Agency, Families at Odds Over Adoptions

Date: 2003-04-27

Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Author: Katie Burford Journal Staff Writer

Norma Rea, a retired business owner from Florida, was elated when she received photos of a baby girl from Guatemala who was to be her daughter.

Chicago resident Carol Coughlin and her husband, Frank Griffin, couldn't wait to bring home Maria and Jefferson, a baby girl and boy born in Guatemala in early 2002.

Instead, what these prospective parents say they got was weeks of anguish and a string of empty promises from their Albuquerque adoption agency, A.M.O.R. Adoptions Inc.

Coughlin, who pulled out of that adoption and now has two children from a different agency, said she is still plagued by worries about what became of Maria and Jefferson.

Coughlin and Rea, along with several others, lodged complaints last year with the Children, Youth and Families Department, which regulates adoption agencies.

CYFD spokeswoman Romaine Serna said the agency substantiated many of the allegations it investigated. In November 2002, A.M.O.R.'s license was not renewed.

The agency has since been given a corrective action plan that it must sign to have its license renewed. It has not done so yet, Serna said.

Marian McAndrews
, head of the agency, said the problems her agency has had are being fixed, and all of her clients will get children.

"We are very certain we will be able to successfully complete the adoptions we have pending in as timely a manner" as possible.

A.M.O.R., Adoptions Made of Respect, specializes in the adoption of children from Guatemala and operates an hogar, or orphanage, in that country.

Under the corrective action plan, A.M.O.R. will be licensed for six months, then must be re-evaluated.

In the meantime, it must submit monthly status reports on pending adoptions. The agency has about 25 open cases.

The heartache

Rea said she started the adoption process through A.M.O.R. in October 2001 after learning of the agency on the Internet.

In December 2001, she received an e-mail from McAndrews: "We have 4 newborn girls into the hogar. The girls are all less than 2 weeks of age, they are from the Jutiapa and Zacapa regions to the north in Guatemala."

On Dec. 20, Rea was assigned a baby girl named Julia.

Rea did finally bring Julia home 10 months later but only after traveling to Guatemala, taking the girl out of the orphanage and hiring her own attorneys.

"I just can't tell you the heartache," she said in a phone interview. "Most families do not have the time or monies to do what I did."

She said she believes the adoption would never have happened had she not intervened.

McAndrews, in a written statement to the Journal, said that the adoption took longer than expected but that the agency refunded Rea's fee.

Rea said she paid A.M.O.R. $26,000 and received $14,000 back. Additional travel and legal expenses cost her $17,500, she said.

A.M.O.R. has been in Albuquerque since 1995 and has one local employee besides McAndrews.

McAndrews said the complaints against her agency stem from the experiences of a few disgruntled clients. She said most parents with whom she's worked are happy with her agency's services.

"Some people will never be satisfied," she said.

The Journal asked CYFD for copies of the complaints against A.M.O.R. and the corrective action. CYFD denied the request, made under the state's Inspection of Public Records Act, stating that the records contained confidential information.

Serna, however, disclosed the general allegations against A.M.O.R. that she said were substantiated by CYFD:

  • Applicants were matched with children who were represented as having certificates of abandonment but weren't really free for adoption.
  • The agency did not adequately account for money it collected from applicants.
  • Applicants were not given complete information on the well-being either physical or emotional of the children.
  • Applicants were charged for care of children not assigned to them or not free for adoption.


Repeated reassurances?

Coughlin, a 44-year-old chief financial officer of an insurance company, said A.M.O.R. assigned her two newborns in February 2002. Shortly after, she paid $19,500, half her total fee.

But she became concerned about A.M.O.R. after learning through the Internet of other clients' experiences. She said McAndrews repeatedly assured her the adoption was proceeding as planned, but Coughlin asked for verification before paying the other half of her fees. When she didn't receive it, she started making phone calls.

In a March 22, 2002, letter to McAndrews, she recounted what she learned: "Neither (A.M.O.R.'s Guatemalan) attorney ... nor the embassy has any record of our case. No DNA tests have been filed or scheduled, our dossier has not been to Guatemala and no appointments were made with Family Court to have a social worker assigned. Nothing has been done since our initial payment."

The DNA test to prove that the children belong to those offering them for adoption is required by Guatemalan law, as are the other steps Coughlin enumerated in the e-mail.

Coughlin and her husband decided to pull out of the adoption, and their attorney sent A.M.O.R. a letter demanding a refund. In May, they got their money back, minus about $1,600 for expenses listed as nonrefundable.

In a complaint to CYFD provided to the Journal by Coughlin, she wrote about how difficult this decision was.

"I still worry about whatever happened to Jefferson and Maria. Are they alive? Did someone else adopt them?"

McAndrews said the delay in Coughlin's case was because of a misunderstanding in the office of the Guatemalan attorney who was supposed to be working on her case.

The problem was resolved, she said, but because of Coughlin's "lack of faith" in the agency, she "felt it best to grant their request and issue a complete and prompt refund."

Coughlin and her husband ended up doing an international adoption through another agency.

"It went the way it should," she said. They brought their children home before they were 5 months old, she said.

Visits to Guatemala

Rea and another client, Indiana resident Elizabeth Wolverton, alleged in their complaints that the agency's orphanage in Guatemala is understaffed and that the children are not properly cared for. They provided copies of these to the Journal.

Rea said that when she went to get Julia, the baby had a rash that turned out to be scabies. Medical records showed that she had gained less than a pound since her birth four months earlier, Rea said.

McAndrews said she could not talk about the details of Rea's case because a confidentiality agreement was part of the adoption.

Wolverton said that, in 1999, she was permitted to enter the facility when she went to pick up the 5-year-old she adopted, Rocio. The girl stayed in A.M.O.R.'s orphanage, but her adoption was not handled by the agency.

Wolverton said that the place appeared clean but that she was concerned that toys and pictures she had sent for the girl were locked away.

"They were 'saving' them so that Rocio would have something new to take home with her," she wrote in an e-mail. "I did not feel that the children had adequate 'emotional' care or stimulation."

Rocio lived in the orphanage for more than a year while the adoption was processed. In addition to a monthly fee of $350 for her care, Wolverton was told by McAndrews in an e-mail that she needed to pay $500 for medications that were destroyed by Rocio when she became a little "overactive" and unplugged the refrigerator where they were being stored.

McAndrews, in her written statement, said Rocio's behavior was uncontrollable and she caused other damage at the orphanage for which Wolverton was not charged.

"We tried to be as fair and professional as possible," she said.

Wolverton said that when she returned home with Rocio, it was soon apparent that the girl was suffering from severe emotional problems that caused her to have frequent violent outbursts. Wolverton said that counseling and medication had little effect and that Rocio had to be watched constantly to prevent her from harming Wolverton's other daughter.

With great despair, she gave Rocio up for adoption to a family experienced in dealing with children who suffer attachment disorders, a range of problems stemming from a child's inability to bond with their parents.

Wolverton said she doesn't know where the girl's emotional problems started she stayed at another orphanage before A.M.O.R. but she doesn't believe her stay there helped.

McAndrews vehemently denied that the orphanage is understaffed or has problems.

"This is outrageous," she wrote in her statement. "We have a staff of 42 nannies ... This does not include cooks, cleaning, and administration staff or volunteers."

McAndrews said clients of hers who had been there recently would vouch for this and she asked Linda Livingston of Albuquerque to contact the Journal.

Livingston said she visited the orphanage in January with her son, who is in the process of adopting a child through A.M.O.R.

"We were impressed that not only were the living areas clean but so were all the children," she wrote in an e-mail to the Journal.

In a phone interview, Livingston said her son and daughter-in-law hoped to have the baby boy assigned to them home by next month.

"We've been very happy with everything," she said.

McAndrews said she was confident that all her pending adoptions would be finalized.

She said she runs an adoption agency because she is committed to helping children.

"I am a professional social worker with 15-plus years in this field. I do not own and operate an orphanage for any other reason than to save the children," she wrote in her statement to the Journal. "We are not in this field to make money but to save children from illness, starvation and almost certain death."

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