Parsippany couple lose funds, but not hope

Date: 2004-04-04

Daily Record (Morristown, NJ)
Author: CHRIS GOSIER

PARSIPPANY -- Bob and Judy Baker invested their hopes, wishes and more than $10,000 in an adoption agency placing children from a Guatemalan orphanage. They dreamed of bringing their new daughter, Maria, to their Mount Tabor home, where their adopted son eagerly awaited the arrival of his little sister.

A few months later, the shocking news came: their money was gone and the agency had shuttered its New Mexico office. Their adoption was in limbo.

The Bakers are among 40 families nationwide who each lost thousands of dollars to an adoption agency that had stopped sending funds to its Guatemalan orphanage, while giving families erroneous information about their adoptions, according to another adoption agency that has stepped in to help the families.

That agency, Children's Hope International in St. Louis, is suing A.M.O.R. Adoptions for the costs of maintaining an orphanage for the children, and is trying to find out what happened to the money sent by families over the past few years.

In the meantime, the Bakers are continuing the adoption paperwork and procedures and holding out hope.

"I even now have a hard time believing this happened," said Judy Baker, who works as a registered nurse. She was working at her computer on March 4 when the call came from Children's Hope, telling her the money was gone.

"I was in shock," she said. "I sat at that computer for an hour and a half."

She learned that electricity had been temporarily turned off at A.M.O.R.'s Guatemala orphanage because the bill hadn't been paid. Some employees had left because they hadn't been paid in months, either. The orphanage was running on loans and was thousands of dollars in debt for diapers, baby formula and other supplies.

"Conditions really hadn't gotten very bad at that point, but they were going there fast," said Alicia Schnell, director of CHI's Latin American program. "The bills and workers weren't being paid, and the monies weren't coming from (A.M.O.R.'s) New Mexico office."

Families like the Bakers had been left to assume otherwise.

The Bakers adopted their 8-year-old son, Sam, from Guatemala through A.M.O.R. in 1996 and always thought of adopting a second child. Sam was clean and happy --"like a spit-shined shoe"-- and they had no reason to suspect trouble with A.M.O.R., Baker said.

Judy Baker got a call in November from Marian McAndrews, head of A.M.O.R., who said she had two young girls and a boy available for adoption. Baker expressed interest, and 8-year-old Sam learned on Christmas that his wish for a younger sister might soon come true. Under the tree was a doll bearing a message: "Please give this doll to your little sister when she gets here."

In January, A.M.O.R. told the Bakers of another child ready for adoption: 6-month-old Maria Jose Marcos Suchite. The Bakers sent the $10,500 assignment fee to A.M.O.R., setting the adoption in motion.

Powerful attachment

She described a powerful attachment that took hold as soon as she saw the baby's photo.

"When you get these pictures ... you attach to that child. That becomes your child," she said. "It's an emotional thing that happens."

Sam's excitement showed through in his statements: for Christmas, he said, "I got a hamster and a little sister." He told a school counselor he had a headache because "I am trying to learn so much to teach my little sister," Baker said.

Since learning about the loss of their money, the Bakers have corresponded via the Internet with other families who lost money to A.M.O.R. They're continuing with the adoption, and just had the required home study completed.

But their frustration is evident. The $10,500 was supposed to pay for legal fees, DNA testing and child care; now that money must be raised again, either by Children's Hope or by the Bakers.

"I'm so powerless to help my child and make sure her needs are being met," Baker said.

Schnell learned of the problems because CHI was involved in 14 of the 40 adoptions pending through A.M.O.R. Some families lost $25,000 because they paid the entire fee up front, she said. Some adoptive parents lost as much as $50,000 because they were adopting two children.

Stepped in

Children's Hope and other parties, including another adoptive parent and an American who runs an orphanage in Antigua, Guatemala, have stepped in to help care for the children and complete the adoptions.

They're also being helped by Rudy Rivera, an adoption attorney in the United States who runs the adoption agency Children of the World, according to CHI.

Many of the children, including Maria, have been transferred to the Antigua orphanage. Children's Hope is appealing for funds to complete the legal work required for the adoptions, and is planning fundraisers, including a concert in St. Louis featuring Russian pianists Svetlana and Svyatoslav Levin, Schnell said.

Children's Hope claims that A.M.O.R. gave families erroneous information about the status of adoption cases. The CHI lawsuit claims that A.M.O.R. completed none of the 14 adoptions for which it received about $25,000 apiece in fees, according to a published report.

McAndrews could not be reached for comment. A.M.O.R. Adoptions could not be located in New Mexico and its Web site, www.amoradoptions.com, says only that the site is "unavailable until further notice."

The Bakers had expected to pick up their new daughter this summer, but are now hoping to do it in seven to nine months.

They're considering ways to raise money -- working overtime, possibly, or getting help from friends and family. Bob Baker, a steamfitter, said they may simply put down less money when they buy a new house up the street, where they hope to move in May.

The troubles with A.M.O.R. have added uncertainty and delay to a process that was already long and laborious.

"Why can't we move it along, why does it have to take so long?" Judy Baker said. "It's so costly, and it takes so long, and these kids need homes."

Chris Gosier may be reached at (973) 428-6667 or cgosier@gannett.com.

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