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Authorities say an Ohio mother used ‘re-homing’ to keep allegations of sexual abuse from coming to light

MARYSVILLE, Ohio – On an Internet forum where parents sought takers for adopted children they no longer wanted, a teenager from Haiti was offered more frequently than any other girl.

Starting at age 14, Nita Dittenber was passed among four families over two years through a practice called “private re-homing.”

In September, Reuters exposed an underground market in which desperate parents use online bulletin boards to offer adoptees to strangers, often illegally and with no government oversight. The Internet forums, including the Yahoo group where Nita was advertised, can enable abusers to acquire children easily; in one case, a pedophile in Illinois took home a 10-year-old boy hours after an ad for the child was posted online.

In the last home where Nita was sent, re-homing served a different purpose, Ohio prosecutors contend. They say it was used to silence Nita and another girl in an effort to conceal the repeated sexual abuse of children.

For 17 months – from early 2011 until July 2012 – Nita lived in the Ohio city of Marysville with Jean Paul and Emily Kruse. Jean Paul was an information-technology specialist with the Ohio National Guard. Emily was a stay-at-home mother. The Kruses were the fourth family to take custody of her in America.

Not long after she was sent there, Nita says, the younger Kruse children told her they were being molested by Jean Paul. Nita says she struggled for months over whether to speak up about the allegations, fearing she’d be thrown out of the house and sent to yet another set of strangers if she did.

“I didn’t want to get passed around anymore,” Nita, now 18, says in an interview.

Months later, according to criminal charges filed in Union County Court here, Emily Kruse abruptly put Nita on a flight back to her original adoptive parents in Idaho – alone and “with only the clothes on her back.”

The reason: Kruse discovered that Nita had told relatives of the Kruses about the abuse accusations. Prosecutors say Emily sent Nita away to ensure the teen “would not be around to answer questions or participate in the resulting investigation.” They say another girl – an alleged victim of the abuse – was also threatened by Emily with re-homing unless she wrote a letter saying her accusations against Jean Paul were “not true.”

Jean Paul Kruse, 41, has pleaded not guilty to 17 felony criminal counts, including raping two of his daughters and sexually abusing another daughter. He and his attorney didn’t respond to interview requests. Emily Kruse, 36, has pleaded not guilty to felony charges of obstructing justice and intimidating a witness. She declined to comment; her attorney did not respond to questions.

RE-HOMED LIKE A PET

Since the late 1990s, Americans have adopted about 243,000 children from other countries. If the failure rate of international adoptions is similar to the rate at which domestic adoptions fail – estimates by the federal government range from about 10 percent to 25 percent – then more than 24,000 foreign adoptees are no longer with the parents who brought them to America.

No government agency tracks what happens to these children after they reach America, and none monitors how frequently children are transferred to strangers via the Internet. But on a single online message board examined by Reuters—a Yahoo group called Adopting-from-Disruption — a child was offered for re-homing about once a week during a five-year period. Most of the children were adopted from overseas. One was Nita.

After Reuters published messages from the Yahoo group, Nita’s adoptive aunt began reading the posts. Reporters had removed names and other identifying information. But Tammy Dittenber says she quickly recognized that some of the messages were about Nita, based on details about her age, nationality and state of residence.

Tammy says she knew that Nita’s adoptive parents – her in-laws, Tony and Michelle Dittenber – had sent Nita to other families. But Tammy says she had no idea how until she read the posts.

“I said, ‘Oh my God! All the puzzle pieces are coming into focus,’” Tammy Dittenber recalls. “…I realized she had been re-homed the way you re-home a pet.”

Re-homing a child is easy. No state or federal laws specifically prohibit it, and state laws that restrict the advertising and custody transfers of children are often confusing and rarely spell out criminal sanctions.

An agreement among the 50 U.S. states called the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, or ICPC, is meant to ensure that child welfare authorities oversee custody transfers, review prospective parents and account for what happens to children sent from one state to another. Many law-enforcement officials – including police who investigated the Kruse case – have never heard of the compact.

Even so, Ohio state officials say prosecuting the Kruses for breaching the pact would be futile. “There are no sanctions or criminal penalties in Ohio for violating the ICPC,” said Benjamin Johnson, a deputy director of the state’s Department of Job and Family Services.

Authorities handling the Kruse cases are now calling for state measures to address re-homing, and other states have already taken action in response to the Reuters investigation.

In Illinois, lawmakers held a hearing on the practice, and Colorado, Florida and Wisconsin are moving forward with bills aimed at stopping re-homing. “We need to protect kids who are literally being traded between homes,” said Republican state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, who sponsored the Wisconsin bill. The state senate passed the measure this week, and it now awaits the governor’s signature. “This legislation puts Wisconsin on the national forefront of addressing re-homing and attacking it head on,” Kleefisch said.

At the federal level, a group of 18 Republican and Democratic members of Congress is seeking hearings to “identify ways to prevent these dangerous practices.” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, called for broad action in a letter to Obama administration officials, writing that it was “stunning” that “this practice of advertising children, usually over state borders, does not seem to violate any federal laws.”

Yahoo shut down the re-homing groups that Reuters brought to its attention, and the Illinois attorney general is pressing Facebook to explain how the social network polices itself. Reuters found that adoptive parents also were offering unwanted children there on a private page called Way Stations of Love. In a Jan. 21 letter responding to the attorney general’s inquiries, Facebook said it had found “no evidence of the type of Pages you described” but that “if people were discussing the activity in closed Groups or in private messages, we do not know about those communications unless they are reported to us.”

‘HOW CAN PEOPLE DO THIS?’

Born Nita Durand and raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Nita still speaks with a trace of a Haitian accent. She says her birth parents were poor and sent her to an orphanage when she was 9, hoping she would have a better life than they had.

In 2009, Tony and Michelle Dittenber adopted her and brought her to their home in Nampa, Idaho, just outside Boise. Tony helps operate a food warehouse. Michelle books flights for an airline.

Nita was 13 at the time. She became one of nine Dittenber children, four biological and five adopted, including Nita’s younger biological sister. Each of the adoptees is Haitian.

The Dittenbers and Nita clashed from the start. Nita had “behavioral issues,” Tony Dittenber says. Nita says she thought the Dittenbers were harsh and treated her unfairly.

After the family tried without success to get help from social service agencies, Michelle says she turned to the Internet. She had read offers for children in the online forums. “My first thought was, ‘How can people do this?’” Dittenber says. “Then as I read through it and read people’s stories and what they’d been through, I understood.”

In August 2010, Michelle posted a message on the Yahoo group Adopting-from-Disruption. Her profile name: idmomofmany.

“I have a 14 year old daughter I adopted from Haiti,” she wrote. “Unfortunately we are needing to find a new family for her. Where do we start?”