Kids stolen from their mothers and sold to new families looking for answers
Lois Kaufman will never forget the sea of blond, blue-eyed babies. It was a childless couple's dream. It was also a baby-selling business.
Kaufman and her late husband, then from Long Island, forked out $8,000 in 1972 to a Manhattan lawyer named Seymour Fenichel, who seemed to have "a lot of connections, a lot of mothers, a lot of babies." They paid whatever he asked, without question. They longed for a child.
The Kaufmans went to a New York City courtroom to finalize the adoption and were ushered into a waiting room, and a bizarre scene.
"There were at least 10 other babies -- all with blond hair and blue eyes," and all cradled by couples who also had hired Fenichel.
It turns out those babies were trafficked by Fenichel and his cohorts, who coerced and threatened many birth mothers for profit. He was eventually arrested and disbarred.
Now the Fenichel children are crying out: Who are our mothers?
In a new Facebook forum, a growing group calls themselves the "Seymour Fenichel Adoptees."
In 1988, the state Attorney General's Office accused Fenichel, his daughter Deborah and a Brooklyn couple, Harriet and Lawrence Lauer, of running a "large-scale baby-selling business."
The ring placed ads in supermarket tabloids to lure knocked-up women in the South and Midwest.
"PREGNANT, undecided, confused and worried? We care! Thinking about adoption? Free medical, housing, financial help and counseling. Call collect," the ad read, giving a 718 phone number.
The unlicensed operators housed girls in Pennsylvania and Florida, and even in their own New York homes. They provided medical care until the women delivered, paying $2,000 each, then "coerced them with emotional and financial threats" if they wavered about giving up their infants, prosecutors charged.
Starting in the '70s or earlier, they raked in $8,000 to $12,000 per child from adoptive parents and allegedly "sold infants to the highest bidder."
In a plea deal in 1990, Fenichel was slapped with five years' probation and 2,000 hours of community service. He died in 1994 at age 70.
But the identities of the mothers he exploited remain a secret -- kept under wraps by a New York state law that bars adult adoptees from obtaining their original birth certificates.
"We pay taxes, hold jobs and have families like everyone else, yet we live as second-class citizens," said Rachel, 27, who is one of four kids -- each from a different birth mom -- that her parents adopted through Fenichel.
"It's not fair. I didn't do anything wrong to have to live like this. This has consumed my whole life."
She may pay $3,000 to a private investigator to help find her birth mom. Rachel, who asked The Post to withhold her last name, believes the Fenichel ring "brainwashed" young moms into thinking they were unfit to raise kids, and that it was wrong or illegal to track the kids down.
Rachel formed the Facebook forum, and so far found 12 offspring linked to the Fenichel operation. All adopted in New York, they share clues and tips in searching for their biological families.
AT least one Fenichel birth mother has come forward. Teri Beeler, now 52, of Orlando, Fla., is desperately seeking the daughter she gave up 36 years ago to an unnamed New York couple.
When Beeler got pregnant at age 15, her parents sent her away to a Fenichel-run home for unwed mothers in Miami. She joined about 18 others rooming in three houses. Some girls were upset -- "they really didn't want to give up their babies," she recalls.
Beeler, while in labor, got a glimpse of her daughter. "I looked down between my legs and saw the baby's reflection in the doctor's glasses," she said.
"They took the baby away, and I never saw her again. They found a way to make money, playing on people's vulnerabilities."
Rachel vents her anger, frustration and sorrow through artwork, including photos of her face covered with the words "Sealed" and "Denied," referring to adoptees' New York birth certificates.
She also produced a heartbreaking video letter, posted on YouTube, "to the mother I never met."
"I have everything I've always wished for -- except you," she writes. "I'll be waiting. But I don't know your name, your face, or why you don't look for me."
New York releases only "non-identifying information" to adoptees. Health officials gave Rachel this bio of her birth mom: unwed, 23, Catholic, blond hair, green eyes, of French-Italian descent, blood type O-plus, a waitress who "liked to draw." Her biological dad was "not reported."
In the criminal case, prosecutors said the Fenichel outfit advised birth moms "to make false statements" on legal forms, stating the father was "unknown."
But since Fenichel had legally processed the adoptions, authorities said, none was reversed.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Friday the office will try to find records seized in the case, and decide whether to release them to the Fenichel adoptees.
The illegal adoption ring ran a booming business. Two years after Kaufman and her husband adopted the boy, Fenichel called out of the blue and asked, "Do you want another baby?"
Kaufman was stunned at first but asked for a girl. She and her husband paid $10,000 on demand, and presto: A beautiful infant turned up.
She remembers waiting in a car outside a hospital near Utica -- with a bag of "gorgeous baby clothes from Lord & Taylor." Fenichel emerged with a short, blond-haired woman who handed him the baby. She then got into a cab, alone.
Kaufman said the birth mother had an Italian-sounding last name staring with C. "I didn't write it down. I was so thrilled to have my child, I never thought about the future."
Now her adopted daughter needs to know. Beni Cunningham, 36, and living in Phoenix, wants her medical history since having two kids of her own.
"When I fill out forms at the doctor's, I just cross a line through the page and write 'adopted.' I have no information," said Cunningham, who joined the Facebook group.
New York released a few bits of information: her mother was 38, a high-school grad and "housewife;" her father, 41, of Protestant faith. Kaufman said Fenichel told her the birth mom had three other kids, and the father was a civil engineer who traveled a lot.
Despite an “empty feeling in my gut,” Cunningham says she’s finally found inner peace.
“I have a wonderful family, two beautiful children and an adoring husband. If things didn’t happen the way they did, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
But Cunningham is furious that “ New York laws keep us suppressed and hidden from the world. We want our birthright – the truth.”
Another Fenichel adoptee, Amanda Glover, of Boston, learned from the state she was born in Oceanside, LI, to a 26-year-old Polish immigrant with a 5-year-old child.
Amanda lived with them in Bronxwood until she was 6 months old, when her adoptive parents paid Fenichel close to $10,000 to make her theirs.
"Whatever money he wanted, we tried to get it. I wanted a baby to raise and love," said Amanda's adoptive mom, Susan Feldman. "I didn't ask questions."
After requesting an order of adoption from Nassau County, Amanda was delighted to discover her birth name: Susan Madga Nawrocka. But her birth mother's name is blacked out.
Her detective work continues. "This is something I think about every day. I'm not looking for much -- just one answer, one conversation, one picture," she said.
FORMER New York Gov. Herbert Lehman signed a law in 1938 that sealed birth certificates of adoptees. Instead, they get an "amended" certificate naming their adoptive parents.
"They wanted to protect children from the stigma of being illegitimate," said Joyce Bahr, president of the reform group Unsealed Initiative, which is fighting to end the "archaic" law.
Today, six states give adult adoptees the right to their original certificates. Three others do so only with the birth parents' permission.
Newly elected state Assemblyman David Weprin, a Democrat from Queens, has reintroduced a bill to permit adoptees to get copies of their original birth certificates at age 18.
Similar bills have failed for years, Weprin, said, largely due to opposition by right-to-life advocates who fear that open records might spur women to get abortions rather than risk being contacted by grown children.
In Weprin's version, officials would contact birth parents to ask whether they want to be contacted and relay that decision to the adoptee.
The Fenichel adoptees hail the legislation.
Rachel, who is planning a wedding, dreams of reuniting with her other family.
"I have a burning question: Why?" she said.
She also wants to thank her birth mom. "What she did was brave. I can't imagine carrying a baby nine months, going to another state and being threatened," she said. "I just want to reassure her she made the right decision."