WASHINGTON — Five months pregnant and unsure what to do about it, Sesa Juliana was mindlessly scrolling through Facebook one night when she stumbled upon a small advertisement. It pictured two smiling men on a sailboat and read: "Loving gay couple in DC area seeks open adoption of a baby. Contact us if you'd like to place your baby in a home full of joy!"
It was 2010, and the two men, Brad Letson and Brad Benton of Silver Spring, Md., had been trying to adopt for the better part of a year. They had completed their application, home study and other required checks through a local adoption agency, and they had put together a website, but like many who seek to adopt, they found that being matched with an infant can take years.
Then they saw a couple on a television talk show who had used Facebook to find a child, so they decided to try it themselves. They took out an ad directed at "friends of friends."
To their surprise, they got an answer in six hours.
"The Brads," as their friends call them, were worried at first that it was too good to be true. "There was excitement, but there was confusion," Benton, 41, said. "We tried to stay really levelheaded." But after e-mailing and Skyping with Juliana for several months, they got to know each other, and in October 2010, they assisted in the birth of their son, Kyler.
Now 2, the bright-eyed toddler tossed a ball back and forth with Benton on a recent evening in the stairway of their split-level home.
"It used to be adoption was kind of just sitting and waiting," said Letson, 41, sitting at a table near where basil and mint grew in pots by the window and a toy fire engine rested on the floor. "Now you really need to be proactive. . . . So we decided to, quote, market ourselves to see if we could find a baby on our own."
As the Internet and social media infiltrate almost every aspect of life, they have also become a tool for people seeking to find, or offer, children for adoption. No one knows how many adoptions have resulted from online connections, but at a time when adoptions can take years to come through — and particularly for same-sex couples, for whom international adoption options have dwindled — the potential ease and speed of finding a match online is appealing.
"This is a big, growing trend that is unlikely to stop anytime in the future; it's accelerating and it's changing families and it's changing adoption," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the New York-based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which recently put out a report about the Internet's effect on adoption.
But it can also open the door for unanticipated complications.
"People are forming families more quickly and more efficiently, but it's threatening ethical adoption practice as we know it," Pertman said. "It's unmonitored, unregulated, we don't know what they're doing. With agencies, it's going to take two to three years, and there's counseling for the adoptive family and the birth mother; there's education. Then you go online and see, 'Baby! Eight to ten months! Sign up here!' "
In some cases, it is too good to be true. Adoption agencies have come to recognize and warn their clients about scammers — people who repeatedly answer the ads of prospective parents, claiming they are expecting and asking for "expenses" for a pregnancy that might not be real at all.
That hasn't stopped hopeful would-be parents from putting ads on Craigslist, Facebook and other sites, introducing themselves in a sunny, friendly way, offering to pay pregnancy costs and creating websites featuring heartfelt descriptions of the prospective parents, with pictures of their home, neighborhood and close relatives.
But even that doesn't always elicit quick results. Eddie Suarez, 39, and Mehl Penrose, 45, friends of the Brads who live in the District of Columbia, have been waiting to adopt through an agency since last summer. Inspired by their friends' success, they began an online campaign in December, putting out their message on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and YouTube, and linking to their website.
So far, no birth mothers have made any serious inquiries online, but Suarez and Penrose say even the act of putting up the ads and websites can be helpful in familiarizing others with the idea of same-sex couples adopting.
"We want to be a model — this is happening right now," Suarez said. "All these platforms are letting millions of people see us. And you never know who may know someone who is planning an adoption."
Both Suarez and Penrose and the Brads, who are seeking to adopt a second child using traditional and social media routes, direct birth mothers to contact their adoption agencies, which can help filter out scams.
"Something as personal and intimate as adoption, you want to see real people," said Janice Goldwater, founder and executive director of Adoptions Together, a Calverton-based adoption agency the Brads work with.
Goldwater compared the new wave of online matching to the 1980s, when couples seeking to adopt bought classified ads in local papers. But she said that as Americans increasingly turn to open adoptions, the Internet has done much to remove the potential for privacy, making professional counseling through adoption agencies all the more crucial.
"We have adoptees reconnecting with birth families, meeting not in a planned way through Facebook," she said. "We see 13- or 14-year-old kids who have, all of a sudden, a birth mother friending them."
The Brads are not in danger of that kind of surprise, since they remain in touch with Juliana, who lives in Upstate New York.
Reached by phone, Juliana said she felt particularly comfortable with her child being adopted by gay men.
"Women, it's not in our nature to ever want to feel like we're being replaced," she said. "We don't want there to be a new girlfriend; we don't want there to be another mother." Although the Brads have full custody of Kyler, they call her his mother and visit her regularly.
"Gay baby daddies are the best baby daddies," she said. "They give you things like ice cream makers for your birthday."
In Silver Spring, it was time for a bedtime story. Kyler picked out a book called "Daddy, Do You Love Me?" and Letson read it to him and his plastic snake. He climbed on the backs of Letson and Benton and pretended they were horses, yelling, "Giddyup, guys!"
Then he found a bug and insisted on taking it outside to the garden.
"He's going home to his mommy and daddy," Leston said as his son placed the bug on the lawn — then he caught himself and added, "Or his daddy and daddy."