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December 28, 2008
BY MEGHA SATYANARAYANA
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Alice Buffington and Daniel McCoy entered the risky world of international adoption in 2006, traveling abroad several times with the hope of bringing home Sharon, a little girl with heart problems now living in a Guatemalan orphanage.
The metro Detroit couple has spent about $20,000 trying to add Sharon to the 3,650 children born abroad who have been successfully adopted by Michigan families in the last four years. But they may never get the child. On one visit, Sharon was nowhere to be found. On another, her birth mother demanded money from the couple. And she has now hired a lawyer to keep the girl.
Buffington and McCoy are, however, part of what could be a groundbreaking lawsuit in international adoptions, led by a Lansing-based attorney. Five families are part of the suit, alleging that a Pennsylvania-based adoption agency violated federal racketeering and fraud laws by failing to deliver the children those families were seeking to adopt.
Some of their challenges are not uncommon, as reputable international adoption agencies stress that nothing is certain when adopting from overseas and U.S. laws do not always apply. Agencies say they have to place their trust with facilitators in the other country to traverse complex foreign courts and child welfare laws, and they say it is hard to place blame when attempts to adopt fail. Those complexities are among the main reasons, experts say, that would-be adoptive families do not sue when international adoptions go wrong.
But attorney Joni Fixel said the courts need to assign the blame.
"It's a bait and switch," said Fixel, who filed the suit in October in U.S. District Court in Detroit against Main Street Adoption Services of Lancaster, Pa. "They've absolutely given their heart to this child, they get told it's a match, then, it's the same excuses over and over again."
Guatemalan laws change
Some attorneys say the racketeering approach is pioneering.
"It could make the difference, because the legislation isn't there to clean up these adoption agencies," said Barbara McArtney, a New York lawyer and adoption agency director.
She said the blame often lies with unscrupulous facilitators in the child's country, but the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the agency that contracted with them.
Buffington and McCoy declined interview requests, with Fixel saying they did not want to jeopardize their adoption chances.
Main Street's directors, Nina Heller and Bob McClenaghan, deny the claims in the lawsuit, saying they no longer work with Marcia (Milagro) del Carpio, the facilitator named in the suit.
"This is a wild, wild West," Heller said of Guatemala, where birth parents can challenge adoptions in progress. Recent changes in Guatemalan laws nullified some adoptions in progress, she said, and it's been hard to start up new ones.
Asking their clients to consider adopting from different countries -- with different laws -- is one solution. Main Street asked Buffington and McCoy to consider a Ukrainian adoption when Sharon's case went south.
McClenaghan said he and Heller are not paid until the adoption is finalized, and while he acknowledged two complaints had been filed against their agency, the state found Main Street to be compliant with state licensing requirements. The license was renewed for 2008-09, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.
Heller noted that Main Street completed 49 Guatemalan adoptions between May 2007 and this November. And that may help the agency in court.
"These are very difficult cases because you have to allege a pattern of racketeering," said Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning, an expert on the federal Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organization Act. "The extent that the agency has been successful in adoption will make it difficult."
Resolution can take years
Fixel is trying civil suits against other agencies under federal racketeering laws, including Waiting Angels Adoption Service in Macomb Township. In 2007, Waiting Angels owners were accused by the state Attorney General's Office of bilking clients for adoptions that never materialized. The two owners pleaded no contest to conducting a criminal enterprise and tax fraud in February and were sentenced on a lesser tax fraud charge.
The civil trial against Waiting Angels is scheduled to start in 2010. The lead plaintiffs, Amanda and Reece Heinrich of Holt, abandoned their international adoption in favor of twins from Detroit.
Fixel said the lawsuits are uncommon because families don't want to jeopardize pending adoptions. The trials take years to come up, and payback -- if plaintiffs win -- can take even longer. Buffington and McCoy still have no child, and the Main Street trial is set for 2010.
For years, U.S. parents flocked to Guatemala to adopt. The children were relatively healthy, and adoptions were completed in months, rather than the years they took elsewhere, said Kathleen Nelson, director of Hands Across the Water, an agency in Ann Arbor. But a baby-trafficking scandal and the country's refusal to adopt subsequent international laws forced her and other agency directors to drop the nation.
Many adoption attempts, however, end well. Cliff and Renee Alcantara of Livonia adopted from Guatemala through Hands Across the Water. Their child, Angelina, came to Michigan on Jan. 28. It took two years and $35,000, Cliff Alcantara said.
The night before they left for Guatemala to bring her home, a network news special aired on corrupt facilitators, one of whom they saw in their hotel the next night.
"It's difficult at times, but understandable," he added. "Until you actually have the child at home, nothing is sure."
Contact MEGHA SATYANARAYANA at 313-223-4544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.