When Monique and Steven Mielke couldn't have a baby after nine years of trying, they turned to adoption.
Through an agency they learned of Stephanie Blume, a tall, blond, unemployed waitress who said she was pregnant and willing to give them her baby.
In exchange, the Mielkes would pay her living expenses until delivery.
Five months later, they had no baby and were out nearly $5,000.
Blume had faked the pregnancy, deputies said. She wound up facing criminal charges, much like a Riverview woman accused this week of arranging to give her baby to two different couples in exchange for payment.
Adoption experts see a troubling trend.
"I really think this economy is driving more and more birth mothers to scam," said Jeanne Tate, an adoption attorney for 28 years.
Tate sees it firsthand, as owner of Heart of Adoptions, a Tampa-based agency with three offices across the state, including a Naples branch that assisted the Mielkes. Her company, which arranges about 150 adoptions a year, sometimes winds up going after birth mothers in court.
She tells of adoptions gone sour:
- Crystal Davis, 23, and Michael Deppert, 28, kept the baby they had promised to a Westchase couple and disappeared after the June birth. They had collected about $5,000, according to a Heart of Adoptions balance sheet.
The Times could not locate Davis. Deppert's mother said she did not know where he was.
- Peggy Hocker received $13,000 from a couple through the same agency. She gave birth Aug. 10 without telling her caseworker and decided to keep the baby. But someone that night used her e-mail account to remind Heart of Adoptions to pay her water bill. Hocker says it wasn't her. "If I'm in a hospital and I'm in labor, how am I able to send an e-mail to anybody?"
She says she changed her mind - legal, in such arrangements - and plans to repay the money.
- Last month in Orlando, Latasha A. Harlee, 25, was put on probation and ordered to repay $7,814, accused of taking living expenses from two different agencies, including Tate's.
Then, on Wednesday, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office arrested Tiffany R. Palinsky, 21, of Riverview.
Detectives and prosecutors determined that she had signed contracts with two adoption agencies, the Brandon Family Law Center and Adoption Miracles, for placement of the same baby.
She collected $2,335 in living expenses through both agencies and faces charges of organized fraud, two counts of third-degree grand theft, petit theft and sale of a minor child, jail and arrest records show.
She declined a jail interview request Friday.
Adoption agencies routinely check the backgrounds of birth mothers, searching for theft and fraud. They have their own doctors readminister pregnancy tests and require that birth fathers sign release forms.
Gift of Life in Pinellas Park recently turned away two sisters who had misled the agency once before, executive director Lara Dickerson said.
But adoption fraud still slips through, devastating couples who in some cases were already emotionally vulnerable.
"It's one thing to lose your money," Tate said, "but you lose your heart, your soul."
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One of those couples, the Mielkes, had been warned not to get too excited too fast. But Monique couldn't help herself, painting her child's room green, thinking the color would make her future child bright.
They surrendered to health checks, fingerprint checks, reference checks, employment checks and a home study. They took pictures of themselves and put together a storybook that would be shopped around to pregnant women.
It took more than two years to find a match. Blume came along in February 2008.
To support her, the Mielkes took out a loan using their home equity.
They put $3,815 into an account for Blume's living expenses and forked over another $903 to pay legal expenses.
Weeks passed. They waited eagerly for medical reports and ultrasound images that never materialized.
Then, Blume vanished too. Her roommate said she had moved out of her apartment.
On July 21, 2008, a Collier County sheriff's officer got a jailhouse tip that Blume had used another woman's urine to obtain a positive pregnancy test at Planned Parenthood.
The Sheriff's Office arrested Blume, 24, three days later. In January, she was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of grand theft and possession of a controlled substance, according to state prison records.
She was also ordered to pay $4,809 in restitution.
A sheriff's investigatortold the Mielkes that they probably wouldn't see a penny.
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Some cases aren't so clear cut.
One pregnant woman intended to give up her baby but had a miscarriage, said Christine Welch, owner of Heartfelt Adoptions of Tampa.
The woman didn't tell the agency. She kept collecting living expenses.
"It's hard to pinpoint whether they're defrauding you or not," Welch said.
Even when birth mothers have honest intentions, things can go wrong and adoptive parents can lose money.
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After Blume's arrest, Heart of Adoptions put the Mielkes at the top of their waiting list.
But Monique couldn't wait any longer.
"I wanted a baby so bad," she said.
She hired an adoption consultant, who quickly found another match.
This time, the couple made sure to get medical information before they put up another $1,000 for living and legal expenses.
In December, the birth mother delivered a stillborn child.
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Federal and state agencies don't track adoption fraud, and adoption attorneys and experts called it rare even if it's more prevalent now.
The American Academy of Adoption Attorneys is working on software that would allow lawyers to confidentially share information on birth mothers, to see if they are offering babies to multiple adoption agencies.
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The Mielkes were determined not to quit. The adoption consultant found them a 17-year-old pregnant Oklahoma City high school student, who wanted to concentrate on college and make sure that her child would have a better life.
This time, Monique Mielke spent time on the phone with the teen and her mother, checking on her health, making a personal connection. They went to Oklahoma City nine days before delivery.
They were with the girl's family on Feb. 17 when a nurse held the baby up to the nursery window.
A boy. Monique sobbed. Nurses let her bathe him.
That first night, she stayed awake listening to his every murmur.
The Mielke's search for a child had consumed nearly 20 years and $90,000 and all the hope they could muster.
They named their baby Luke.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.