.

But still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something might be off. Unfortunately it did not stop me from sharing this news with a close friend of mine who was also coming around to the idea of adoption.

As I told her the story we both started crying. A newborn baby girl — due in just 7 weeks! Our previous experience with the adoption of my daughter had taught us that a miracle like this really could happen. We both felt chills.

I sent her everything I had, while warning her about my initial gut feeling. “I can’t say for sure that this is real,” I told her. “But what if it is?”

Now that someone so close to me was involved, I knew I had to dig deeper. I did a quick Google search and found a “Sarah H.” who was, indeed, a nurse in Waterville, Maine — details that “Sarah” had revealed to me in subsequent emails. But from her Facebook profile, it quickly became clear this woman wasn’t the woman pictured on the blog with a pregnant belly, and that she did not have an 11-year-old son — something the “Sarah” in the email had stated. This Sarah H. was definitely not the “Sarah H.” who had emailed me.

I filed the information away and continued chatting with “Sarah” for the rest of the day. There were some red flags: While she said she was overwhelmed by the number of adoptive couples available through her agency, she did not express concern when I told her about the number of couples who would likely come forward if I were to do an open call through my networks. When I told her that there was no way I could vet those couples in the way that an agency could, she said that she wasn’t worried — she just wanted an adoption story steeped in fate, like my own had been.

I wanted to believe that I could play a role in helping this woman find her perfect adoptive match.

I should have listened to my gut right away, but she answered most of my questions so perfectly. She was willing to give me her phone number and the contact information for her adoption agency. She forwarded me emails between herself and her agency, explaining that they had fully verified her pregnancy. She was seemingly honest when I asked how her previous match had fallen through, placing the blame upon herself and explaining that the recent death of her mother had put her into a bit of a tailspin.

I wanted to believe her. I wanted to believe that I could play a role in helping this woman find her perfect adoptive match. I wanted to believe this woman had something to offer, just like the thousands of prospective parents out there who want to believe in miracles.

I returned to the Facebook profile for the other (real?) Sarah H. and analyzed it a little more. The town where these women supposedly both lived was small, with a population of 15,000. What were the chances of two nurses with the same exact name (middle and all), living in that tiny town?

I sent a very carefully worded email to “Sarah” simply asking if she knew this other Sarah H. I’d found on Facebook. She replied with utter shock, telling me she had no idea who this other woman was, and that it must be a total coincidence.

“Sarah” then encouraged me to look up her nursing license — which, of course, I had already done. There was only one Sarah H. licensed in the state of Maine — and all those details seemed to match up with the Facebook profile I had found — of the other Sarah.

I emailed that other Sarah through her FB profile, explaining the situation and asking if she had any idea what could be going on. She responded quickly, telling me she had no knowledge of another nurse in her town with her same name.

Now I knew something was off, and the disappointment began to set in. This woman was definitely a scam artist of some kind. I just didn’t know why or to what extent yet. What I was about to discover went well beyond what I could have even imagined.

The Scam (and the Scammer)

I put my detective hat on and, with my friend, set out to find the “real” scammer. I also enlisted the help of another friend who is incredibly tech savvy — a skill we needed for this search. The first thing I did, with her assistance, was cache the blog — so that if it was deleted (which it now has been) we would still have all the original files at our disposal, files we could then forward on to the police once we found out who “Sarah” really was.

I come from a family of cops. I grew up with very defined parameters around the concepts of right and wrong. My moral compass is, perhaps, a bit more stringent than that of others. And when I come across people who are clearly crossing ethical boundaries, I have an innate need for justice that could, at times, be considered obsessive. Which was what drove this search forward for me as we looked for clues.

The first came in the form of those ultrasounds “Sarah” had posted on her blog. There was one photo and one video.

The “real” Sarah H. told me that she had never been pregnant, so obviously these had both been doctored to include her name. The name of the imaging center was displayed in the right corner and with a quick Google search we found a phone number.

Imagine my shock when I discovered that the imaging center no longer appeared to exist at all. The number now led to a private voicemail message that indicated the center had been closed for at least a year. The date on the photo and video on “Sarah’s” blog was from just a month ago.

I continued engaging “Sarah.” I wanted to know her exact location. She could have been anywhere. But luckily, my tech-savvy friend was able to teach me how to uncover her IP address through the multiple emails she had sent, and the websites she had accessed. Her location was identified as Royal Oak, Michigan.

Something else that her IP address revealed also rattled me: Someone using the same computer but with a different email address had commented on a blog post of mine last November. This address included the name “Jessie Lynn." While that was disconcerting, it also gave me a clue to her real identity, as there would be no reason to hide your name when making a benign comment on a blog post.

So the obsessive Googling began once more. All through the night, I searched, finding more details and clues until somewhere, around 2 a.m., I contacted the FBI.

The Adoption Agency

As soon as I realized we were dealing with a scammer, I called the adoption counselor at the agency “Sarah” had given me during our first few emails: The Independent Adoption Center. Her counselor was based out of Florida, but the agency had locations across the country. At 5:30 the next morning, my phone rang. Thankfully, I had never gone to bed.

I had initially assumed that “Sarah” had lied about going through an agency. I simply couldn’t imagine an agency letting her slip through their vetting process. But I was wrong. I got about 30 seconds into explaining what I knew, before the adoption counselor stopped me and said, “Wait. I know exactly who you are talking about.”

“Sarah,” the agent said, had provided proof of pregnancy to the agency, but had so far failed to follow through on much else. No photo ID. No completion of paperwork. And no in-person consultation. She had not even signed the release granting the agency the right to verify the proof of pregnancy she had provided. Still, “Sarah” was allowed to browse through profiles of prospective parents on the agency website.

Getting a visual on Sarah seemed to prove even more difficult. Even though this agency had satellite offices in Maine, “Sarah” had insisted on going through the Florida office. According to the agent, she said she could not do a Skype session either, because she did not have that capability on her phone or computer. What’s more, the counselor confirmed they had already received calls and concerns about “Sarah’s” legitimacy, and prospective parents had forwarded them the same Facebook profile I had found myself.

I also tipped the agency off about her other name, “Jessie Lynn,” which led to the discovery of a multi-state con-job.

The agent I spoke with said couples knew to check with her for verification when contacted by a potential birth mother. Still, after we spoke, she confirmed that “Sarah’s” proof of pregnancy had been fabricated. She then began taking steps to revoke "Sarah’s" access to the agency’s website and notified all prospective adoptive parents in their system of her scam.

I also tipped the agency off about her other name, “Jessie Lynn,” which led to the discovery of a multi-state con-job. It looked as if "Sarah" might have been using her real name in another state, running the same adoption scam. The agent I spoke with was able to identify the woman in both states as Jessica Lynn Shea.

While the agency was willing to speak with me initially, and was proactive when given the information about the illegitimacy of both profiles, after I let them know I was writing this article no phone calls or emails were returned. Despite multiple attempts, no one at the agency was willing to make a statement about the case.

Solving a Mystery

Now that the agency had identified Jessica Lynn Shea based out of Royal Oak, Michigan, it took only a Google search to find out that Jessica Lynn Shea was already in trouble.

Jessica Lynn had been convicted of fraud while attempting to illegally obtain prescription medication and was on parole.

I was ready to send all the information I had discovered to the authorities. Before I did though, I reached out one last time to “Sarah,” aka Jessica Lynn Shea. I needed to know why she had done what she did. She wrote back with a story about a troubled past that had left her a lonely and damaged single mom, yearning for attention and affection:

I'm sure [it] doesn't look this way but I don't want to hurt anyone. I'm not vindictive, anti-adoption or evil. I am just lost and lonely and depressed. I don't want it to sound like my son isn't enough for me, because he's really what's keeping me alive, but I can't talk to him about my problems.

Clearly this was a woman who needed serious help. But she also seemed proud of her dubious skills:

I will tell you that I know the laws surrounding adoption scams and I made sure to not cross any lines .... I really don't think I can get in trouble for it. Its [sic] lying. Sure, it's horrible and shitty, but not illegal, or everyone [who did it] would be in jail. So I am not really too concerned about it. It should be illegal and I've actually thought of going into the business of making things scammer proof or spotting scams. I really have a knack for doing it, so its [sic] far easier to spot it.

I sent all of the information I had discovered about her adoption scams to her parole agent. Jessica Lynn went back to court and is currently locked up on violation of parole.

When I posted her information on my own Facebook page, I received a few comments from her relatives claiming that Jessica Lynn has a long history of lying and manipulation. One family member directed me to a forum on Café Mom where she claimed her child had cancer, eventually killing him off (he is alive and well and has never had cancer) in 2008. According to her family members, she has also preyed on couples looking for surrogates to grow their families.

There really isn’t any way of gleaning satisfaction from this story, other than the fact that Jessica Lynn Shea is no longer able to access the adoption agency she was manipulating, and she is now behind bars. But it also serves as a warning to hopeful couples looking to adopt: Keep your guard up. Even a reputable adoption agency can be manipulated by a determined scam artist.

When I think back to the day when my own family's miracle happened — when a woman I had never met offered me my daughter over the phone — I remember how my heart had soared. We were incredibly lucky. Now, I know just how easily it all could have gone wrong—and just how devastated I would have been.

If you have any additional information, or you believe you may have been contacted by Jessica Lynn Shea (or one of her aliases), you are encouraged to get in touch with the Royal Oak police department.

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*This pseudonym has been abbreviated to protect the identity of the woman "Sarah H." was impersonating.

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