FAMILIES: WE GOT RUNAROUND, NOT BABIES

Date: 2007-02-01

St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN)

MINNESOTA COUPLES COMPLAIN THEY PAID A NEW HOPE-BASED AGENCY FOR HELP ADOPTING FOREIGN CHILDREN, THEN HAD TO BEG FOR EVEN BASIC REPORTS. THE STATE ATTORNEY GENERAL WANTS AN AUDIT.

Author: FREDERICK MELO
Article Text:

Kathleen Gora and her husband consider themselves among the lucky ones.

The Goras, of Cottage Grove, applied to adopt a Guatemalan baby through Reaching Arms International of New Hope, Minn.

"They said they were a Christian agency," said Gora, a lawyer. "Nila Hilton told us she'd been called by God 'to build families,' and she was going to build our family. We really liked her."

But instead of finding a helpful guide through the legal morass of international adoption, the Goras and at least a dozen other families across Minnesota said they spent months begging Hilton, the agency president, and her husband, Tom Hilton, for basic documentation about the status of their applications.

Questions were met with angry responses, even threats that the process would be terminated, the families say. The Hiltons weren't shy, however, about assessing thousands of dollars in fees upfront -- or telling prospective parents to repent their allegiance to Satan.

Reaching Arms is now under investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Services, and state Attorney General Lori Swanson announced Wednesday she is seeking a court-appointed auditor to review its finances.

In a brief written statement to the media, Nila Hilton said Reaching Arms contracts with a licensed accounting firm to audit its finances annually.

"Our books and records are open," her statement said. "We are confident that this will all come out fine."

But parents who have waited -- sometimes in vain -- for adoptive children said everything has not been fine.

The Goras eventually received their daughter but not the amended birth certificate necessary to finalize the adoption in Minnesota.

Other families, like Joshua and Angela Lair of Glenville, paid more than $17,000 in hopes of adopting a child. The Lairs took out a second mortgage on their home to raise the money. They still don't have a baby, and Reaching Arms hasn't refunded their fees. The agency no longer returns their calls.

Brad and Beth Kantor, of Plymouth, fell in love with their daughter through photos but were able to adopt her only after ending their relationship with Reaching Arms and working through another agency.

Beth Kantor recalls Tom Hilton, a Reaching Arms board member, telling her that Satan's influence had caused her infertility, forcing her to adopt. Kantor, a registered nurse, had two biological children and was pregnant at the time.

Flanked by couples from across Minnesota, Swanson filed a 53-page suit against Reaching Arms in Hennepin County District Court.

A key issue, Swanson said, is that state law bars international adoption agencies from requiring fees in advance of rendering services.

The suit alleges Reaching Arms' problems date back at least two years.

During a Statehouse news conference, the families thanked Swanson for her help but criticized the Department of Human Services -- which licenses adoption agencies -- for not responding as aggressively.

A department spokeswoman said it had received 19 complaints about Reaching Arms and was investigating the agency. But she could not comment "on any action regarding the agency's license until the investigation is complete," which is likely to be by March, she said.

Reaching Arms was founded by Nila Hilton in 1992 and came recommended by an international adoption specialist in the office of Sen. Norm Coleman, the Lairs said. The couple recalled seeing pictures of Coleman with his arms around Reaching Arms staff.

Several families said they believed the agency had recently changed its staffing, adding Tom Hilton sometime last year. Last February, families received a letter from the agency begging for donations, indicating it faced "a financial crunch that has brought us to the brink of ruin."

Christine Moulder and Rick Spaulding of Minneapolis haven't given up hope they'll be reunited with their prospective daughter, whom they've visited twice in Guatemala.

Fighting tears Wednesday, Moulder said Reaching Arms forced her to pay for hours of "spiritual counseling" during which she was instructed by Tom Hilton to confess her sins.

" 'The devil has a hold of our family,' " Moulder remembers being told. "I honestly thought I had entered the Twilight Zone."

Frederick Melo can be reached at fmelo@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-2172.

Caption:
2 photos:

Kathleen Gora holds her daughter, Rocio, 15 months, in the family's Cottage Grove home. Gora says she and her husband waited for word from Reaching Arms International about their pending adoption of Rocio from Guatemala, and they still haven't received the documents necessary to finalize the adoption in Minnesota.

Kathleen Gora watches as Rocio plays with one of her dolls. Gora and her husband applied to adopt Rocio through Reaching Arms International of New Hope, and they still haven't received the documents necessary to complete the adoption in Minnesota.

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