THE BABY PIPELINE
DAWN BONN, A NORTH ST. PAUL CHILD FINDER, HELPS PEOPLE ADOPT PARAGUAYAN CHILDREN VIA A PIPELINE SOME SAY IS LINED WITH LIES, FALSE PROMISES AND CORRUPTION.
St. Paul Pioneer Press
The smiling Minnesota couples arrive regularly at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, holding bubbly children in their arms.
It is the final stop in an adoption pipeline that begins in Paraguay, a poor country rich in one respect - a booming international baby trade.
Sometimes a woman from North St. Paul stands among the well-wishers as the adoptive parents step off the plane.
Her name is Dawn Bonn, and she runs a business that finds babies.
But the business isn't always so pretty. Some of Bonn's former clients say she has has worked with corrupt Paraguayan lawyers, misrepresented the difficulties of adopting abroad and instructed U.S. couples to lie during the adoption process.
Minnesota adoption officials, until recently, have not regulated baby finders such as Bonn and her for-profit company, Dawn Bonn and Associates, saying such activities were not covered by state licensing rules.
To be sure, no government agency has accused Bonn of breaking the law during her 19-year career as a baby finder. Bonn said Paraguayan adoptions are aboveboard and she denied she misled clients or told them to lie.
She is a woman who leaves remarkably divergent impressions.
To some of her clients, Bonn is the broker of happiness. Her many admirers say she has found homes for poor children and built families for childless couples.
Others clients say Bonn brought them heartache, frustration and fear.
Yet there is no dispute that Bonn, 53, is a leading figure in international adoptions. By her own estimate, she has placed 1,100 foreign-born children with couples in Minnesota and other states since 1976.
"Dawn Bonn is viewed as controversial," said Robert Denardo, head of children and family services at the Minnesota Human Services Department. "There are people who are very pleased and there are folks who are not."
Equally controversial is her choice of places to do business. Since 1992, she has focused on finding children in Paraguay, arranging about 100 adoptions last year, she said. About 30 of the children came to Minnesota, she said.
But Paraguay has been wracked by allegations of adoption fraud, including charges of baby buying and baby stealing. The government of Paraguay instituted a one-year moratorium on new international adoptions in September so lawmakers could reform adoption laws.
Under the current system, Paraguayan attorneys, using midwives and other intermediaries, obtain babies from poor women and place the children in foster homes.
International baby finders like Bonn contact the attorneys, obtain pictures of the children and help U.S. clients complete the adoptions. An adoptive parent must make at least one trip to Paraguay.
Bonn's fee is $3,000 per child, with a discount for a second child. Paraguayan lawyers, who are usually part of the process, charge an additional $15,000. Travel costs and other fees can bring the total cost to more than $20,000 per child.
According to a recent U.S. State Department cable, two Paraguayan attorneys who worked with Bonn have been implicated in cases of allegedly illegal baby trafficking. Bonn has been not implicated.
One of the attorneys stopped handling adoptions after being arrested last year on allegations of falsified child registrations. A second attorney, who still works with Bonn and others on international adoptions, was summoned before a judge after a raid last March on a South American baby-kidnapping ring.
Bonn said the Paraguayan lawyers are not corrupt. She said other U.S. adoption agencies rely on some of the same lawyers.
"There is always a lot of gossip, a lot of talk about adoption being corrupt in foreign countries," said Bonn, who operates her business out of her North St. Paul home. "I don't think it is. I think it is absolutely wonderful."
But some of Bonn's clients expressed shock at the adoption practices they discovered after traveling to Paraguay. By then, most were committed financially - and emotionally - to the adoption.
"The truth about where the babies come from is buried," said Don Young of St. Paul, who spent five months this year in Paraguay with his wife, Barb, and adopted two children.
The Youngs said they probably will never know the truth about the origin of the babies. The couple said they spent $65,000 on the adoptions, much of that in fees to a Paraguayan lawyer.
Even if the girls weren't stolen or purchased, "I don't want my money driving an industry that steals babies," said Young. "We just wanted children. Just by agreeing to a $15,000 (legal) fee, we fueled the industry."
The Baby Market
Even under the best conditions, adopting a child in Paraguay can be an unusual experience.
After filing the paperwork, one or both adoptive parents eventually must travel to the Paraguayan capital Asuncion. Most stay in one of several major hotels that cater to foreign visitors who travel to Paraguay for the sole purpose of adopting a child.
Once a parent checks into the hotel, a Paraguayan foster-home worker arrives with the child and hands it over. Children stay with the adoptive parents for days, weeks or months in the hotel.
Dr. Duane Skar, a Mendota Heights pediatrician, and his wife, Carmel, went through the process in 1994 when they adopted a Paraguayan boy who is now 20 months old. The adoption was successful, but the process left the Skars angry.
On the first of three trips, they saw headlines in the local newspapers about indictments of adoption lawyers in a baby-trafficking case, Duane Skar said. One of the lawyers was handling their own adoption, he added.
At the U.S. Embassy in Asuncion, an attache told the Skars that their attorney was "one of the big bad guys" who has been accused of involvement with illegal adoptions but had never served any prison time.
"We are American citizens who are being put in contact with known criminals in a foreign country," Skar said.
The Skars said neither Dawn Bonn, nor her daughter, Mary, who works with her, told them that the attorney had been arrested. Duane Skar said he made a fruitless second trip to Paraguay during the process. Later, Carmel Skar took a third trip to pick up their child.
"The Bonns knew about it (the arrest) and they didn't tell us about it," said Carmel Skar.
But Bonn dismissed the Skars' concerns, saying that six months is not an unusual delay for a Paraguayan adoption. She admitted the Paraguayan attorney on the Skars' case got into trouble, but she suggested the lawyer's problems stemmed from a "mid-life crisis," not his legal predicament.
"I am kind of at a disadvantage - I am a real accessible person to be angry at," said Bonn. "And (the clients) are all scared of the lawyers down there."
And for every client who suggests Bonn misled them, it is possible to find others who say just the opposite.
"If it wasn't for her, we wouldn't have two kids," said Nancy Brandanger of Burnsville, who with her husband, Dave, twice used Bonn to find children to adopt in Paraguay and Colombia.
Brandanger said the adoptions in 1989 and 1992 went smoothly, just as Bonn had promised. One adoption required them to spend three days in Colombia, she said. The second, in Paraguay, took two weeks. Altogether the couple spent $38,000.
Bonn said satisfied couples like the Brandangers make up 85 percent of her clients, and many use her services more than once. Bonn said the unhappy clients would never be satisfied with her.
A History of Complaints
Still, Bonn has been plagued by complaints since the late 1980s.
Her baby-finding career began in 1976, when she personally adopted two children from Colombia.
Despite few qualifications - she dropped out of high school and had no social work training - she began helping other parents adopt children abroad. She soon became widely known as a resourceful baby finder with contacts in Colombia, Mexico and Honduras.
"Back then, I did it for nothing," Bonn said in an interview. "The only thing I would charge people for was the telephone bills. I didn't make any money on it. In fact, it probably was one of the things that caused my divorce" in 1981.
By 1985, Bonn's baby-finding career had blossomed into a job at Jewish Family Services' adoption program in St. Paul. As an "overseas liaison worker," she helped hundreds of parents from Minnesota find children in South America and Romania. Many of them later would give her glowing references.
But not everyone shared those feelings.
In a lawsuit filed against Bonn, a Bloomington couple accused her and Jewish Family Services of fraud and misrepresentation in a 1989 adoption.
According to the lawsuit, Bonn and the agency offered the couple a baby for adoption in Paraguay. But the travel date to complete the adoption never seemed to arrive, according to the suit.
Along the way, the lawsuit alleged, the couple received two, apparently different, sets of baby pictures. An agency official told the couple they would be adopting a different child than originally planned - but Bonn later claimed the pictures showed the same child, the suit said.
Bonn and the agency denied the allegations. Bonn said the case was dropped after the couple adopted a child. The couple declined to comment. Court papers don't describe the outcome.
In another case, Paula Fleming of St. Cloud said Bonn and a Paraguayan interpreter instructed her and her husband, Pat, to lie about circumstances surrounding their 1990 adoption of a Paraguayan boy.
At the time, the Paraguayan government had temporarily blocked new adoptions during an effort to revise the laws. Only adoptions already in progress could be completed. Despite the cutoff, Bonn offered an infant to the Flemings, Paula Fleming said.
"We were supposed to say that we had an adoption pending (before the cutoff) and the birth mother had changed her mind," she said.
But there was no birth mother who changed her mind, Fleming added.
"I hated it," said Fleming. "I was lying through my teeth. But that is what Dawn Bonn told us to do."
Fleming said the U.S. Embassy "knew the story was as phony as could be." Fleming said she and her husband later told the embassy the truth, hired new attorneys and completed the adoption legally.
It ended up costing them about $30,000, nearly three times thegoing rate for adoptions at the time, Fleming added. After that, the Flemings had nothing more to do with Bonn.
Bonn said she didn't remember the case, but insisted: "I wouldn't tell them to lie."
Ann Puff, another former client, said Bonn referred her a seriously ill, premature baby boy in 1990. Puff said Bonn told her the child was premature and small, but recovering his health.
The boy died in Colombia 17 days after Puff arrived to complete the adoption. Puff said the baby was "very sick looking" the first time she saw him.
Puff said she believes Bonn chose not to disclose the baby's condition. Puff said that, unlike other couples who routinely get a half-dozen baby pictures from Bonn before their trip, she was given only a one-inch-square, black-and-white photograph of the boy she hoped to adopt.
"I think they knew all along that the baby was in poor health, but they didn't disclose it to me until I was down there," said Puff. The absence of snapshots "should have been my first clue that something was wrong," she added.
Bonn denied the allegation. She said no other pictures were available, and a medical report on the child indicated its low weight at six weeks of age.
Bonn immediately found another Colombian child for Puff, but that baby also was ill, and the adoption was called off by Puff. During her career, Bonn said, only two children she referred have died while the adoptions were pending.
Jewish Family Services later helped Puff adopt a boy from Minnesota - after Puff retained a lawyer to complain about her treatment by Bonn. No lawsuit was filed.
Shortly after that case, Jewish Family Services of St. Paul shut down its adoption unit.
"The agency was losing money big-time on adoptions," said Sheldon Olkon, executive director of Jewish Family Services. "Dawn (Bonn) was under contract, and she did quite well" financially.
"But the agency was underwriting a lot of the costs" and had suffered an $80,000 deficit, he added. "The whole agency was in jeopardy."
Painting a Rosy Picture
In 1991, Bonn entered the for-profit, baby-finding business.
When she set up her company, Minnesota law didn't require child finders like Bonn to be licensed. But Bonn couldn't handle every detail of an adoption. Her clients still had to work with licensed adoption agencies for background checks, home studies and other state requirements.
Unlike Jewish Family Services, Bonn's new firm could not work in Colombia, where a license is required, she said. So she focused her child-finding efforts on Romania - until that adoption pipeline closed - and Paraguay.
Bonn spends most of her time in the United States. Her daughter, Mary, who speaks Spanish, has worked extensively in Paraguay and Colombia, often helping U.S. couples when troubles arise.
When potential clients approach Dawn Bonn, she typically shows them snapshots of adoptable children. Bonn has told couples they can choose children whose features blend with their families'. Dan Rierson, and his wife, Cindy, adopted two children through Bonn. He recalled Bonn saying, "If you don't want somebody quite as dark or whatever ... I'm not going to judge you on that."
Sometimes, clients select a child immediately or within days, according to parents who have used her services.
By contrast, adoption agencies typically require prospective adoptive parents to attend classes, submit forms and answer questions about their backgrounds before a child is referred to them. Some couples don't qualify; others find the process frustrating and slow.
Bonn's literature also warns that adoptions can take a long time, and Bonn said people who complain about lengthy delays simply didn't pay attention.
But some clients said Bonn glossed over those warnings. Instead, they said, Bonn talked of completing adoptions in less time than her literature indicated.
Cliff and Sharon Knippel of St. Paul said Dawn Bonn told them in 1991 they could complete an adoption during a two-week stay in Paraguay. Sharon Knippel ended up staying three months.
"The big thing that Dawn Bonn didn't tell us was that the process was in total chaos down there, and nobody knew what was going to happen," said Cliff Knippel. "If she had told us that up front, I'd have no complaint. For whatever reason, she wanted us to believe it would happen in 10 days."
Knippel, who is a Twin Cities lawyer, said the adoption process in Paraguay was money driven.
"Americans want kids," he said. "Americans are willing to pay for it. People make money all the way along."
Despite their frustrations, the Knippels didn't file a formal complaint against Bonn. Said Knippel: "On the good side, she delivered. That is why we never did anything."
Ernie and Susan Joachim of Kasson, Minn., also said Bonn painted a rosy picture about legal procedures involved in adopting two children in 1993. They said Bonn assured them the trip to Paraguay would be like a vacation.
Instead, the couple said, they found one baby malnourished, learned that some adoption foster homes had been raided and witnessed a suspected bribe being paid by a translator who worked for their Bonn-supplied attorney.
Joachim said the interpreter slipped two Paraguayan notes - he didn't recall the amounts - into a sheaf of papers and handed it to a Paraguayan customs official as the family departed from the Asuncion airport.
"It didn't look official and that is why I thought it was a bribe," he added.
Bonn denied that the Joachims were misled. And she disputed their suspicions of bribery. She said the payment was probably a departure tax, which "is not going to go into anyone's pocket."
But Joachim said he paid the departure tax separately, and got a receipt.
Even before the September moratorium on adoptions, the U.S. State Department began cracking down on suspected baby trafficking in Paraguay.
In the illegal baby trade, Paraguayan lawyers - known as "adopcionistas" - sometimes hire a stand-in mother to pose as the birth mother, giving the adoption the appearance of legitimacy.
Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Asuncion last December began questioning each Paraguayan birth mother who offered a child for a U.S. adoption. The child can't be brought to the United States if officials determine the adoption is fraudulent.
Bonn said all but one of the birth mothers in her adoption cases have been cleared by the State Department. In one case, however, a Paraguayan woman offering a baby to a U.S. client of Bonn's told the embassy that she wasn't the biological mother - after earlier saying that she was.
Mark Jacobs, spokesman for the embassy in Asuncion, confirmed that the woman had recanted. But officials never found the real birth mother. She may simply have disappeared into the countryside. Worse, the baby could have been purchased or stolen.
"It would be extremely difficult to know which options are more likely," Jacobs said.
Bonn denied wrongdoing in the case and suggested the embassy acted improperly. If U.S. officials suspected baby trafficking, she asked, why didn't they report the woman to Paraguayan police?
Jacobs said U.S. officials didn't report the case to police because a Paraguayan adoption attorney claimed the woman was indeed the birth mother and offered to prove it with a blood test.
But before the test could be performed, the disputed child and two siblings were adopted by someone in Spain, he said. Bonn's client, whose identity has not been made public, did not complete the adoption, he added.
In the face of such questionable circumstances, Paraguayan legislators are considering creating a central authority to oversee adoptions. Most countries offering children for international adoption already operate this way.
It is not clear what, if any changes, will happen in Paraguay's laws. For now, only adoptions that began in Paraguay before the moratorium are supposed to proceed.
The Next Pipeline
Now Bonn is looking for a new source of children, and may soon switch her baby-finding efforts to Colombia, Brazil or Romania, where international adoptions have resumed, she said.
Bonn also is expected to change the legal structure of her operation, ending its unusual, for-profit status. The planned change is the result of recent scrutiny by the Minnesota Human Services Department.
Under a new arrangement, Bonn would become an employee of Summit Adoption Home Studies, a St. Paul adoption agency founded in 1994 by two of Bonn's former clients, said Lodewijk Seghers, the agency's secretary-treasurer.
That agency already has been working with Bonn's Minnesota clients, charging a separate fee for prospective adoptive parents' background checks, home studies and other paperwork.
Minnesota officials began reviewing the agency's license after a Wilmette, Ill., couple complained about Bonn last June. Marc and Carole Brown Bonn promised a refund on a canceled Paraguayan adoption, but initially failed to pay. Bonn later paid the couple.
Karen Keiffer, a Human Services licensing unit manager, said Summit Adoption is being ordered to revise its disclosure statements about fees. Kieffer said she was unaware of any clients' allegations about corruption, misrepresentations or lying occurring in Paraguayan adoptions.
"Those would be situations outside the United States," Kieffer said. "I don't believe we would have jurisdiction."
The Minnesota Better Business Bureau also looked into the couple's complaint, at their request. The agency, which investigates and mediates complaints against private businesses, has since received a second complaint from a New Jersey couple who are seeking a partial refund from Bonn.
Bureau president Ron Graham said he was surprised to discover a for-profit firm participated in adoptions. He said this is the first time the bureau has been asked to investigate adoptions.
About six other people have complained to state officials about Bonn over the years, but "there was frequently nothing that could be done," said Denardo, of the Human Services Department. Until lawmakers changed the state law in 1994, child finding was not considered an activity that required an adoption license, he said.
Bonn said she plans to carry on despite the criticism - and wishes she could work on international adoptions for nothing.
"I love doing it," she said. "If I won the lottery, I would do it for free again."
Dawn Marie Bonn
Company: Dawn Bonn and Associates, a baby-finding service.
Home: North St. Paul
Family: Married in 1959; had four biological children and adopted two more from Colombia; divorced in 1981
Career: Has found babies for adoption by U.S. citizens in Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, Romania and other countries since 1976.
Employed as overseas liaison worker for Jewish Family Services adoption program in St. Paul, 1985-1991.
Established her own company in 1991, and has worked finding adoptable babies in Paraguay.
Staff writers Julio Ojeda-Zapata and Ruben Rosario contributed to this report.
1) Photo Courtesy of KARE-TV
Many of Dawn Bonn's clients see her as the broker of happiness and a builder of families.
2) Chris Polydoroff/Pioneer Press
Dan Rierson carries one of his newly adopted daughters, Charlet, 4, right, after arriving from Paraguay at Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport. On the left is his 22-month-old son, Michael, who was adopted in the United States.
1) Tony Lone Fight/Pioneer Press
Internation adoptions by U.S. citizens 1994
Where the children came from
1 Korea 1,757
2 Russia 1,324
3 China 748
4 Paraguay 497
5 Guatemala 431
6 India 390
7 Colombia 342
8 Philippines 320
9 Vietnam 228
10 Romania 197
Where the children went
1. New York 6. Massachusetts
2. California 7. Illinois
3. Pennsylvania 8. Maryland
4. New Jersey 9. Michigan
5. Minnesota 10. Virginia
Source: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
2) Tony Lone Fight/Pioneer Press
Paraguayan adoptions by U.S. citizens
Source: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
3) Alex Leary/Pioneer Press
Tips for evaluating adoption agencies
Questions to ask whn considering international adoptions.
1. Does the country require agencies to be licensed?
2. Will intermediaries be used in the country? If so, are they required to be licensed?
3. What are the fees, when are they due and can they be refunded?
4. How many children did the agency place in the past?
5. How many clients are waiting for referrals?
6. Does the country appear to be stable?
7. Can the client consider more than one country and change programs later?
8. Is travel required? If so, what is the projected stay?
Source: RESOLVE of the Twin Cities
4) Alex Leary/Pioneer Press
Paraguayan adoption: A risky business
Paraguay halted international adoptions in September amid charges of buying and stealing babies. Only pre-shutdown adoptions are supposed to proceed while
laws are rewritten. The system has been fraught with risks.
1. Paraguayan lawyers, working through intermediaries in that country, identify children available for adoption. The children are turned over to the lawyers and placed in foster homes.
Some intermediaries have been accused of stealing babies or paying poor mothers to hand over their children.
2. The biological mother swears in Paraguayan court that she is giving up the child for adoption. Later, the mother also must make a similar statement to the U.S. Embassy.
If the baby is stoeln, the mother is reluctant to come forward or can't be found, intermediaries sometimes hire a stand-in ``mother.''
3. Baby finders and adoption agencies in the United States and Europe obtain pictures of the children and show them to prospective adoptive parents, who pick out the child they wish to adopt.
Adoptive parents may form an emotional bond with child and be crushed if adoption falls through.
4. Prospective adoptive parents submit paperwork, including background checks and a study of their home life, to the Paraguayan court. In return, adopting parties receive a birth certificate and medical report on the child.
Some medical reports have been forged to mask serious health problems.
5. Adoptive parents pay first hald of fee *ususally totaling about $15,000) to a Paraguayan lawyer who has custody of the child. Some of that money pays for foster care during the adoption.
Some foster care homes are squalid.
6. Lawyers in Paraguay guide the adoption through the courts. Adoptive parents decide whether to travel once or twice to Paraguay.
7. Adopting parents arrive in Asuncion, Paraguay, and take temporary custody of the child, who stays in a hotel with them.
If guardianship papers are not in order, the child may be seized during a hotel raid.
8. Judge in Paraguay signs a first resolution for the adoption. A notice of the impending foreign adoption is placed in a newspaper.
For 60 days, any Paraguayan can adopt the child.
9. When a Paraguayan judge approves the adoption decree, the parents can take their child home after paying the remaining legal fee.
If the U.S. Embassy concludes that a biological mother is not authentic, it may refuse the child entry into the United States.
Sources: U.S. State Department, adoption agencies, adoptive parents.