Black Market Adoptions: Bought and Sold By a Child Trafficker

Rachel Bernstein

money paid for black market adoptions

Black market adoptions

Standing in front of the camera, I bit back tears. “To the mother I’ve never met. I have everything I’ve always wished for—except you. I’ll be waiting. But I don’t know your name, your face, or why you don’t look for me.” It was a desperate message—but after 10 years of searching for my birth mother, I was willing to try anything. I posted the video on YouTube and waited.

You may wonder why I didn’t go through an adoption agency, but that option wasn’t open to me. I was one of hundreds of babies sold in black market adoptions in New York in the 1980’s and sold to adoptive parents, usually for around £22,000. And now I’m one of an increasing number of women making headlines in the States as we try to find our real parents.

I didn’t know I was adopted until I was seven

Growing up, I’d always been aware that I looked different from my older sisters. But it wasn’t until I was seven that my siblings told me Mum and Dad weren’t our “real” parents. Confused, I went to my mother, who admitted we’d all been adopted. I was so young I had no idea what the word meant. And while most adoptive parents will sit their children down and explain the situation—and how loved they are—my parents, incredibly reserved at the best of times, seemed unable to do this. Without them being open with me, I didn’t understand my place in the family and became very closed off as a way of protecting myself. I’d been left once before by my birth parents. Who was to say my adopted parents wouldn’t do the same? This sense of unease made me rebel as a teenager, running away repeatedly. Devastated by how upset I was, but still apparently unsure of how to broach the subject, my parents thought therapy was the solution. Although I knew they loved me and were trying to help in their own way, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to know what I’d been like at a day old, where my creative personality came from and everything else. Without that I felt utterly groundless.

At 18, I applied to the authorities for a copy of my birth certificate, hoping it would piece together parts of the puzzle. But it only had my adoptive parents’ name on it. Luckily, this isn’t the norm. Anyone adopted in the UK and in some US states can get hold of their adoption records, and there are lots of agencies that can help trace birth parents. In short, I sadly faced an unusual lack of communication.

Sold by Seymour Fenichel

Desperate, I broke down, and this seemed to be the tipping point for my adoptive mother. Enough to shake her out of her reserve. She told me all she knew. The name of the lawyer who had arranged the adoption—a man called Seymour Fenichel—and that I was picked up in a hospital parking lot. It sounded weird, but she insisted this was just how things were done in the 80’s. As far as they knew, he was running a reputable adoption agency.

After just a few searches I found newspaper articles about black market adoptions involving Fenichel. I felt paralyzed as I read about how he’d run a baby ring in the 1970’s and ’80’s, before eventually being arrested and charged with 144 counts of child trafficking.

Denial kicked in at first. And I refused to believe this could be how I’d ended up in my adoptive parents’ care. Reading on, I felt sick as I discovered Fenichel had created bidding wars, where parents would be waiting to collect their “legally” adopted children and, if they didn’t handover enough money, he would just give the baby to the highest bidder. It was horrific. The thought he’d auctioned babies off, like cattle rather than human beings made me so angry. My adoptive parents were staggered when I told them. They had no idea.

Bizarrely, I wasn’t concerned with the fact that my adoptive parents had bought me (they’ve never told me how much they paid and I haven’t asked, but Fenichel charged around £22,000 per child). Instead, I was devastated that it sounded like my birth mother had sold me for that amount. Was I really that unimportant in her life? My anger only made me more determined to find her. And finally hear the truth.

Fenichel had died in 1994, so in desperation I made my YouTube video and even hired a private investigator. But because I didn’t have my birth mother’s name, the search was all but impossible. My own future felt like it was on hold. I’d frequently break down, overwhelmed by desperation, and spent hours frantically searching online for clues.

I found my birth mom

Realizing I wasn’t getting anywhere, in September 2010 I launched the Facebook group The Seymour Fenichel Adoptees, hoping that we could help each other. And then the breakthrough I’d dreamt of finally came. In 2011, I got a phone call from my private investigator saying he’d discovered my birthmother’s name—Lacey Andrews—and even had a phone number for her. Often at this moment, adoptees wait for months before getting in touch. But I couldn’t bear it. My fingers trembling, I punched her number into the phone. As it rang, my mind was racing. What if she told me that no one knew I existed and I was going to ruin her life?

When she answered, I blurted out, “I think you might be my mother.” After a few seconds, she started crying with joy. I’d never been more relieved in my life. Just weeks later, I flew out to see her in Ohio. After their initial reluctance to talk about my past, my adoptive parents were incredibly supportive and offered to come with me. I didn’t blame them at all for how they’d been. I knew they loved me very much. But I felt it was something I needed to do alone. I’ll never forget the first moment I saw my birth mum. She came into the foyer of the bed and breakfast where we’d arranged to meet. After staring at each other, both recognizing ourselves in the other’s face, all my nervousness disappeared. We just started hugging and crying.

She told me that she was 23 when she met my father, only finding out she was pregnant after she left him. She was homeless, and when she saw one of Fenichel’s infamous newspaper ads aimed at young pregnant women offering medical assistance and money, she thought that was the answer. Apparently, Fenichel promised I was going to a good home, and that when I was 18 he’d pass on her details to me. With no alternative, she handed me over for just over £1,200—the same amount he gave to all the women for their babies—totally unaware of the black market adoptions he was operating. Within days, he sold me on.

Hearing the truth was such a relief. I felt as if I finally understood. She was younger than me when she fell pregnant and just wasn’t capable of bringing me up. That’s not to say the following months were easy. Forming a relationship with my mother was hard and, at the same time, I worried about how my adoptive family would feel. But ultimately they were relieved that I could finally live my life after so many years of searching for the missing piece.

Now I have two families and speak to my birth mother and adoptive mother almost every day. My hope is that I can help all the other people trafficked as babies through black market adoptions by Fenichel to find their real parents. Because everyone deserves to know who they really are.