Oviedo agency faces multiple complaints

Date: 2008-12-03

By Amanda Welch

OVIEDO - Minnesota couple Mike and Lesley Harmoning spent an emotionally draining five years trying to have a child before they decided to adopt.

In September 2007 they chose Celebrate Children International, a Christian international adoption agency in Oviedo, to handle the adoption. Harmoning said everything ran like clockwork - at first.

By January 2007 they were sent pictures of their newborn daughter Daphne, a Guatemalan infant. By March, they had visited Daphne in her home country, and in April, the adoption was reviewed by the Guatemalan attorney general's office, the Procuradura General de la Nacin, or PGN.

But then Harmoning found out there were problems. They were told by CCI that their case had been sent back later that month, but that the corrections were made and their case was re-submitted to the PGN in May.

In e-mails Harmoning kept from CCI, the adoption agency told her the case had been rejected from PGN again in June. And then again in August. And again in September. When October came around with no word from CCI, Harmoning said she began to wonder.

"It was really just like this gut instinct that something's not right here," she said. "They're not being up front with me. They're not sharing information without me asking."

It took nearly a year from the first time Mike and Lesley Harmoning saw pictures of their daughter Daphne before the adoption was finalized. And they're not the only couple to complain about how Oviedo CCI handled their case.

During October last year, the Florida Department of Children and Families' central region licensing office received 10 other anonymous complaints about CCI. They were taken by DCF's lead licensing specialist, Amy Hammett, and obtained by the Chronicle through a public records request.

Besides the Harmonings, three other families from the file have confirmed their documented stories with the Chronicle, but wanted to remain anonymous.

Hammett conducted investigations at CCI's office on Oct. 26 and Oct. 30 of last year. She interviewed CCI's director, Sue Hedberg, to address complaints about the length of the adoption process, the contractual restraints, Hedberg's income, and the use of psychological evaluations as scare tactics to force inquisitive clientele to quiet down.

Because the complainants requested anonymity, Hammett said she had to rely heavily on her interviews with CCI director Sue Hedberg. The result was one-sided findings that were almost wholly attributed to Hedberg.

Hammett did recommend that CCI improve its record keeping and communication with clientele.

The Harmoning family filed a complaint against CCI after a series of events. Because of the contract they signed with the agency, the only contact the Harmonings had up to that point was with CCI.

CCI's adoption contract does not allow adopting parents to contact anyone overseas without the adoption agency's consent. This restraint, the contract explained, was to prevent miscommunications and inaccurate information from crossing borders.

Harmoning said she called the PGN anyway and was told that the case had not been re-submitted since May.

In e-mails, she confronted CCI with this information.

The adoption agency's e-mailed response admonished Harmoning for breaching contract, warning her that because of her "anger," that, "there may be some extra steps warranted before completing this adoption."

CCI's contract also allowed the agency to request extra measures at its discretion, such as parenting classes and psychological evaluations.

"That's when I was devastated," she said. "I'm thinking, 'Something is wrong with my case ... I don't know when my daughter is coming home.'"

So the Harmonings hired an independent organization to check on their case. In an e-mail sent to the Harmonings on Oct. 15, 2007, the organization, Adoption Supervisors, confirmed that the case had not been re-submitted to the PGN since May.

That month, Harmoning filed her complaint against CCI with DCF, becoming one of the 10 that sparked the investigation.

The extent to which DCF can control adoption agencies relies on Florida statutes and DCF administrative code, which address virtually nothing about international adoption and is being updated for the first time in 15 years.

DCF spokeswoman Sarrah Troncoso said DCF hopes to make Florida compliant with the Hague Adoption Convention, which set standards to prevent human trafficking, abuse, pay-offs and profiting in international adoption.

In January of this year, Guatemala stopped all new adoptions to the U.S. indefinitely because the U.S. is not compliant with the Hague Convention.

There is no entity that oversees the adoptions from beginning to end. Instead, various agencies, such as DCF, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy, assume responsibility for different parts of the process.

The broken-up system has thus become prone to children falling through the cracks, as with Maria Fernanda and her younger sister, Ana Christina.

Earlier this year, an anonymous complainant accused CCI of nearly adopting out the two girls, who had been stolen from their mother, according to Guatemalan press and the complainant's account.

The girls had since been given back to their mother, but the complaint spurred a second investigation of CCI on April 14.

Hammett found that the girls were the Guatemalan government's responsibility, but that CCI had once again been negligent in record keeping and communication.

Although DCF controls licensing for Florida adoption agencies, Hammett said there was not enough evidence to warrant suspending or revoking CCI's license.

But if DCF adopts standards set by the Hague Convention, CCI could be shut down.

The state department designated an independent organization, the Council on Accreditation, to determine which U.S. adoption agencies are compliant with the Hague Convention. Of the more than 200 adoption agencies that the COA has thus examined, only 18 were denied accreditation, COA president and CEO Richard Klarberg said.

CCI was denied in May. The COA was not able to release the details of CCI's denial, but Klarberg said agencies are denied when there is "clear and convincing" evidence that they have violated conditions set by the Hague convention, regarding the adoptability of children.

If DCF requires international adoption agencies to be Hague-accredited, then non-accredited agencies, such as CCI, will have to cease international adoptions.

CCI has facilitated 1,200 adoptions, Hedberg said.

During a September phone interview, Hedberg was aggravated with the complaints and the accreditation denial. She said that the government exerting more control over international adoptions will deprive needy children of homes in the U.S.

"I know we are doing a wonderful thing," Hedberg said.

DCF is currently reviewing its code and hopes to propose changes to a reform committee in January, spokeswoman Troncoso said.

Its Central Florida licensing office is now investigating another CCI complaint about money mismanagement.

Daphne has been at home in Minnesota for almost a year, but Lesley Harmoning no longer communicates with CCI. She still believes she was lied to during those five months last year.

"Sue [Hedberg] to this day will not say that's how it happened," Harmoning said. "She tells me my case was in there the whole time, and I'm wrong about this."


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