GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Nico and Sarah Galle already have a little girl, but the Rockford-area parents feel called to add to their family through adoption.

“This is an adoption update we never thought we’d be writing,” wrote Sarah Galle on the family’s GoFundMe page in mid-August. “Unexpectedly, just a few short weeks ago we got an email that left us in shock. We have the opportunity to adopt THREE kids. We would love and appreciate all the support and encouragement for us and these 3 precious girls. THANK YOU.”

The Galles had already experienced the heartache of one failed adoption.

In January, their effort to adopt a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit fell through.

But in late July, their adoption agency, Greater Hopes of Wyoming, reached out again to connect them to a Utah woman who said she was 17 years old and the mom of three little girls: two-year-old twins and an eighteen-month-old.

“God is good!” wrote Sarah Galle in an Aug. 25 update on GoFundMe. “We have paid the first two adoptions and right on time! We got the last bit by noon today which is when the payment was due. We are amazed at the generosity of others! We are amazed at what God has done! Thankyou thankyou!”

Over six weeks, the Galles had raised $32,000; Greater Hopes was charging $16,000 per child.

“Just over a week and the girls arrive… keep sharing, third adoption payment is due Labor Day, we got this!”

Then, on August 30, Sarah posted another update.

“The 3 girls were supposed to arrive this Monday, we were very excited but unfortunately due to a few things there has been a bit of a set back and now they are expected at the end of September,” wrote Sarah.

Nico explained in another post that the birth mother had contracted COVID-19 and was unable to travel.

“Please pray for health and safety for both mother and kiddos,” wrote Nico on GoFundMe. “As of right now, the kiddos are not sick, and we are hopeful they will not be affected.”

Nico went on to note that despite their disappointment, there was one positive; The delay gave them more time to raise the additional funds to make the third payment.

It wasn’t until the last week of September that the Galles learned they’d been scammed.

“The family was supposed to arrive on Friday the 29th,” wrote Nico. “As of earlier this week there were a series of events that were reported regarding the girls, that (sparked) an investigation involving the FBI, local law enforcement (in Utah) and (Child Protective Services).”

Nico went on to explain that both the Galles and their adoption agency had been “taken advantage of by a con-artist and not an actual parent needing help with adoption planning.”

He explained that the supposed teenage mother had no legal right to the three little girls.

“The teenage girl, claiming to be a birth mom, deceived us and our agency about her entire back story… her identity, and more gut-wrenching — about the young girls being her children. This news took us by surprise, and we are devastated and heartbroken. We FaceTimed with these girls and watched them refer to her as ‘mom,’ we read stories to them and helped with bedtime routine over FaceTime … We have blankets that were gifted to us with their names on them, we have photos and videos of them on our phones and our fridge. This is an eerie, icky feeling knowing that these girls were rightfully somebody else’s and not up for adoption. And she was most likely babysitting at the time that the videos and FaceTime took place.”

Nico went on to apologize to the community of donors, explaining that the Galles considered the donors victims too, and he and Sarah “could not express how sorry” they were.

“We continue to be so grateful for all of the donations we have received for the adoption,” wrote Nico. “We want to be clear, the young woman posing as “birth mother” did not receive or request any funds during this process. All the money that has been donated has already been paid to the agency and will be used for our future adoption, when our hearts are ready of course.”

The Galles declined to talk on camera about their ordeal, but Sarah told News 8 by phone that it appears the woman who posed as the toddlers’ mom is related to the children, she’s just not their mother.

Greater Hopes declined an on-camera interview via text, citing “confidentiality rules and the sensitive nature of the work” they do.

“Greater Hopes carefully and thoughtfully follows licensing rules on each case that we manage,” texted Cathy Raidna, founder and executive director of Greater Hopes. “We have compassion for the family involved and are continuing to support them.”

News 8 sought clarity on case management requirements by which adoption agencies must abide through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

MDHHS’s Division of Child Welfare and Licensing, which regulates adoption agencies, launched an investigation due to News 8’s inquiry.

“The rules are focused on addressing the requirements of adoption agencies to complete a legal adoption, which includes ensuring that the youth who is adopted is legally free and available for adoption,” wrote Bob Wheaton, Public Information Officer with MDHHS, in an email to News 8. “Without looking more into the situation, we would not be able to know if there are any violations of the responsibilities of the agency, or if the agency was deceived.”

The suspected scammer lives near Provo, Utah, and police there are investigating her alleged scheme.

“I can confirm that we are investigating this case, but it is in the very early stages,” wrote Sergeant Spencer Cannon of the Utah County Sheriff’s Office in an email to News 8. “We are not able to release any other information at this time.”

Deb Guston, a nationally-known adoption attorney based in New Jersey, told News 8 that the type of scam the Galles experienced is “not unheard of, but not common.”

“Every couple of years we hear about a significant problem like this,” said Guston in an interview via Zoom. “It’s more likely that if someone’s going to try to scam an adoptive family, that it’s found out very early in the process. Unfortunately, these poor folks had to go through an awful lot to find out.”

Guston said experienced adoption attorneys can usually spot red flags quickly.

“One of the things that we always try to get very early on, for example, is proof of pregnancy, but we don’t want to get it from the person who says they’re pregnant because with photoshop and everything else … people can manipulate documents all the time,” explained Guston.

At the same time, Guston said it’s not uncommon for birth moms to lack easily accessible documentation.

“I’ve represented a lot of birth moms, sometimes they don’t have ID,” said Guston. “They’ve never needed it. They’ve been living off the grid. Part of my job representing them would be to help them get some identification. A lot of parents who are looking to place (children) — who are desperate themselves — may not be really familiar with working with institutions. They may have their own mental health challenges that make them more suspicious of the process.”

Guston noted that if Greater Hopes had required that the supposed birth mom obtain an attorney, the scam may have been exposed sooner.

“It’s either going to be a matter of someone did neglect to do the things they should have done or that this scammer was really that good,” explained Guston. “That she was able to elude even an experienced practitioner or agency.”

Guston said this is not the first case she’s come across in which an alleged scammer did not seek monetary benefit.

“If you’ve been doing this as long as I have, every once in while you see someone who is what we’d call an emotional scammer,” said Guston. “They’re looking for attention more than money. So, there are emotional scammers as well as financial scammers, strangely enough.”

Guston also addressed the high cost of adoption.

“We tend to denigrate agencies and how much it costs but we don’t really recognize the work that they do,” explained Guston. “One of the reasons why it’s more expensive, why agencies can charge a significant amount of money, is that they will as part of this process become the legal custodian of a child. They are the legal guardian of a child until the court finalizes an adoption. So, they have a lot of risk. They have to put a lot of personnel into it … making sure that the child is well taken care of.”