One Year in Adoption Hell

Date: 1996-09-23

New York Magazine
Mark Frankel

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Citing "despicable" practices, the state last week took action to shut down one of the region's most notorious adoption agencies. For the author, who still doesn't know if his prospective child even exist, it was justice at last.

How do you mourn a child you never had, never held, for that matter, maybe never existed? That question has been nagging me for months, After years of struggling with infertility and miscarriages before the birth of our son three years ago, my wife, Susan, and I decided we could not weather the heartbreak of trying and I decided we could not weather the heartbreak of trying to conceive another child. So last year we contracted with Today's Adoption Agency, one of the largest international agencies in the Northeast, to adopt a child from Paraguay. The snapshot the agency sent us of our daughter-to-be showed a butter cream-colored infant with legs like plump sausages and a shock of black hair. We renamed her Molly and put her picture in the dining room for all to see.

She disappeared form our life as abruptly as she had entered it. On the last day of February, we attended a meeting at Today's Fort Lee, New Jersey, offices, located a few hundred yards for the George Washington Bridge. We were among a dozen families who had been called out to meet with the agency's staff after we had complained about the slow progress of our adoptions. It was a desperate bunch, including a prison guard, and IBM employee, a paralegal, software programmers, a physician, and a UPS manager, yet we were united by a sense of frustration and helplessness. We had paid the agency thousands of dollars in hopes of adoption a Paraguayan child - as much as $15,000 in a few cases. Yet we were left with many unanswered questions and nagging suspicions. What had happened to the medical reports we had been promised? Why had we received no court papers? Why had some adoptions mysteriously fallen through?

At the center of the room stood the executive director and founder of Today's Adoption, a thin, stylish 54-year-old Chilean-American named Patricia Zuvic, known simply as Pat. She responded to our questions, but her answered contradicted one another, piling up like boxcars in a train wreck. Paraguay was in the midst of a severe political and economic crisis, she said: later, she suggested that while European families were being processed smoothly, lingering anti-American sentiment in Paraguay was hurting our cases. This was not going over well. One man announced that after nearly two years, he was so frustrated that he was canceling his contract. He and his wife were emotionally and financially depleted, he explained, then stalked out. Zuvic adamantly rejected suggestions that she should go to Paraguay herself to clear up the mess. She could just as effective here, she insisted. Few of the weary families in the room were inclined to believe her.

Finally, tiring of Zuvic's obfuscation, I challenged her to produce some evidence that our adoptions were even legally registered in Asuncion. "You don't need any body's permission to open those file cabinets," I said. "If you have legal documents, let's see them now." Hesitantly, she nodded to her daughter Denise, 28, a pie-faced woman who works alongside her mother as the agency's director. A handful of documents relating to other cases was hauled from a drawer and passed about the room. When she came to us, however, Pat Zuvic came up empty. "Mr. and Mrs. Frankel," she said frostily. "I have not proof that your child exist." It would be weeks perhaps months, before she knew anything, she said. Although we had known something was wrong, neither my wife nor I had come prepared for this. She refused to discuss refunds, though she reminded us that we were free to break our contract and forfeit the $9,500 deposit. When we finally arrived home that night, we gazed one last time at the photo we had received six months earlier, then packed it away. A few weeks later, we canceled our contract, too.

MY WIFE AND I HAD THOUGHT WE WERE ENTERING INTO INTERNATIONAL adoption with our eyes wide open - she's a physician, and I'm a writer for Newsweek. Following our decision to cancel the contract, I started my own investigation of Today's Adoption and began calling some of the other families I met in Fort Lee. As word spread, I began to receive call from strangers who had their own stories of adoption gone wrong with the agency. It turns out that Today's Adoption, which is licensed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and permitted to operate in New York, had left a trail of unmet premises and distraught families throughout the Northeast and as far away as Ohio and Indiana. While the Agency has completed hundreds of successful adoption, Today's Adoption has generated scores of complaints to state officials: some 50 in Pennsylvania, 20 in New York, 10 in New Jersey, plus at least a half dozen lawsuits since 1991. "No other agency even comes close," said John Stupp, a lawyer with the New York State Department of Social Services in Albany, the agency responsible for licensing adoption businesses in the state.

A review of the complaints (some obtained under freedom-of-information laws), interviews with 26 past and present clients of Today's Adoption and state regulators, and an examination of legal records reveal a pattern of sleaze, mismanagement, and outright deception on the part of Today's, the Zuvics, and their agents, Since 1990, at least 24 families have paid the agency a total of $285,000, I learned, only to walk away without a child; only a handful have received refunds, and then only after taking the agency to court.

Last week, New York's attorney general, Dennis Vacco, gained a temporary restraining order to shut down the agency in New York State. He called their actions "despicable." In the civil complaint, filed in the State Supreme Court in Manhattan, Vacco charge that the Zuvics and a cohort "engaged in and are continuing to engage in fraudulent and illegal actions" despite warnings from state agencies to stop. A criminal investigation is also under way. (Full disclosure: My affidavit is part of Vacco's brief against the agency.)

Patricia Zuvic could not be reached for immediate comment about Vacco's action. but I did manage to contact her earlier last week to discuss my case. "We have the documents to prove that [your] child is there," she said by phone from her Hawley, Pennsylvania, office. We have the documents that prove that [your] case is there." She then tied to persuade me I was morally, obligated to resume the adoption my wife and I had canceled months before. "A child's life is at stake," she said. Zuvic agreed to answer questions about Today's Adoption in a later interview, but when I called back at the arranged time, her daughter Denise told me a "family emergency" had called her mother out of the office.

Today's record, while extreme, illustration the dark side of international adoption. More than 10,000 Americans will adopt children from other counties this year, accounting for about one seventh of all U.S. adoptions. Many families choose to go this route convinced, in the wake of the "Baby Jessica" imbroglio, that an international adoption is less risky than a domestic one. Unlike in the Jessica case-where the birth parents reclaimed their child 2 1/2 years after she was adopted there is little chance that long-lost parents will step out of the South American shadows to reclaim their child. Other families go this route believing that they will get a child faster, or simply, because they think it is their best chance of receiving a healthy infant. (Spurring the demand for intentional babies is the reluctance of domestic adoption agencies to place black children with white parents. As a result, many white families feel they have little choice but to search overseas. This is changing; last month, President Clinton signed a bill that forbids federally funded agencies from allowing racial considerations to delay a child's adoption.)

Most international adoptions go off without a hitch, but the process does involve many pitfalls and few guarantees. Let's start with unfamiliar foreign laws and legal practices. And international adoption, for all intents, is unregulated by any state, U.S., or international authority. It is impossible to say accurately how many cases each year fall prey to unscrupulous operators, because nobody is keeping count. While state licensing bureaus have legal jurisdiction over agencies like Today's, in practice local regulators do not have the time, money, or means to adequately supervise adoptions initiated and completed in a faraway land. (Imagine your state motor-vehicle bureau certifying international airline pilots-as well as air-traffic controllers from Mexico City to Beijing) "I have a hard enough time keeping close tabs on a case in the next county. Forget an adoption carried out thousands of miles away," one state adoption official told me.

After the government of Ukraine closed the country to foreign adoptions in 1993, Today's Adoption continued to take money from families wishing to adopt children there "despite the impossibility of that occurring," according to a January 6, 1994, New York Department of Social Services letter to Today's Adoption. A client who signed a contract to adopt a Salvadoran infant in December 1989 was shocked to discover, after more than a year of waiting, that his initial adoption papers had not been filed with the foreign court until January 1991. "Zuvic [had] assured me that the " legal process was proceeding appropriately . . . and that it was remotely possible [the child] would be home by Christmas 1990," the client wrote to New York State regulators (names are kept confidential under state law). "I hesitated to push or complain because I knew they had the power to stop the adoption," the client added. It turned out, according to state regulators, that the Salvadoran lawyer retained by Today's Adoption was arrested by local authorities for baby selling and suspended from practicing law. In one extreme instance cited by Vacco last week, Today's Adoption had assigned a Chilean child that was so sick it later died. In another instance, a couple who had successfully brought a child home was stunned to receive a follow-up visit not from a social worker, as is customary, but from a sanitation worker.

Denise Zuvic was at a loss to explain why Today's Adoption had generated so many complaints. "I don't know how the other agencies run their program," she told me last week, "so I don't know why their complaint list would be smaller."

James and Patricia Basta of Southbury, Connecticut, worked with Today's Adoption for three years. During that lime, they were assigned four separate children (three in Chile, one in Guatemalal for adoption. Despite Pat Zuvic's repeated assurances Patricia Basta says, each case collapsed, once only hours before the couple's departure for Chile. "I was totally hysterical on the phone when Pat told me the fourth assignment had fallen through," recalls Basta, a former airline stewardess. "We had already sent out pictures of this child to our families." The couple is now suing the agency for the return of $ 13,650 in advance payments.

More-recent complaints center on Paraguay where dozens of Today's Adoption clients have been mired for months in the country's byzantine legal system. Since signing a contract with the agency last May, Mike and Millie Collica of South Hempstead, Long Island, estimate they have spent $38,000, scraped from family members, trying to bring their adoptee home. It has not been pleasant. Milieu Collica says she received a call from her Paraguayan attorney's mother this past February telling her that her child, who was optimistically named Steven, was suffering from malnutrition, high fevers, and diarrhea. During a frantic solo trip to Paraguay a few weeks later, she was astonished to learn that her lawyer had not touched her case in months. The lawyer, she says, claimed that he had not been paid by Today's Adoption and demanded cash from her to resume working. Upon returning to the states, the couple severed contract with the agency. "This was probably the most painful, grueling experience that any infertile couple cold go through," Millie Collica says, "It was like losing a child." Citing adoption confidentially laws, Denise Zuvic refused to discuss this or other specific cases.

Before it was shut down last week, Today's Adoption handled about 80 cases in a normal year, Denise Zuvic says. That caseload places it in the "high-middle range" of all private U.S. agencies according to an official with Adoptive Families of America, which helps families seeking adoptions. Not all average, however, was Today's solicitation approach. The agency matched children with clients before the clients were screened and a formal personal evaluation had been conducted, former clients say, sometimes doing so minutes after the applicants' initial interview had gotten underway. Linda Yarosh, of Bayonne, New Jersey, says she was assigned a child in Paraguay over the telephone about a week after she had called the agency in January 1995 to inquire about the possibility of a foreign adoption. "I was really surprised-it was 1-2-3. I thought it was ment to be," she recalled recently, 21 months and $20,000 later. She is still waiting. New Jersey's Bureau of licensing recently found that Today's had violated ten provisions of the state adoption code. The state ordered the agency to stop its practice of assigning children to prospective families before evaluating clients and requiring families to pay before signing a contract. "I haven't encountered many adoption agencies that operate in this manner, said Stephen Hatola, assistant chief of the New Jersey bureau.

To vulnerable couples, the pitch was irresistible, It certainly was in our case. One evening last September, lrwin Wein, a social worker affiliated with Today's Adoption, called us at home. Wein already knew of our interest in finding a child-a few weeks earlier we had hired him independently to write a required report on our fitness as adoptive parents, which we planned to submit to a Manhattan agency. That night, Wein called on his own account. If we were still interested, he told us, Today's Adoption had Paraguayan children available immediately. At his suggestion, we quickly dialed his colleague Barbara Trent, the agency's Long Island-based director of placement, who reeled off the names and vital stats of a half- dozen Paraguayan infants and invited us to take our pick.

But there was one catch. We had to move quickly, Trent told us. Paraguay was on the verge of suspending foreign adoptions, she said. We had only a few days to get our completed paperwork to the agency, together with a check for $9,500-about half of the total fee. Before we hung up that night, we had settled on Tarytha, a little girl who we were told was only four weeks old. During the next 24 hours, we called Trent repeatedly for more details and pressed her for the exact date the moratorium was to take hold. Her answers were muddled-a week? the end of the month'?-but she assured us we could probably plan on bringing our new daughter home by April, six months later. Crossing our fingers, we sent off our paperwork and check and began the happy task of preparing for our new baby (Wein and Trent both refused to sit for a telephone interview last week.)

After the initial flurry of phone calls, the line to Today's seemed to go dead. A promised medical report never arrived. Nor did documents that proved our case was registered with the Asuncion courts; all we had was a slightly blurry snapshot of our child and a copy of a birth certificate. When we ran into Pat Zuvic at a convention for adoptive and would-be adoptive parents around Thanksgiving, she told us once again that our case was moving smoothly.

By Christmas, however, I had grown sufficiently concerned that I contacted the American consulate in Asuncion, which registers adoptions in progress. It had no record of our case. Alanned by media reports of organized baby thefts in Paraguay, I called the Minneapolis offices of the Adoptive Families of America to ask about the allegations, and received a worse shock: The government of Paraguay, according to a U.S. State Department memo that the family organization faxed to me, had suspended all foreign adoptions on September 18, 1995-the day before Irwin Wein had called us. Increasingly distraught, I called the Asuncion consulate again to ask whether there was any way our adoption could be legitimate. A U.S. official there graciously offered to contact the two Paraguayan lawyers Today's Adoption had assigned to us. A few days later, I was informed that both attorneys had denied any knowledge of our case and our child.

That night, I called Pat Zuvic; for once, I got through immediately. Nearly beside myself with rage, I asked why the Paraguayan lawyers had disavowed our case. Zuvic calmly reiterated that our case was going ahead normally and accused the lawyers of lying. "You are a very angry person, Mr. Frankel." she told me. About that, at least, she was right. She agreed to mail us documents proving that Tarytha did in fact exist and that our adoption was legally registered in the Paraguayan courts. A few days later, I received a packet from Today's Adoption containing a smattering of documents, internal memos, and canceled agency checks. It proved nothing, other than that some of our money had been spent. Then came the February meeting at which Pat Zuvic told us our child might not exist. A few weeks after that, we canceled our contract and requested a full refund. We also filed a fraud complaint with the state. Although the state subsequently requested that Today's Adoption refund our money, the Zuvics have refused to do so, saying that they had in- formed us before we signed our contract that Paraguay had suspended foreign adoptions.

PAT ZUVIC MADE ADOPTION HER PROFESSION IN THE EARLY EIGHTIES, a few years after she herself had adopted a Chilean infant, according to information gleaned from licensing records. In 1984, she went to work for Today's Family, a nonprofit agency in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Her boss was David Verplank, a prominent Long Island private-adoption attorney best known for playing a supporting role in the Lisa Steinberg case a few years later. (Verplank helped place the infant Travis Smigiel in die home of Joel Stcinberg and Hedda Nussbaum. Steinberg was later convicted of beating their five-year-old adoptive daughter- to death; Verplank was not charged.)

Today's Adoption Agency, which Zuvic formed in 1988 shortly after Verplank dissolved Today's Family, has seemed to go out of its way to court controversy. Late last year, the agency sent out announcements welcoming Stanley Michclman as its new director of domestic adoptions. A well-known Pearl River. New York, attorney, Michelman had run one of the largest private-adoption practices in the New York region. Until October 1994, that is, when he was suspended from the practice of law for three years on six charges of professional misconduct arising from two private adoptions in which he represented both the biological mother and the adoptive parents.

Regulators have been trying to bring Today's Adoption Agency to heel for some time. Pennsylvania's Department of Children, Youth and Family Services has refused to renew the agency's license since 1994. Today's Adoption is appealing and is for the moment being allowed to stay open. Among the agency's serious legal violations, the state alleges, were running an unlicensed foster home, charging clients for costs unrelated to their adoption (including $200 for skis purchased by Denise Zuvic) and failing to complete a child- abuse check on a foster mother.

One of the main questions in the minds of the various state investigators probing Today's Adoption is where the money has gone. A rough calculation of fees charged by Today's Adoption, multiplied by the number of cases it takes on each year, suggests an annual cash flow well into the seven figures (authorities cite similar numbers). In any case, the Zuvics do not seem to be suffering. Pat Zuvic owns two houses in Tafton, Pennsylvania, of undetermined value, a 1996 Chevy Hlazer valued at $28,000, and a $10,000 motorboat, and she shares ownership of a third home, in Lakeville, Pennsylvania, with daughter Denise. Pat Zuvic apparently managed this life on a gross income of only $12,443 in 1993 and $14,811 in 1994, according to federal tax rectums entered into public record as part of the Basta case against Today's Adoption. (As of this February 8, Denise Zuvic had not yet filed U.S. tax returns for 1993 or 1994. Last year's returns for mother and daughter were unavailable.) Meanwhile, less than $1,700 was held in the agency's bank accounts, according to a filing by Today's Adoption in the same case. Denise said she couldn't explain the agency's bank balances: "That would be something the accountants have to handle." (State officials said last week that they were attempting to freeze the Zuvics' assets and ordered the agency to refund money owed clients.)

What can families do to protect themselves against unscrupulous agencies? Prospective parents should, of course, make sure their agency is licensed and demand a complete list of references. Ask you state licensing bureau whether the agency has received any recent complaints. You might also want ton consult the local chapter of the Adoptive Parents Committee or the National Council for Adoption in Washington. Bout our experience shows that you can ask the right question and still wind u with the wrong agency. The be defense is to employ common sense. Any offer of adoption that sounds too good to be true probably is. As for ourselves, we have decided to try again: in tow weeks, we'll be off to adopt a baby girl in China. The contract between our new agency and Today's Adoption could not be greater. Our phone calls have been returned promptly; we've been informed ever step of the way. We've even been told we overpaid and now have a $100 agency credit. We're been informed every step of the way. We've still trying to decide what to call her. Molly, unfortunately, is out. That name has already been used by us once, and like the child was attached to, it's lost forever.

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