Families: Failed Adoptions 'Fraud, Deception'
In the international adoption business, there are few guarantees. A lot can go wrong. But dozens of families across the country who dealt with Adoption Partners of Simpsonville, which specializes in Guatemalan adoptions, say the owner, Joanne Mitchell, failed to deliver. "It's horrible. It's horrible," said Stacy Bernstein of Beacon, New York, holding a picture of Ingrid. "I look at this and I see her as the 13-year-old American New Yorker that I envisioned her that I know she's never going to be."
Bernstein said Ingrid's adoption through Adoption Partners hit a snag. Ingrid's birth mother, she was told, was discovered to have two identification cards, one of which could be fraudulent.
Bernstein, who paid Adoption Partners $11,250, said she was told Ingrid's adoption was being delayed.
"Then I was told, well, it'll be fixed any day now, any day now, and any day now. And any day now became months and months. Any day now still hasn't come," Bernstein told News 4's Tim Waller.
Bernstein is not the only person whose Guatemalan adoption fell through using Adoption Partners of Simpsonville. Families in New Hampshire, Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington State have filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau for adoptions that never went through.
Each family claims to have paid Adoption Partners tens of thousands of dollars, according to Better Business Bureau records.
"I just don't think the business part of it mattered to her. I think if it works out, great, if not, well, these things happen, oh well. But you can't do that. This is people's lives that she's dealing with," Bernstein said.
Brian and Jennifer Stuckert of Platte City, Missouri paid Adoption Partners $12,000 to adopt "Manuel." When the adoption fell through, the Stuckerts filed a lawsuit claiming "fraud, deception, false pretense, and misrepresentation."
The lawsuit was recently dismissed so the Stuckerts could bring legal action in a different form.
"I have never been shown a cancelled check, a receipt or anything else that a reasonable person would expect to have on hand that would lead me to believe she was even attempting to perform the services for which we hired her," Brian Stuckert told News 4 in a telephone interview.
News 4 learned through the Freedom of Information Act that the South Carolina Department of Social Services has received numerous complaints against Adoption Partners, and its owner Joanne Mitchell.
Most complaints allege that Mitchell used an adoption facilitator in Guatemala who has been banned by the U.S. government for so-called "shady dealings."
In fact, Thanassis Kollias (a.k.a. "Teo") was the focus of a recent Dateline NBC report entitled, "To Catch a Baby Broker."
Stacy Bernstein said it was not until she hired her own attorney in Guatemala that she was told Adoption Partners was using this banned facilitator.
"I said I don't want to work with him," Bernstein said. "I want a new referral, as much as I thought this child to be my daughter, I was uncomfortable working with a facilitator that the United States Embassy said they would not approve."
News 4 tried to contact the Simpsonville woman, who is the target of so many complaints. But Joanne Mitchell was not at the home she lists as her primary business address.
In an e-mailed statement, Mitchell told News 4, "Adoption Partners (has carried out) hundreds of successful international adoptions. Adoption is not a guaranteed process. The current changes with the Guatemalan government has made thousands of American families suffer from delays and sometimes cancellation of their adoptions."
Experts agree that Guatemalan adoptions are risky. The U.S. State Department has issued many warnings.
But Spartanburg adoption lawyer Jim Thompson, one of two attorneys in the country accredited by the Hague Convention, said the problems in Guatemala are often downplayed by child-placing agencies.
"The problem is when expectations are not met, or if a person purporting to be an adoption professional sets those expectations so high that no one can fulfill them," Thompson said.
Stacy Bernstein said she now believes Ingrid was never legally eligible for adoption. She said she blames Adoption Partners of Simpsonville for her failed adoption and more.
"I lost faith in people. I don't trust people the way I did before. I don't approach people in my personal life the way I used to. (Mitchell) has taken away the innocence I used to have," Bernstein said.
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