Date: 1992-03-13

Washington Post
Author: Eugene Robinson; Washington Post Foreign Service

James P. Gagel says he began arranging Peruvian adoptions for foreigners, mostly fellow Americans, because he found it more fulfilling than the divorce cases and other unpleasant matters that constitute a lawyer's lot back home. He almost always got the job done, and his supporters say he worked quickly and well. Parents went home with babies

But critics have emerged to criticize Gagel's methods. Two couples who unsuccessfully tried to adopt Peruvian babies with Gagel's help have described a process characterized by irregularities, physical risk and escalating fees.

Peruvian police, investigating another adoption, arrested Gagel on Feb. 24 on charges of trafficking in children and kidnapping. Gagel, 36, denies the charges and says he did the best he could under trying circumstances. His case has sparked a rash of adoption-bashing in the Peruvian press -- which has long been quick to point out any blemishes on foreign adoption procedures -- and has worried adoption agency officials and adoptive parents in the United States, who fear the controversy might lead Peruvian officials to restrict the program.

Some 639 Peruvian children were adopted by U.S. citizens in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, placing Peru behind only Romania and South Korea as a destination for American parents seeking foreign adoptions.

Gagel, in an interview at the San Jorge prison in downtown Lima, where he has been jailed since his transfer from a cell at court headquarters, strongly denied police allegations that he duped a woman into giving up her baby. That charge forms the core of the case against him, as police have outlined it.

"I know that every document is authentic. She gave full consent," Gagel said. "I've been complaining since I was detained that everything the police have done in this case has been done in an illegal manner."

With the image and perhaps the future of the Peruvian adoption program at stake, U.S. adoption agency officials and adoptive parents have been burning up the fax lines in recent days, comparing notes on Gagel and his performance. One parent who is in touch with other Americans who have adopted Peruvian children said that while she did not deal with Gagel herself, generally she has heard "more positive than negative" things about his work.

Spence-Chapin Services to Families and Children, a New York City agency that arranged the adoptions of 13 children through Gagel, also praised his efforts, as did an adoptive parent who asked not to be named.

But two couples who tried to adopt children through Gagel said in telephone interviews that Gagel repeatedly made promises he did not keep, took them on a danger-fraught trip into a region largely controlled by the leftist Shining Path guerrillas and collected thousands of dollars in cash fees, some of them unanticipated.

After months of waiting, they learned that the adoptions had fallen through, the two couples said, leaving the families financially and emotionally drained.

"We spent around $20,000, including two trips to Peru, Gagel's fees and child care," said Robert Smith, a Blacksburg, Va., businessman. "Financially, we're wiped out. . . . But the thing that makes me most angry is that nobody gave a damn about these babies. It was like they were selling produce down there."

"They can speak that way, but I almost lost my life, I don't know how many times, working for those people," Gagel said of the couples whose adoptions fell through. "I did everything I could do to salvage those cases."

Gagel said that these two cases plus two others handled with them constituted the only group of adoptions he worked on in Peru that could not be successfully concluded. He said he considers the fees that he accepted to be compensation for the time he spent on the cases. "I think that's what you pay any lawyer for: the time," he said. "I spent six months on something I thought was going to take six weeks."

Smith said he and his wife, Donna, came to Lima last August after Gagel told them he had arranged for them to adopt a baby eirl. From the start, he said, nothing went as they had expected.

Several other clients came down at the same time, and their cases were to be processed together -- Barbara Spiegel and her husband, Ronald Meltzer, of New York City, who had been put in contact with Gagel through the Spence-Chapin adoption agency; an American banker and his wife, now living abroad, and a Chicago lawyer.

The Chicago lawyer declined to comment on her trip to Peru or her contact with Gagel. The banker could not be reached.

Spiegel, who works for a developer, and Meltzer, a guidance counselor in the New York schools, were presented with a child when they arrived in Lima, Spiegel said. But the baby was found to have developmental problems, she said, and a doctor advised them against the adoption.

She said that Gagel told them that he would find another baby, and that in the meantime they should continue with the adoption process. "We were supposed to adopt a baby without knowing what baby we were adopting," she said. Gagel denied that at any time he asked the couple to go forward without a specific child.

Smith said he and his wife waited several days after arriving in Lima and were shown a baby boy, instead of a girl. He said a woman who worked with Gagel eventually brought them a girl as well, and the family decided that they might be able to adopt both children.

Spiegel said she and her husband paid Gagel $4,000 in cash and another $2,225 in a check sent to Gagel's mother in New Jersey. Smith said he and his wife gave Gagel $7,500 in cash.

After a few more days in Lima, both couples said, the entire group of prospective parents was put into a van for a trip to Junin, a mountain city in the heart of one of Peru's "red zones" -- areas where the Shining Path insurgents, members of one of the most brutal and fanatical guerrilla groups in the world, have established strongholds. The rebels have not targeted foreigners, however, and no adoptive couples have encountered difficulties. Gagel had told the couples, they said, that Junin was where the adoption paperwork would be handled.

"We were ignorant," Smith said. "Jim said this was how it was done. When we got on the bus, we noted that we had guards with us. One guy had an automatic weapon."

Smith said that after seven hours they arrived in Junin and stopped on the outskirts of town, only to learn that there had been a guerrilla incursion earlier that morning. The judge who was supposed to handle the paperwork had gone into hiding.

Gagel went into town, Smith and Spiegel said, and returned with a man who stood outside the van and processed the adoptive parents' papers. Smith and Spiegel said the the man was introduced to them as a court clerk -- not a judge, as is required. "We were so anxious to get out, so worried that any moment more Shining Path could come along, that we just signed everything and turned around and headed back to Lima," Smith said.

Gagel confirmed the basic sequence of events of the trip to Junin, but said the papers were signed by the judge, not by a clerk.

Spiegel said that in her case this roadside justice was doubly mystifying, as she and her husband still had not been given custody of a baby. After returning to Lima they did receive a baby from Gagel, she said. Gagel, in the interview, said Spiegel and Meltzer had already been assigned a child at the time of the trip.

Spiegel said she failed to understand why the paperwork had been done in Junin, since she understood that her baby had been born in Lima. Gagel said the mothers of all the children involved in that group of adoptions had spent sufficient time in Junin to give those courts jurisdiction.

Peruvian law, he said, is much more liberal in jurisdictional matters than U.S. law, essentially allowing those bringing court action to pick and choose.

"The congestion in the Lima courts prevented us from serving clients in a specific time frame, and most of them were on a very tight schedule," Gagel said. "We developed a method of going out to where we didn't run into the congestion and all that."

Court officials in Lima and elsewhere are also reported to routinely require bribes to move adoptions and other cases along.

Most of Peru's highland regions are vulnerable to frequent attacks from the Shining Path guerrillas, whose 12-year war against the Peruvian state has cost more than 20,000 lives. Judi Fisher, who co-edits a newsletter for fellow American adoptive parents of Peruvian children, said security from the guerrillas is generally the primary concern of parents when they decide where in Peru they are willing to go to adopt a child.

The next step was a waiting period for the adoptive couples, which can run 60 days. They opted to return home. Smith and Spiegel said they tried repeatedly to get information from Gagel about what was happening. They said they found themselves making extra payments, amounting to hundreds of dollars, for foster care of the babies. Smith and his family made a second trip to Lima in November in hopes of taking their two Peruvian babies home, but learned that the process was not moving forward.

Gagel said adoptions were granted to all the prospective parents who went to Junin, but then the cases were sent to an appellate court on automatic appeal and rejected by a three-judge panel. "I could have said, 'Well, you got your final adoption orders,' and washed my hands," Gagel said. "That's what a lot of lawyers would have done. But I continued doing everything I could."

He said he made several more trips to Junin -- "I went around Christmas time, I went again around New Year's" -- until finally he established that the adoptions had been nullified, which meant that the parents would have to start all over. Gagel said he was given no reason for the decision.

Both Spiegel and Smith said that given the publicity surrounding Gagel's arrest, and given the amounts of money they have already spent, their families have essentially given up hope of ever adopting the children they met in Peru.

The formal charges against Gagel center on the case of a baby boy who was adopted by a California couple. The birth mother, Adriana Almonacid, has alleged that Gagel cut corners and falsified documents and that she did not fully understand she was giving up her child for adoption.

But Gagel's lawyers contend that the charges stem from repeated attempts by Almonacid to get Gagel or the California couple to send her money, which she was not entitled to receive. She filed her complaint with police, they say, only after Gagel had told her that there would be no more payments and had refused to give her the adoptive parents' address.

One of Gagel's lawyers produced a photograph of a smiling Almonacid standing next to the adoptive mother. Almonacid is reported to have said that she never met the people who adopted the child.

Gagel came to Peru more than two years ago on a Fulbright grant. A graduate of Rutgers Law School, he could not act as an attorney on adoptions in Peru -- he hired local lawyers for that -- but rather as a contact person and adviser on making sure all the adoption paperwork conformed to U.S. Immigration and Nationalization Service rules. The total number of adoptions he arranged, he said, was "probably less than 50." He has expressed confidence that the Peruvian legal system will exonerate him.eal with any mother who hesitated.


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