Pitfalls for Parents
International adoption has become big business, but regulation still lags
Kit R. Roane
All Carrie West wanted was a chance to care for an orphaned child. But when she traveled to Vietnam five years ago, she says, she got something else: a quick lesson on the murky world of international adoptions. Here's how she tells the story: Informed by her adoption facilitator that Thuy, the little girl she had planned to adopt, had fallen deathly ill with tuberculosis, she ended up taking a different child. But Thuy's plight stayed with her, and she sought out updates on her condition. Eventually, she learned that the child, far from being ill or convalescing, had been adopted by someone else--long before.
With no official government agency to handle the incident, West took her story to the Internet, writing on adoption blogs and other websites about the facilitator she says did her wrong. The facilitator, Mai-Ly Latrace, responded with a libel lawsuit, which so far names three couples, including West and her husband.
The suit, filed last year, highlighted some of what can go wrong in the fast-growing world of international adoptions. Last year, there were nearly 23,000 adoptions from overseas by American parents, a number that has been increasing as domestic adoptions become more rare. "Your neighborhood health club is more heavily regulated," says Trish Maskew, executive director of Ethica, a nonprofit outfit that advocates for better international adoption laws. "The industry allows unlicensed facilitators to work without oversight. The U.S. government refuses to act, and consumers walk into this blind."
The libel lawsuit filed by Latrace is based on some contentious issues. Latrace asserts that she has been unjustly maligned by West and the other defendants in the case who criticized her role in facilitating adoptions for them. The critics, on the other hand, point to, among other things, a letter from the Embassy of Vietnam in Washington from March 2005 stating that Latrace is "a child trafficker for money." She was deported from Vietnam, the letter says, on Oct. 18, 2002. The embassy's press attache, Chien Bach, confirmed the authenticity of the letter and added that Latrace "is banned from entering" Vietnam. Latrace says she knows nothing about any of this, saying that she encountered problems with Vietnamese immigration authorities who revoked her visa when she used the wrong type on a trip to the country. But, she says, she traveled to Vietnam just last year and encountered no legal troubles there. Latrace's attorney says that the embassy's letter about Latrace's alleged child-trafficking activities is based on inaccurate and unsubstantiated information.
Latrace proudly defends her work, saying she has helped hundreds of people adopt children overseas and that she filed her lawsuit only after critics forced her hand by falsely accusing her of improper and unethical conduct. Any bad experiences would-be adoptive parents may have had, she says, were the result of miscommunication. She adds that some difficulties were the fault of her mother, Marie Latrace, with whom she has worked in the past, including West's adoption. (Marie Latrace, who lives with her daughter, denies that she did anything wrong while facilitating adoptions.) Latrace says that the defendants in her lawsuit, along with U.S. immigration agents in Vietnam, have long been out to get her. She also says that she has an affidavit from a Vietnamese couple that shows that they gave up their child willingly. "I never sold a child. I have never bought a child," Latrace told U.S. News . "And I don't know why anyone in Vietnam is saying that I was involved in anything that was criminal. Especially when it comes to kids." Latrace is seeking monetary damages, as well as expenses, interest, and attorney's fees.
The dispute with West and the other defendants in the lawsuit is not the only source of contention involving Latrace. In 1995, a South Carolina adoption agency filed a criminal complaint against her. The local police department incident report says that the owner of the adoption agency accused Latrace of hoarding "clothes, shoes, medicine, etc." that were supposed to have been delivered to an orphanage in Vietnam. A judge ordered Latrace to complete 40 hours of community service; she did so, and the charges against her were dropped. Latrace blames the incident on a custody dispute with her husband, and says she always intended to deliver the items to Vietnam.
There were other issues as well, and like many in the often-confusing world of international adoptions, they are tangled. Tedi Hedstrom, the owner of Tedi Bear Adoptions, worked with Latrace during the period in which West was attempting to adopt. Hedstrom voluntarily relinquished her license to Florida authorities in March 2003 after the state found several violations, including having personnel files that lacked proof that workers had been screened or met training requirements. But Hedstrom, who now works in Georgia, blames Latrace. "My agency had only one registered complaint in seven years; we had an excellent reputation," she says. "After I began working with Mai-Ly, we had approximately 30 complaints all directly related to her within a very short period, a couple of months. I believe that choosing to work with Mai-Ly Latrace was the worst business decision I have ever made in my entire life." Latrace says Hedstrom caused her own difficulties and points out that the state's complaint never mentions her.
Adopting a child from overseas is anything but simple. Federal agents who investigated a Seattle adoption agency run by two sisters, for instance, documented evidence of visa fraud and money laundering. The agents spent more than two years tracking international money flows and searching Cambodia for witnesses and found that children were being bought from their Cambodian parents and brought to the United States with fraudulent identification documents. Some Cambodians thought they were sending their children to an orphanage school and could always pick them up. "There were huge amounts of money being made, being promised to orphanages in Cambodia, that was instead being diverted for bribes and for luxury items," says Michael Barr, the lead prosecutor. In the course of the investigation, agents found that "facilitators would line up several different groups of parents for a child," says Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which now handles immigration crimes.
Happy clients. In the Florida lawsuit, West says, she spoke out because of similar issues. She says she stuck her neck out "and sometimes you get it cut off. I'm paying tens of thousands of dollars to say what is true." Thuy, the child she had initially been set to adopt, is living today in Saipan with Judi Mosley who is also named in Latrace's lawsuit. West says that several months after Thuy had been adopted by Mosley, Latrace wrote West, stating that Thuy and her sister were now living with a social worker and that "Thuy is still receiving medical care." Latrace maintains that she conducted her relationship with West properly and that she relied on a Vietnamese social worker for the information she conveyed to West.
In 2002, West says, Latrace began soliciting funds to build an orphanage in Thuy's name. It was only a few months before this time, West says, that she found out that Thuy wasn't ill and had already been adopted by Mosley. West and Mosley then contacted Latrace to arrange another adoption for Mosley. Latrace, West says, offered Thuy. Latrace says that the Vietnamese social worker lied to her about Thuy's status and blames that for the mix-up.
Latrace has many happy and satisfied clients, she says, among them Bruce and Debbie Hofman in Florida, who used Latrace to facilitate the adoption of three babies and a toddler in Vietnam. "Mai-Ly made things happen that wouldn't have happened," Debbie Hofman says, adding that Latrace successfully shepherded them through a very complicated process.
Requirements. Whatever the outcome of the dispute, it appears to show how adoption agencies, and the facilitators they work with, can sometimes leave would-be adoptive parents in agonizing dilemmas. With so few rules and regulations, many have nowhere to turn. In Florida, full-time employees of adoption agencies must pass background checks and meet minimum degree and experience requirements. But that does not apply to those who call themselves "consultants," such as Latrace, who says that her only qualification is on-the-job training. Following calls by U.S. News , the Florida Department of Children and Families did an unannounced check of Little Pearls, the adoption agency Latrace has been working with in Tampa. Andy Ritter, a DCF spokesman, says investigators found evidence suggesting that Latrace should be deemed an employee of the agency for regulatory purposes, such as her use of a company cellphone. They also found that Latrace was telling prospective clients that she was Little Pearl's facilitator for Guatemalan adoptions and soliciting fees "in excess of $25,000" that could be paid either to Little Pearls or to her own consulting firm, HQ Online.
The DCF also found some licensing violations at Little Pearls, including evidence of employees working in the agency who had not been screened and approved by the department. Ritter said that the agency's paperwork was not in order, among other problems. Asked about further documentation, Ritter provided a follow-up letter stating that the agency's owner, a bankruptcy attorney named Richard Feinberg, told DCF investigators as far back as June 2004 that Latrace "was not involved as an employee or as an independent contractor facilitating or assisting in adoptions" and that her only work for Feinberg had consisted in her designing the website for another adoption agency he sought to license. "You stated that the website design was her only activity . . . and that she no longer had, nor would she have, any relationship with your practice and Little Pearls," the letter says.
But Feinberg told U.S. News that Latrace has worked directly with clients, answered their E-mails, and generally helped facilitate adoptions. Feinberg added that Latrace does an "excellent job" and is "the most devoted and dedicated adoption advocate" he has ever met. Feinberg says that he is currently restructuring the business and that the agency is not taking on any new adoptions at this time.
Ritter acknowledges that the state's power over adoption facilitators is very limited. Even if the state had done a background check on Latrace, "problems in another country probably would not come back," says Ritter. He adds that Latrace's consulting firm is not licensed to do adoptions in Florida. But the state is powerless if she continues to work with clients outside the state, Ritter says.
In other words, caveat adopter. Advocates are hopeful that the Hague Convention on international adoption, signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000 but yet to be ratified, will provide greater oversight and transparency of at least some international adoptions if it is correctly implemented; some experts have their doubts. For one thing, says Maskew, it will apply only when both countries involved in an adoption have ratified it. And the hottest countriesfor foreign adoptions haven't. Still, it has to be better than the options parents have now: scouring the Internet or trying to pry useful information out of state regulators. Maskew says that facilitators and agencies have been known to post glowing referrals about themselves online under fake screen names. She adds that some also try to curtail complaints by making prospective clients sign blank confidentiality agreements and liability waivers. The states have been no more helpful: According to a 2004 Ethica report, when would-be parents "do manage to reach a licensing specialist, they are often told that the state does not keep complaints on file or that they cannot be released to the public." More often still, Ethica says, regulators just don't answer the phone.
A FOREIGN BABY BOOM
Overseas adoptions by U.S. citizens
[Chart data are incomplete]
Source: State Department; USN&WR
WHERE ALL THOSE BABIES COME FROM
From 1990 to 2004 the list of countries allowing the most foreign adoptions changed dramatically.
S. KOREA 2,620
S. KOREA 1,716
Source: State Department; USN&WR