By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers said on Tuesday that the federal government may have to take a stronger role to stop parents from transferring custody of their adopted children to strangers they meet on the Internet.

At a subcommittee hearing in the U.S. Senate, lawmakers took their first look at the practice known as "private re-homing," which bypasses the government's child welfare system to leave boys and girls in the custody of strangers, often with little more than a notarized power of attorney.

The hearing came in response to a Reuters investigation that found online forums where desperate parents solicited new families for children they no longer wanted. Testimony shed light on the potential need for federal action to strengthen protections for children and support state efforts to help parents with post-adoption challenges.

"(It) certainly makes sense to the extent that re-homing is happening over the Internet, that it’s crossing state borders, that that necessitates – even requires – a federal response," said Sen. Christopher Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat.

Joo Yeun Chang, the Obama administration official's top official for foster care and adoption assistance programs, said the federal government needs to provide guidance for states on what she described as a new issue. But she called for an approach that would protect all children rather than risk singling out adoptive families.

"There's a lot of confusion about what legal custody of power of attorney documents even mean, what kind of responsibility that confers and what responsibilities parents have to maintain," she said during testimony.

"State laws need to be clear about what the parent's responsibility is even if they do transfer legal custody."

No state or federal laws specifically prohibit re-homing. State laws that restrict the advertising and custody transfers of children rarely prescribe criminal sanctions and are frequently ignored.

After the news agency published its findings in September, at least four states passed new restrictions on advertising children, transferring custody, or both. Lawmakers in those states noted that the absence of government safeguards can result in children ending up in the hands of abusers.

Some child advocates say that congressional action is needed to limit re-homing by placing uniform restrictions on the advertising of children and requiring all custody transfers to non-relatives to be approved by a court.

But others say the need to seek court approval could be prohibitive for many families, in cases where custody of children is taken on by grandmothers or trusted family friends.

In a report issued last year, the Congressional Research Service said the interstate aspect of re-homing and the role of the Internet in facilitating the practice gave Congress opportunities to act. "Although there appears to be no federal criminal law implicated by the general process of 're-homing,' this does not preclude Congress from enacting laws to protect children that may be harmed by this practice," the report said. The Government Accountability Office will begin studying state and federal policies related to re-homing this summer.

No government agencies track re-homing, but Reuters identified eight Internet groups in which members discussed, facilitated or engaged in the practice. In a single Yahoo group, a child was offered to strangers on average once a week during a five-year period. At least 70 percent of those children were listed as having been adopted from overseas; many were described as suffering emotional or behavioral problems. Yahoo has taken down the group.

Some re-homed children endured severe abuse, and the adults who used the online network to obtain children were not properly vetted, Reuters found. In one case, a man now serving prison time for child pornography took home a 10-year-old boy whom he and a friend found online hours earlier. They picked up the boy in a hotel parking lot.

At the request of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., officials from the federal departments of State, Justice, Health and Human Services and Homeland security have been discussing ways to address re-homing. In May, Health and Human Services officials warned states about the dangers of the practice and encouraged them to use existing federal funding to support struggling adoptive families.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey. Edited by Michael Williams)

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