Couples Wait With Empty Cradles / As adoptions stall, agencies taken to court

Date: 1997-01-05

Newsday (Melville, NY)

Series: Last in a series
Couples Wait With Empty Cradles / As adoptions stall, agencies taken to court

Author: Stephanie Saul. STAFF WRITER

"I know this news must come as a shock to you, and it is with regret that I relay it to you," said the letter from the U.S. Consulate in Paraguay.

The two-page letter to Mike and Millie Collica was dated Sept. 24, 1996. Attached to it was an article from the Asuncion newspaper Noticias with a picture of the child the South Hempstead couple had hoped to adopt.

"It is possible that the child you know as Moises Godoy is a stolen child, whose real relatives have recognized him from the photograph in the newspaper," the letter said.

At the very least, the letter said, U.S. Consulate officials would have to interview Moises' mother and, possibly, conduct blood tests to confirm the baby's identity.

It had been a year and a half since the Collicas had been told that the baby would be theirs.

They started trying to adopt in April, 1995, by contacting an agency called Today's Adoption. At first things moved quickly. After a three-hour meeting with a representative of the agency in her Farmingdale home, the Collicas left with a picture of Moises, then 8 months old.

Millie Collica spent the summer of 1995 decorating her nursery in soft shades of blue-green. She bought a crib and lined it with soft bumper pads. On the wall she hung a banner bearing the English name the Collicas planned to give their child, Steven.

The perfect little nursery is still waiting.

In September, New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco sued the Hawley, Pa., adoption agency in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, accusing it of defrauding the Collicas and other couples of thousands of dollars. The complaint says Today's Adoption has a history of violations, and the State Department of Social Services says it has received more complaints against Today's Adoption in recent years than against any other adoption agency operating in New York.

Today's Adoption denies the allegations. "Nobody was defrauded. Nobody was scammed," said Lawrence Gerzog, a Manhattan lawyer representing Today's Adoption. Gerzog blames the delays on a moratorium on adoptions by the government of Paraguay, where most of the adoptions are pending.

Thousands of foreign orphans have been successfully adopted by Americans in this decade, and most adoption agencies are legitimate. But many experts complain that the U.S. adoption industry is poorly regulated and that some unscrupulous agencies have taken money from vulnerable families only to leave them waiting for a baby who never arrives. Allegations that babies were promised but not delivered have cropped up in other parts of the country against other agencies.

In the Kansas City, Mo., area, six couples have sued an adoption agency, alleging that they were promised babies who never came. Their attorney, Daniel Markowitz, said two sets of prospective parents were given pictures of the same child. The agency's telephones have been disconnected, and attempts to contact it were unsuccessful.

In Atlanta, an agency folded last year after one of its top employees was indicted on charges of taking money from the company, according to Georgia state officials. The charges are pending.

"It got very complicated," said Jo Cato, director of the Georgia Department of Licensing. "The board was not aware of the embezzlement. They tried to finish as many adoptions as they could. The agency did refund a lot of couples. They tried to deal with it as responsibly as they could."

Dan Katz, a board member of the now-defunct agency, said the vast majority of adoptions were completed despite the alleged embezzlement.

Adoption agencies often warn clients in advance that portions of their fees are nonrefundable, even if the adoption doesn't go through. The policy is designed to protect agencies against the uncertainty of adoptions in foreign countries and the possibility that birth parents will reclaim their children at the last minute, among other risks.

"It's an area that's fraught with risk," said Markowitz. "They send you cuddly pictures and make you feel good." But the baby whose picture is hanging on your refrigerator might not be yours, Markowitz warns.

The director of Today's Adoption, Patricia Zuvic, says the problems are not her agency's fault. "The biggest problem is that the country of Paraguay is not allowing children to come home in the time frame they were supposed to come home," she said. "It's not the first time this has happened."

But Zuvic held out hope that the adoptions her agency had begun processing, including the Collicas', will still go through. She did not, however, offer to repay dissatisfied couples.

In court papers and news releases, the attorney general contends that Today's Adoption should pay refunds.

Vacco's office does not accuse Today's Adoption of involvement with illegal practices in Paraguay, such as theft of babies, although his office did say that Today's Adoption handpicked the attorneys it worked with and should be responsible for their actions. Zuvic said she discontinued dealing with attorneys accused of misconduct as soon as she learned of it.

According to Vacco, couples in New York City, Long Island, Westchester County, Albany, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were victimized by Today's Adoption. Vacco has obtained a temporary restraining order from State Supreme Court in Manhattan, barring Today's Adoption from recruiting new business in New York pending additional court action. The company continues to operate in other states and to work on pending adoptions in New York.

In addition to the Collicas, several other Long Island couples say they were victimized by Today's Adoption.

Among them are Jim and Ellen Giordano of Seaford, who said their "son's" picture was posted on their refrigerator for more than a year. Their 5-year-old daughter kept gazing at the picture and wondering when her little brother was coming home.

"She once grabbed her piggy bank and said, `Give this to the woman. That will make him come home sooner,' " Jim Giordano said. "A lot of emotional damage was done."

In September, 1995, Giordano cashed out his individual retirement accounts to pay a $10,000 deposit for his boy, Eduardo, who was supposed to arrive by Christmas. But another Christmas has passed , and the Giordanos still do not have Eduardo. They later learned that Paraguay had already placed a moratorium on adoptions by the time they paid the money.

For the Collicas, too, things moved very quickly at first. After their initial meeting with a Today's Adoption representative, they paid $9,500 within days toward the adoption's $22,000 cost. "It was everything we'd saved for nine years," Millie said. They had been saving for a down payment on a house. "We decided that it was more important to have a family than a house."

Friends and relatives lavished gifts on the couple, who had struggled with infertility. They got a car seat, a stroller, a high chair.

In September, 1995, the Collicas made their first trip to Paraguay to begin the adoption process. By that time, they had paid Today's Adoption the full $22,000. But when they went to the U.S. Consulate in Asuncion, they were told there had been delays in processing the adoption.

But the Collicas met the child they still believed would be theirs, a delightful, chubby 1-year-old who spent the week with them in their hotel. "We were there when he cut his first tooth," said Michael Collica, a salesman for Harrow's.

The Collicas returned home. They bought Christmas gifts for Steven in 1995, but Christmas came and went without him.

In February, Millie Collica, frustrated by delays, returned to Paraguay and stayed for five weeks in an attempt to complete her adoption. Again, she left the country discouraged by court delays and the apparent failure of the Paraguayan attorney assigned to her by Today's Adoption to process the case.

In September, the U.S. Consulate wrote to the Collicas saying the child's status was unclear. A woman claimed that he was her stolen grandson after a newspaper published an article about the Collicas' lawyer that included a picture of Moises, identified by another name.

A Mount Pleasant, S.C., adoption agency, Christian World, said the baby had been offered to one of its clients under another name - Hugo Ricardo Ledezma. Christian World has sued the attorney in Paraguay in connection with the case.

The consulate said all cases handled by the lawyer who represented the Collicas are under suspicion.

Today, Moises is still living in the custody of the Paraguayan adoption attorney as his case is unraveled by consulate officials. The Collicas hold out hope that Moises will be theirs one day. But that hope is fading. And now they worry about what will happen to him.

"They took our money and our dreams," said Millie Collica.

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