Concern is growing over poorly regulated foreign adoption programs.
Paul Cristian Radu
San Antonio Express-News
A San Antonio adoption agency has handled hundreds of foreign adoptions since the Iron Curtain fell a decade ago, saving children who were abandoned in decrepit orphanages and helping families adopt children in Eastern Europe.
But the agency, Adoption Services Associates, also became involved in the same problems that caused the Romanian government to suspend foreign adoptions this summer.
In a lawsuit filed in March, the nonprofit agency accuses its former director of international adoptions of failing to disclose medical problems of children to adoptive couples, mistreating and threatening prospective parents, separating siblings without informing the adoptive parents, and costing the agency $300,000 in damages.
During three years, according to the lawsuit, Adoption Services Associates "received at least one complaint a week, every week, calculating to approximately 156 complaints," against the international adoption director, Orson Mozes.
Mozes, one of the leading brokers of foreign adoptions in the United States, handled foreign adoptions for ASA for 10 years before agency director Linda Zuflacht fired him in March. Based in Santa Barbara, Calif., Mozes continues to coordinate foreign adoptions as the international director of Life Adoptions International.
Mozes declined to respond to Zuflacht's charges in several requests for an interview. He referred questions to his lawyer, who also declined to respond.
Zuflacht, a San Antonio lawyer who founded Adoptions Services Associates in 1984, said her agency has arranged about 1,000 adoptions from Romania and Russia for U.S. parents, including some in San Antonio, since the early 1990s.
The number of foreign adoptions in San Antonio is unclear, since no single U.S. government agency regulates international adoptions. But Sue Hall of San Antonio, who belongs to a Russian adoption support group, said 150 to 200 local families have adopted foreign children, with most coming from Russia and Romania.
The falling-out between Adoption Services Associates and Mozes reflects the growing international concern over poorly regulated adoption programs in Eastern Europe and the brokers involved in the industry.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union a decade ago, the number of orphans adopted every year from Eastern Europe has more than doubled, to more than 16,000 annually, according to the State Department. Most of the adoptions are successful and pair needy children with U.S. parents who often are compelled to rescue orphans from filthy, crowded facilities where toddlers sometimes are tethered to cribs by overworked caregivers.
But problems with brokers and corrupt orphanage directors have been widespread. The Romanian government has suspended foreign adoptions several times, with the latest suspension in June after a scathing international report was issued.
In her report, Baroness Emma Nicholson, the European Parliament's special envoy for Romania, accused that country's adoption system of "persistent abandonment of children, child abuse and neglect and child trafficking." She complained of endemic corruption in the system, and expressed concern for 240 Romanian orphans who could not be traced.
Three weeks after the report, the Romanian police directorate for organized crime said elements of the adoption industry were run by criminals who pocketed donations intended to improve orphanages. In one case, police charged the "My Child" program with misusing about $500,000 donated by several U.S. adoption agencies.
In the Adoption Services lawsuit, Zuflacht said one adoptive couple was threatening to sue her after adopting three siblings from Russia through Mozes.
"The three children have a 17-year-old sister who was left behind in Russia. The older sister was viewed as a parental figure to the three younger children. The adoptive couple claims (Mozes) was aware of the older sister and proceeded with the adoption and subsequent separation of the children without advising them," the suit claims. "This separation has caused the three children to be hostile and violent with the couple."
The parents wanted the three children removed from their home, according to the lawsuit, contributing to the growing problem of disrupted adoptions from Eastern Europe.
From 1994 to July 2001, U.S. parents returned at least 136 children adopted from overseas because of problems with the children, according to figures compiled by Tressler Lutheran Services, a leading U.S. adoption group. Most of the children in failed adoptions came from Russia and Romania.
Zuflacht says in her complaint that adoptive couples spend $10,000 to $12,000 in countries where they are adopting children to cover legal work, government fees, drivers, translators and gifts to orphanages. On top of that, Mozes received $7,000 per placement, and parents paid Adoption Services Associates $1,750 or $3,500 in fees, depending on the age and needs of the adopted child.
Zuflacht said the money parents spent overseas disappeared without an accounting from Mozes.
"Without such an accounting, ASA is unable to verify whether these cash amounts are being spent to further adoptions and help the orphanages, or whether it is taken by Defendant," the lawsuit says.
According to Romanian and Russian laws, the only fees required for an adoption are document fees. Agencies usually also make direct donations to orphanages. Translators and drivers are paid according to the local standards of the countries, where the average monthly salary is less than $200.
Financial records on file with the Internal Revenue Service do not show any gifts or donations made to orphanages by Adoptions Services Associates between 1997 and 1999. As a nonprofit organization, ASA is required to make the records available to the public.
The financial reports show ASA earned $1.79 million to $1.97 million a year between 1997 and 1999. As the executive director, Zuflacht earned between $70,000 and $158,000 a year for running the agency and providing legal services to adoptive parents.
Mozes has been affiliated with foreign adoptions for more than a decade. He was mentioned in a December 1990 Los Angeles Times article about planning to escort couples to Romania to adopt children.
At the time, he worked through the Romanian Club of Santa Monica, Calif. Later, the Romanian Club became a Russian Club and Mozes started doing adoptions from Russia when Romania imposed its first moratorium on foreign adoptions.
In 1996, Mozes and Adoption Services Associates were temporarily banned from performing adoptions in Romania, according to a former Romanian Adoption Committee official who asked to remain anonymous.
The former official said Mozes tried to adopt a Romanian orphan for a Mexican couple, which was illegal because Mozes was working for a U.S. agency and Mexico is a "children donor" country like Romania. Parents in children donor countries are not supposed to adopt foreign children, because the countries already are overburdened with orphans awaiting adoption.
Several parents contacted by the San Antonio Express-News said they had complaints about their experience with Mozes and Adoption Services Associates, but they asked to remain anonymous out of concern for their children.
One woman said she and her husband tried to adopt a Russian girl through Mozes this year after seeing the girl's picture on Mozes' Web site.
"Before I dialed the phone I prayed, 'Lord, make it clear if we are to work with this agency.' My hands shook as I dialed the phone. I was calling to say, 'Yes, she is our daughter.'
"Before I even finished getting the words out of my mouth, this man - the agency director - demanded that we immediately Federal Express three checks to three separate addresses totaling a very large amount of money if we wanted them to hold this child for us," the woman wrote in a lengthy Internet message, which she verified in a telephone interview.
"I began to question him about the large amount of money (that we didn't have) and the three separate addresses," she said. "He became irate. He yelled and called me names and his final words were, 'Somebody will pay this much for that little girl!' Slam! He hung up the phone."
Adoption Services Associates fired Mozes soon after the incident. The couple said they subsequently had similar problems trying to arrange the adoption with Zuflacht.
Zuflacht said that, despite problems with Eastern European adoptions, her business is going well. "I'm thinking that I'd like to have something to fall back on in case also Russia closes down and there would be nothing. I'm thinking about Guatemala, where the adoption process is still simple, and about China: there are tons of girls in China."