ADOPTION CASE LEAVES LEGACY OF DISAPPOINTMENT WOMAN MUST PAY BACK CLIENTS WHO DID NOT GET CHILDREN
Author: Bonnie V. Winston, Globe Staff
To some, Suzanne Champney was a baby broker, a woman who wrongfully and cruelly toyed with emotions by taking money, promising children and failing to deliver them.
To others, she was a well-intentioned woman who cared deeply about orphaned children in Central America and worked hard to find homes for them. But in her quest to do good, they say, she either got in over her head or became involved with the wrong people -- Central American lawyers eager to make quick fees.
In Champney's own words, she was an "adoption facilitator," a specialty that was almost thrust upon her after her own experience 12 years ago in adopting a child from El Salvador. After she talked about the adoption on a local television show, she began receiving calls from people asking for help in adopting children from El Salvador and, later, Guatemala.
Champney began by working with couples referred by a Newton adoption agency, and then agencies in Salem, Needham and Minnesota. By her own count, she handled up to 300 adoptions over eight years, about 80 in 1983 alone. She earned up to $500 in fees for each adoption.
But after receiving complaints against her, the state attorney general's office obtained a court order in 1984 that temporarily barred her from arranging adoptions. Late last month, a final judgment was entered in her case in which she agreed to refrain from providing adoption services.
The judgment does not constitute a criminal conviction, and she could begin placing children again if she obtains a licence from the state Office for Children. She has contended she did not need a license because she worked through licensed agencies.
So far, Champney has not filed a license application. Janet Hookailo, a spokeswoman for the office, said applicants are judged on whether they would act "in the best interest of children. We would weigh any common knowledge or past history of an applicant or agency in considering an application."
According to the judgment entered in Suffolk Superior Court against Champney and Los Ninos de Amor Inc., her company based in her Plymouth home, she must refund more than $20,000 to couples whom she failed to provide with children. She must also establish a $10,000 escrow account to cover reimbursements to parents who have not yet made claims.
Champney must also pay more than $11,000 in civil penalties and forfeit half of whatever remains in the escrow account after all injured parties are paid.
"The question is how many major arteries must a surgeon cut before he's told he can't operate anymore?" said Paul H. Merry, the assistant attorney general who handled the case. He said Champney misrepresented herself and used unfair and deceptive practices in her dealings with prospective adoptive parents.
Reached at her home, Champney declined to be interviewed. She said she had been "burned" by the press in 1984 when the attorney general's complaint was filed. Her lawyer, Kevin O'Dea of Boston, also declined to comment.
The initial 70-page complaint filed by Merry in 1984 cites numerous cases in which Champney promised and failed to deliver babies and young children. In some cases, the children were critically ill when they reached their new parents.
In one case, according to the complaint, Champney assured a Massachusetts couple in early 1983 that their child would be healthy. But the child arrived in Miami in serious condition and later died. Champney, the complaint said, then offered the parents a child she had promised to another couple, explaining that she would tell the couple it was their child who had died.
Champney charged prospective parents between $5,500 and $6,000 for a child. The money, she said in court records, was immediately turned over to lawyers in El Salvador or Guatemala, who in turn paid her between $200 and $500 for each case.
Champney's operations left a legacy of disappointment, and even those who ultimately received children still recall the pain and frustrations of dealing with her.
Christine Twyon of Medford and her husband were in the process of adopting a second child through Champney when news of the investigation broke in late 1984.
"I didn't know what to believe," Mrs. Twyon said. "Sue had never done me wrong. Yes, we had faced delays and lost money, but I don't think it was Sue's fault. I wasn't about to complain. . . . I didn't want to alienate the woman who was supposed to bring me my child."
Twyon was one of three people who filed affidavits in 1984 supporting Champney. Twyon said in an affidavit Champney "has always been very helpful and supportive. I believe she can be trusted and is working very hard to find children for those of us waiting."
Yet three years later, Twyon says she has ambivalent feelings toward Champney.
The Twyons adopted their first child through Champney in 1981. The baby, a 9-month-old Salvadoran boy, arrived only three months after the process began. It was during the second adoption, which Champney began in early 1982 through a now-defunct Salem agency, that the Twyons ran into trouble.
"Every two months, there was a new obstacle, a new delay," Twyon said. "It was a very tedious, aggravating three-year process. It was three years of emotional turmoil in which I just kept believing, and the money -- maybe it shouldn't -- just becomes secondary. I thought either this is a woman who is putting us up for all we were worth, or a woman having trouble in spite of her best efforts to bring us a child."
Twyon and her husband lost $1,400 when, more than a year into their second adoption, a Guatemalan lawyer recommended by Champney refused them a refund when the adoption fell through.
Disappointed, Twyon renewed her efforts to get a child through Champney, but was hurt again when the baby Champney had promised them was supposedly taken back by her mother.
The Twyons finally got their second child from Champney in Sept. 1985, after spending a total of $10,000 in fees.
The two adopted children, now ages 5 and 7, are "healthy, and happy," said Twyon. "We chose to believe in Sue -- right or wrong -- but it turned out for us," she said.
Champney did not limit her operations to Massachusetts, according to the complaint, and also placed children in Maine and Minnesota, with mixed results.
Sheryl Fisher, codirector of Crossroads, a Minneapolis adoption agency through which Champney placed several children in Minnesota, said prospective parents tended to link Champney to their fantasy of adoption. "She became the one person who could make their dream come true. They didn't want to shake that dream," Fisher said.
The first Minneapolis family to receive a child through Champney spent $35,000 in medical bills because the child was brought into the country in critical condition, suffering from acute dehydration and malnutrition, according to Fisher and court records. The infant's condition was so extreme that Minnesota doctors asked the adoptive family's permission to use the case in a medical textbook.
Crossroads eventually stopped using Champney.
"Maybe Sue didn't recognize her own limits," Fisher said. "Maybe she shouldn't have promised families so much that she couldn't deliver. Maybe she just got mixed up with some unscrupulous lawyers who were out to make a lot of money fast. But the outcome was certainly damaging to some people.