Another adoption agency in hot water

Date: 
2007-11-16

Families who hoped to adopt babies from the Marshall Islands accuse the Utah firm of fraud

Kirsten Stewart
The Salt Lake Tribune

Nine families who had hoped to adopt Marshallese babies through Legacy International Adoptions are now suing the Utah agency, arguing it lied to them and duped birth mothers into traveling to the United States to relinquish their infants.

The adoptions were never finalized, but the attempts violated state, federal and foreign law, charges the lawsuit, which promises to fuel international criticism of Utah adoption agencies.

Legacy is the second Utah agency to come under fire recently for work in the Pacific Islands. In March, owners of Focus on Children were indicted for allegedly running a baby-smuggling operation in Samoa.

In those nations, adoptions are casual - children don't lose ties with their birth parents, they instead create a link between families. And there have been allegations in both countries that birth mothers were falsely promised they would keep close ties with their adopted children.

Legacy's owner, Teresa Snow of Salt Lake City, did not immediately respond to calls about the suit, filed Tuesday in 3rd District Court. Her agency is no longer licensed in Utah.

While a state licensing official said in June that a federal indictment against the agency was pending, the office of the U.S. Attorney for Utah did not comment Thursday.
   
Vanishing birth mothers: The nine U.S. families are seeking a refund as well as punitive damages. Most of them are from Utah, with two from Idaho and one in Florida. None would comment, including the group's lawyer, Rick Rose, who also attempted to adopt a child through the agency and is a plaintiff.

International adoption - including from the tiny Republic of the Marshall Islands - skyrocketed in the late 1990s. But in 2002, evidence of fraud and coercion in the industry spurred a crackdown by Marshallese officials. Legacy was suspended from doing business there in February 2002.

Now all adoptions must be done inside the country, and only one U.S. agency is authorized. The government also banned the practice of taking Marshallese women out of the country for the purpose of surrendering children.

But in 2006, Legacy still "held itself out as an expert" in Marshallese adoption, according to the lawsuit.

The agency "continuously assured" the prospective adoptive parents that the birth mothers were fully informed of the terms of the adoptions, and promised to arrange travel, medical and housing expenses for the mothers.

Those promises proved false, the suit alleges. In November 2006, after learning the "actual" terms, several Marshallese birth mothers - who had already made the trek to America and been "matched" with families - backed out of the adoptions and returned home, the suit said.

Lindsey Wells, of Willard, is one of the adoptive parents pursuing damages. She declined to discuss the suit Thursday, but said in an earlier interview that she and her husband signed on with Legacy in July 2006.

In November, the agency charged her $3,000 to fly a pregnant Marshallese woman to Utah, she said. Wells said she never met the woman, though the agency cashed her check.
   
'Meant to be': But Ryan and Shirlene Pimentel, of Idaho Falls, say Legacy workers were honest and professional when the couple adopted a Marshallese girl through the agency in 2005.

Shirlene Pimentel said she met the girl's birth mother, Atrine, several times in person, during her pregnancy and shortly after Atrine delivered and surrendered the baby at a Utah hospital.

Atrine became pregnant out of wedlock and the baby's father wouldn't support her, said Shirlene, who remembers the young woman as a bit shy, but fluent in English and "fully aware" that the adoption was permanent.

When Atrine handed the baby over to the Pimentels, she gave the baby a kiss and had tears in her eyes, "but seemed really OK," said Shirlene. The couple gave their contact information to Atrine, but haven't heard from her since she returned to the Marshall Islands.

High school sweethearts, the Pimentels dated for eight years before marrying. They tried for eight years to have children before deciding to adopt. They ran into another Idaho family who had adopted from the Marshall Islands and recommended Legacy.

The Pimentels, now in their early 30s, took out a second mortgage on their home to cover the expenses, about $20,000. The adoption took about six months.

They can't imagine life without their now-22-month-old daughter, who they say was a little colicky as an infant, but healthy. The toddler never sits still, is a real "chatter box," and when she is tired, she sucks on two fingers, said Ryan Pimentel.

The family's small house is on a full acre of land, shared with six cats, two horses and two dogs.

"Things happen for a reason. I believe this child was meant to be with this family," said Shirlene Pimentel, who would like to adopt another Marshallese child, but fears the "door has closed."

kstewart@sltrib.com
  
* Birth mothers complain: Utah licensors began an investigation into Legacy International Adoptions in January 2002; its license was placed on conditional status in July after two Marshallese mothers complained they were misled.
* Restraining order: A Marshallese judge issued a restraining order in February 2002 blocking Legacy's attempted adoptions of eight Marshallese infants and children.
* Adoption reform: The Republic of the Marshall Islands put the brakes on offshore adoptions in November 2002. Among the measures: a ban on taking Marshallese women out of the country for the purpose of surrendering children.
* Expiration date: Legacy's Utah license expired Jan. 31.

Primary links

Pound Pup Legacy