Date: 1994-05-01

Miami Herald, The (FL)


Author: LIZETTE ALVAREZ Herald Staff Writer

Doreen and Jim Vitale started out counting the days until the arrival of the two baby boys. They wound up counting the years.

The first year, the hopeful couple postponed their Christmas celebration. The tree stayed up in a corner of the living room until March. They stashed piles of unopened presents in a spare bedroom, doubles of everything: cribs, toy trucks, toothbrushes. Then they waited for the homecoming.

But the babies never came home. Neither did the Honduran- born children of at least three other sets of adoptive parents in New Jersey.

Now the people who ran the adoption agency that failed to deliver the children have a new base of operations: South Florida.

Adoptions International, run by Mary Ann and Jim Cacacie, is listed in the Palm Beach County Yellow Pages under "Adoption Services." Two months ago, Florida sent the Cacacies a certified letter giving them 30 days to apply for a license. They never did.

"They were very unresponsive when we were trying to get in touch with them," said Ava Kowalczyk, supervisor of the state's Health and Rehabilitative Services licensing unit for Palm Beach County. "They just disappeared."

It's not the first time a state has had a problem with the Cacacies.

In November 1992, a year after the agency opened in Freehold, N.J., a string of state violations -- most of them for incompetence -- forced the business to close, New Jersey officials say.

"The violations were based on the fact that (Mary Ann) wasn't qualified," said Richard Danback, assistant chief in New Jersey's bureau of licensing. "We were not going to be renewing her license. The license is null and void."

Danback said he has warned HRS officials in Tallahassee that the Cacacies are operating in Palm Beach County. "She was telling people up here that she didn't need to be licensed in Florida. That was her catch to attract a number of people," he said.

The Cacacies contend they don't need a Florida license because they are not directly involved in placing children with adoptive families. Instead, they say, the agency acts only as a consulting firm -- hooking up U.S. adoption agencies with lawyers in foreign countries. At least two families, however, say they recently made arrangements with the Cacacies to obtain children.

In February 1993, Lynne and Mark Familant of New Jersey signed a contract with Adoptions International for a Peruvian baby. They eventually brought her home, but the Familants say the agency abandoned them at a critical time, leaving them alone in Peru to fight for the baby. Scott and Lori Mulvihill of Allentown, Pa., say they are working with the agency to get a child out of Guatemala.

Jim Cacacie would not respond to specific questions about the agency's Florida operations.

"I don't want to answer, OK?" he said during a telephone interview. "We don't need a license from HRS."

There is nothing illegal about adopting children from foreign countries. Every day, American parents bring home adopted children from all over the world: Russia, Romania, Peru, El Salvador. It's faster than adoptions at home -- which can take years -- and sometimes it's cheaper, costing $8,000 to $15,000.

It's also riskier.

Foreign countries have their own adoption rules. Americans are often led through the maze of laws and requirements by private U.S. adoption agencies. Foreign lawyers, licensed in a particular country, often present the cases abroad. Adoptive parents, sometimes ignorant of the culture, language and laws of other countries, are extremely vulnerable to scams.

New Jersey officials and the four New Jersey families -- the Vitales, Bob and Rosalie Kripinski, George and Kathy Oberski and Ruth Larkin -- say the International Adoption League, the agency's name in New Jersey, did everything a reputable adoption agency should not:

* It promised people speedy adoptions. Hopeful clients expected babies to arrive in three to six months, a tempting time frame for couples who have waited years for children.

* It misled them about the price of adoptions, failing to take into account thousands of dollars for foster care and other expenses.

* It ignored their complaints.

* It entrusted the adoption of their children to a lawyer later convicted in Honduras of falsifying documents in a baby- stealing scam.

"These people were patient and still got the shaft," said Linda Matoon, adoption coordinator for New Jersey.


Four families' lawsuit

not really about money

After their two-year struggle with the agency, the families sued in New Jersey Superior Court. Mary Ann and Jim Cacacie never showed up. The families won default judgments totaling $26,000. They haven't seen a penny of it.

But their anger was not about money. It was about the loss of their children, babies they bathed and fed and played with during visits to Honduras. Kids they named Russell, Nicholas, Matthew, Steven and Edward, whose pictures were stuck onto refrigerator doors with magnets. Children who transformed them into a family.

"Emotionally, you can't put a price on what we went through," said Doreen Vitale, who lives in Brick Town, N.J. "She took so much out of us. Mary Ann should some day feel the pain she put us through."

"The lies, the lies, the lies," Rosalie Kripinski said. "If I had a dollar for every lie. I never in my life hated anybody until now."

The couples in New Jersey never thought twice about signing with Mary Ann. Her pitch was effective and alluring; she promised the parents quick adoptions, Danback said. What clinched the deal, however, was the Cacacies' empathy. They had adopted two Central American children of their own.

"She knew the pain we were going through, I thought," Doreen said. "So I never questioned her."

Doreen and Jim Vitale were the agency's first clients. Like the families who followed, the Vitales had struggled to have a baby for more than a decade. They tried artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. Nothing worked.

For $6,000 -- all their savings -- the Vitales were assured by Mary Ann they could adopt a child from Honduras in about four months. In May of 1991, the Vitales picked the photo of the child they wanted, an 8-month-old boy. Then Mary Ann sweetened the deal for them:

"She told us there was a possibility that we could get another child for $1,000 more," Doreen said. The second boy was 13 months old. The Vitales agreed.


Mother-to-be's euphoriaturns to despair, anger

The couple arrived in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, two months later to meet with the Honduran adoption board and see the children. In a small hotel room, Doreen spent four days with the two boys.

"I was ecstatic. Euphoric is the word," Doreen said. "For so many years to want a child and then, all of a sudden, it's happening within several months. These boys are going to be mine."

Before they left Honduras, they were told by the agency's contact there that the babies would be home in six weeks. Right away, Doreen started baby-proofing the house and decorating the boys' room. Her mother threw a baby shower.

Then the excuses began. The first lady of Honduras has lupus and can't sign the paperwork, Mary Ann reportedly told Doreen. The first lady is traveling through China and is unavailable, she said a month later.

"Everything seemed so legitimate that we never questioned anything," Doreen said.

The following year, Doreen got another piece of bad news. One of her two sons had been reclaimed by his birth mother, even though it was supposed to have been a done deal.

Soon after, a phone call by another adoptive mother to the U.S. embassy turned up a fresh outrage: Olbin Mejia, the Honduran lawyer in charge of the four families' adoptions, had disappeared. Accused by the Honduran government of taking part in a baby-selling scam, he left the country.

The lawyer was blacklisted by the U.S. Embassy in Honduras on the grounds of moral turpitude and "the smuggling of people," said Paul Kozelka, an embassy spokesman.

Jim Cacacie said he had no idea the lawyer was engaged in illegal activities. "God knows what he did," Cacacie said. "He represented himself as a legitimate attorney."

The day before the Vitales were to pick up the other child in Honduras, the couple canceled the trip. The second Honduran lawyer assigned to them was making new demands -- an extra $10,000.

"And he says, 'Oh, yeah, bring everything down in cash,' " said Doreen, who had already spent $15,000 in agency fees, paperwork, travel expenses and phone bills. "Where are we supposed to get that kind of money? . . . That was it. We never got a phone call from anyone."


One after another, hopes of applicants are dashed

Rosalie and Bob Kripinski decided to adopt a baby in November 1991 for a different reason:

"We said, 'You know what? Let's adopt, take the stress off, and maybe we'll get pregnant,' " Rosalie said. "Instead, it was the adoption from hell."

Although Mary Ann Cacacie told them to expect their son soon after Christmas, two years passed. The couple didn't even get an appointment with the Honduran adoption board. And Rosalie, through her own investigating, found out the Honduran courts had shut down temporarily because of baby-selling scandals. Mary Ann Cacacie, she said, never told her a thing.

Jim Cacacie disputes that:

"Mary Ann continued to respond to inquiries. There was never any delay in any information."

Two years later, however, Rosalie discovered that her paperwork had never reached the Honduran adoption board. The board confirmed this for her in a May 1993 letter.

"Your documents were never introduced to be processed," the letter stated. "We suppose that these documents must be in the hands of the lawyer in charge of the case."

Ruth Larkin, a single mother, was so confident that Steven would be home by December 1991, she applied for parental leave from work. No baby arrived. Her birth mother vanished without signing the paperwork, Mary Ann reportedly told her.

"What makes it worse is that I bonded with him," Larkin said. "I had him sleeping with me in a porto-crib. I fed him, bathed him, and he was mine. No question about it at all."

The Oberskis were luckier. They got Stephani, a little Guatemalan girl, from the agency. But they lost Edward, the Honduran baby. Twice they traveled to Honduras to visit the boy. Two mortgages, two years and a heap of heartache later, they dropped the agency.

"We couldn't take any more emotionally, and we didn't have the money," Kathy Oberski said. "And we didn't know when we would get the child."


Cacacies go to Florida, clients get happy endings

If there was one decisive moment for the families, it was when they found one another. Together, they demanded answers from the Cacacies, first about the allegations of baby-selling in Honduras, later about the crooked Honduran lawyer. They didn't get any. In June 1992, they complained to the New Jersey licensing board. The state investigated.

"We stopped at about 17 violations," the licensing bureau's Danback said. "It wasn't important anymore. The important thing was to make sure it didn't go on."

Mary Ann Cacacie did more than bungle paperwork, he said.

"She made false promises," Danback said. "It's difficult to believe that she didn't understand what she was doing. She is an adoptive parent."

Faced with the mess, the Cacacies took off for Florida in August 1992, Danback said. They bought a home in Wellington, a posh community in western Palm Beach County.

Jim Cacacie, who answered the phone at Adoptions International, said the agency is not to blame for the problems in New Jersey. The four families wound up with no children because they "copped out," refusing to stay with the agency. He said the agency never guaranteed the families anything and when they complained, his wife offered them other children.

"Mary Ann didn't screw them," Cacacie said. "She had no control over countries and governments. . . . This is malicious harassment by the families. They abandoned their children, and it's a disgrace that they did that."

Last year was a good one for the New Jersey families. Working with other agencies, they all adopted kids within months. Larkin brought home Joshua from Paraguay. The Kripinskis adopted Brenden. And the Vitales found Danielle in Korea through Holt International Children Services.

But they can't forget the other children.

"I can't tell you how many times I have cried, how stressful it is on a marriage," Rosalie Kripinski said. "I still consider him my son. . . . He's still there in my heart."

Herald researcher Elisabeth Donovan contributed to this report.


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