Lawsuit accuses adoption agency of racketeering, fraud


December 28, 2008

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


International business

Aren't there international laws (standards of business) that apply to international adoption?  Or is this "lack of interest" the very reason we have children being stolen and sold through orphanages?

international standards

Don't make me laugh... international standards. Just look at India and how well the international standards as defined by the Hague Convention have worked to protect children from being stolen and trafficked. Look at China and you'll realize how international standards don't work when countries don't take a child's interest seriously. International laws and standards only work in an ideal world, where they would not be needed. In our imperfect world it is often nothing more than window dressing.

there are no standards...

There are such differences in the cultures and morals of all these adoption-countries; in fact, I have seen one couple's adoption span 18 months in Guatemala and the laws changed twice.  In December the laws in Guatemala are gone over and changed or revised every year.  The 18 months included two Decembers.  Each time, there were more papers that needed to be redone because they had expired or changed or others were needed with them to be complete.  These laws were being changed by people who don't have the same way of life as the PAP's and therefore some were ridiculous and some were of no importance either way. 
International adoption means that the AP's must satisfy two different governments with two different ways of thinking.  America thinks itself very superior to these other countries; yet America is the melting pot of all this child abuse.  In the
sending country, child abuse isn't even seen as child abuse; but now that they are SEEING child abuse in America their eyes are being opened. 

What did I ever do to deserve this... Teddy

Standards of operation

I knew someone who knew about the many dirty deeds behind child placement would laugh at my question. 

A person in America doesn't even have to participate in international adoption to see how the lack of "universal rules and standards" affect a child's right to good care... adopted, or not.

I was reading the most recent article on Arkansas, the ACLU and adoption and how this matter is complicated by the fact that different states follow different laws regarding gay adoptions.  [For more on which states allow gay adoptions, see "Gay Adoption:  Where is Gay Adoption Legal?"]

What fascinates me is how so many adults are more worried about adoption laws than the quality of care given to children placed in foster care/children's homes/ orphanages.

As long as adoption continues to bring so many economic benefits to many governments, I don't see how the rights of children (and standards of care as it relates to "child safety") will ever be fully respected.


This is why...

the very poorest countries require the AP's to come to the country and spend a few weeks there during the adoption process.  That way they spend a BUNCH of money that helps the economy; never once thinking it could be a chance to look these people over and maybe find a huge flaw.  Each person sent overseas for the adoption process has been okayed by the American agency and therefore is not judged in anyway and accepted as good-parent material.

What did I ever do to deserve this... Teddy

International Business

They do not have "standards of Business" laws in this country's in-house adoption. Its"DEFINITELY" lack of interest, ive shot so many holes in adoption law, yet nary a person has quireid me!

Pound Pup Legacy