She pretends to have a baby for adoption - can she get help to stop?

By Naomi Pallas
BBC Stories

image copyrightPaul

Gabby has a nasty habit. She offers babies to couples who want to adopt… but it's a hoax, and the couples' hopes are suddenly dashed. Now people are putting pressure on her to stop and she is hoping, perhaps in vain, to get medical help.

In the US it's increasingly common for couples who want to adopt a baby to advertise themselves on social media, in the hope of connecting with a pregnant woman preparing to place a child for adoption. Last summer I spoke to several couples who had done this successfully - or so it seemed. All had received Instagram messages from a young woman in Georgia, offering them exactly what they wanted.

Unfortunately, the images on the woman's Instagram accounts were stolen and behind each avatar lay Gabby, now 24, who was promising a child that didn't exist. Each of the accounts contained a followers' list full of distressed families.

I wrote a story about what I had discovered, and hoped that it might prompt Gabby to stop deceiving people.

I pictured her at home, reading the stories of grief-stricken couples who were already fragile from their infertility struggles. She'd realise the harm she'd done. She would feel ashamed. Perhaps she'd even apologise.

After the article was published, Good Morning America invited one of Gabby's victims, Samantha Stewart, to repeat on their morning news show the story she'd told me.

But four days after Samantha had blinked back tears in front of four million viewers, Gabby struck again. The Larter family in Iowa received her messages - and replied by sending her the article, which had been widely circulated among the adoption community.

image captionMessages sent to the Larters' adoption page on Facebook from Gabby's account

It seemed that nothing would stop her. But people are now trying. They range from total strangers, to close family and a television psychologist.

Four years ago Gabby's brother, Paul, received some worrying Facebook messages about his youngest sister. A woman wrote that she had met Gabby a number of times over the summer, believing she was going to adopt Gabby's unborn child - she had even halted her fertility treatment to concentrate on this adoption. She claimed to have brought a crib and taken Gabby, then a high school student, shopping for baby clothes.

But eventually she realised she had been tricked.

Find out more

image copyrightSAMANTHA STEWART

Read the original article: The fake baby Instagram adoption scam

Since then the same scenario has been repeated many times. In fact, Gabby says she started when she was 16, and by one estimate she has deceived hundreds of couples.

Paul hasn't seen Gabby for about two years, but he and his other sister still get Facebook messages from her victims. So in October last year, they decided to take action, in the only way they could think of.

Three days before Halloween, as other families across the US were stockpiling sweets and planning their costumes, they started a blog and made a single post: Beware of the Adoption Scam.

"We, Gabby's family, don't know why she's doing these things. We've talked to her, begged her to stop, tried to tell her how much she is hurting people (including her own family). But she simply won't listen," reads the blog post.

"We don't think there's any financial gain. She simply enjoys hurting people."

Amy Senior and Kylie Zavadil know Gabby's avatars well, through their work with adoptive parents. They run an adoption website, and began collecting the names of clients she had tricked, with the initial aim of bringing a lawsuit against her.

They were among the many people who searched for Gabby's family on social media. But instead of contacting her siblings, Kylie came across Gabby's father, Gene.

What Gene told them made them wonder whether a lawsuit was the best solution to the problem.

He explained that Gabby had problems with her physical and mental health. She had had surgery on her heart, he said, which made him reluctant to take her phone away in case she needed help, and he didn't earn enough, working at Walmart, to pay for the psychotherapy she clearly needed.

image copyrightAmy Senior
image captionAmy Senior and Kylie Zavadil run the Adoption for my Child website

When I speak to Gene he tells me that Gabby's heart problems mean that she cannot get pregnant, and that she may die young.

"She has continually fooled me," he sighs. "Or maybe she did really believe she was going to stop every time she told me that she did. There've been periods when she hasn't done it, but something in her brain tells her that she needs to be pregnant, and she can't be.... That overwhelms her."

He also says that he has now taken Gabby's data away, meaning she should be unable to get on the internet to contact people looking to adopt.

As they talked to Gene, Amy and Kylie reasoned that it couldn't hurt to call Gabby, and ask her to stop. She wasn't the usual adoption scammer: she wasn't asking for money. Attention seemed to be what she was after.

The women took turns to call her. Slowly, she began to open up and they began to speak regularly.

Amy then put Gabby in touch with a producer from the Dr Phil TV show, who offered Gabby therapy if she took part. Dr Phil McGraw is a household name in America for his long-running talk show which gets people to face up to their problems in front of a live audience.

Amy spoke to me in December, the weekend before she flew to California with Gabby and her father to film the episode. She saw it as a last resort for the family - the only way to get the healthcare Gabby needs.

"I think she needs some substantial help, some real help," Gene agrees. "I'm not asking for handouts, I'm willing to do anything, work any hours, or relocate to get her the help she needs. I think she probably has a limited lifespan, and I want her to blossom as a person within that lifespan. I think she deserves that."

The two-part show, titled The Adoption Imposter, aired this week.

"I've done a lot of shows about lies, scams and deception over the years," Dr Phil opens. "But I've never done one quite like this."

Gabby is reluctant to walk on to the set. She is uncommunicative and the show's producer says he cannot remember the last time he had such a volatile guest. Gene seems exhausted.

The people promised fake babies, and the woman whose photos were stolen to enable this, wait for Gabby on-stage. She comes out, but she doesn't stay in her seat for long. She provides few answers.

Despite this, Gabby is treated with sympathy by one deceived woman, Lauren, who was promised non-existent twins. "I have a huge heart for mental health and for special needs, and it breaks my heart that she is in this invisible prison," she tells the audience . "I don't want her to feel in prison in her own mind. It's sad."

Gabby found the experience of being on Dr Phil exhausting. "It was worth it because I don't have to see him again, thank God, and I'm going to get the help I want," she says.

In a series of phone calls, she tells me about her life, her attitude varying from petulant to reserved. But she always seems less mature than her 24 years.

I ask the question many of those targeted by her schemes want to know. Why did she do it - why did she pretend to be pregnant?

"I was in a dark spot and I wanted attention and someone to talk to," she says. She is unable to have children because of her heart condition, she continues, and she wanted to speak to women in a similar position.

"It just gives me someone to talk to. I just sit at home all day. I don't have friends, so… I wouldn't say it's something to do - it's someone to talk to."

I thought of Samantha Stewart, Gabby's victim who struggled to speak about their conversations without breaking down in tears.

But despite telling me she can feel the pain of childless women, Gabby struggles to find any sympathy for those she tricked. When I ask if she would like to apologise, she immediately shuts the conversation down.

Clips of Gabby's Dr Phil episodes uploaded to YouTube have also generated little sympathy for her. The comments posted underneath are overwhelmingly vicious, perhaps unfairly so given the problems she has faced in her life.

I ask Gabby if she has pretended to be pregnant since filming the show last December.

Eventually, she admits that she has.

Sustained, long-term mental health care is what Gabby and her father both believe she needs, not the brief period of residential care she is set to receive from her appearance on Dr Phil. It seems she has little prospect of getting it.

Follow Naomi Pallas on Twitter @naomi_pallas

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