International Adoption: Broken dreams

Date: 2008-06-18

Denver Post, The (CO)

In a shifting landscape of rules and regulations, a Boulder agency has left families in tears and its director facing criminal charges.

Author: Karen Auge The Denver Post

It started simply enough: A Westminster couple, like so many others across the country, wanted to adopt a child. Two children, in fact.

So Jaspal Singh and Linda Carlson-Singh did their homework, checked references and settled on an adoption agency: the Claar Foundation in Boulder.

They filled out paperwork, endured scrutiny by social workers, paid Claar $59,200 and fell in love with a 3-year-old orphan in Guatemala named Manolo.

And then, things got complicated.

Whether the Singhs and another couple are victims of felony theft, as Boulder prosecutors contend, or were just caught in the death spiral of a business facing tough times will be up to a jury to decide.

The exact reasons the Claar Foundation closed will probably become clear as the trial unfolds. Whatever the cause of its demise, it is but one failed agency in a complex enterprise undergoing cataclysmic change.

Countries dance on and off the international- adoption stage often with little warning or reason, leaving parents in emotional turmoil and agencies in financial straits. New international rules promise to shut out countries that can't or won't abide by those rules, further squeezing U.S. agencies out of a field some say has been overcrowded.

Ultimately it all means fewer foreign-born children are finding homes in this country.

For the Singhs, days of waiting for word that they could pick up their child turned to weeks. Weeks turned to months. Claar's director, Lisa Novak, asked for more money, money she said the orphanage was demanding.

Then came a call from Guatemala. "Why have the American parents of this child not come to take him home?" Jaspal Singh recalled an attorney for Manolo asking. If you don't come before year's end, the attorney warned, you'll lose him.

That is how Linda Carlson-Singh wound up in Guatemala, alone, pleading with officials at the U.S. Embassy to help her untangle red tape and take her boy home.

Six months later, Manolo, who is now called Michael, lives in Westminster, is learning English and sings along with Barney on TV. There will be no second adoption; the Claar Foundation is closed, and Novak is awaiting trial on charges she stole thousands from the Singhs and another couple.

Riding an adoption wave

Starting in the 1990s, the adoption of foreign-born children into American homes exploded. The phenomenon was fueled in part by a confluence of wealth in this country and poverty in others, along with the decision of many American couples to put off having children, in some cases for too long, said Karen Rotabi, a professor of social work at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies international adoption.

In 1990, 7,093 children came to new adoptive homes in the U.S. By 2004 that number had more than tripled, to 22,884.

To meet the growing call for children from overseas, "agencies were springing up all over" - often with little oversight and scant regulation, Rotabi said. In some states, opening an adoption agency has been "not much different than applying for a business license."

Not in Colorado.

Colorado requires criminal background checks of anyone working in an international-adoption agency, mandates they be audited yearly and conducts regular inspections, said Dana Andrews of the state Human Services Department.

The department also requires adoption agencies to disclose upfront all costs, she said.

As the Singhs learned, even those rules cannot completely shield aspiring parents from trouble. But the rules are some of the reasons this state is the only one in the nation that can accredit adoption agencies under the Hague Convention on International Adoption, which took effect April 1.

"We already have high requirements compared with most states, and we thought most of our agencies would not have trouble meeting the standards," Andrews said.

So far, only 11 of Colorado's 26 licensed international-adoption agencies, including the Claar Foundation, have applied for Hague accreditation.

The Hague standards were crafted with the goal of protecting children, the U.S. State Department says.

"We wanted to know where children were going. Everyone wanted to make sure it was the right thing for the children," said Catherine Monahan, State Department chief for Hague adoption implementation.

Most of those who opened adoption agencies in the past decade wanted that too, said Chuck Johnson, a vice president with the National Council for Adoption.

Some hung out shingles out of religious faith, some understood the complexities of the undertaking, some didn't. And some had no business being in the business.

"I think some of the agencies - a small number - that are closing, it's good that they're gone," Johnson said.

Even those with the best intentions often found themselves in over their heads in a complex and constantly changing endeavor, Johnson said.

Attractive on paper

According to her resúmé, Novak knew what she was getting into.

Novak, a former Erie town trustee, has described herself as an attorney who specializes in international law, as well as an "adoption-reform advocate."

State records indicate she has been involved with several adoption agencies, including One Light Adoptions Inc., which she and her brother Joseph Novak opened in 2002. He filed suit against her in 2005, claiming she was mishandling money. They settled out of court.

That same year, Novak and her husband, Martin Claar, opened the Claar Foundation.

Last year, Martin Claar told Boulder Women's Magazine that his wife had extensive experience in international law and became interested in adoption after visiting Third World orphanages.

"She provided personal support for orphanages in each country she went to, and that evolved into her getting her attorney colleagues and multibillion-dollar corporate giant clients to contribute to the orphanages as well," Claar told the magazine.

"With those skills under her belt, we felt she could be particularly effective, and she has been!" he said.

It was those skills and experience that attracted people like the Singhs, and Jennifer and Peter Piccolo.

"We liked Claar because we liked Lisa Novak," Jennifer Piccolo said. "She said she helped write all those (Hague) rules."

The Denver couple, who have a son, Max, paid $7,000 in hopes of adding a little girl to their family. But eventually, the relationship with Claar soured, Piccolo said.

Changing landscape

The year the Claar Foundation opened, 2005, marked the first time in decades that international adoptions declined.

That decline accelerated in the two years since, according to the U.S. State Department. In 2006, the number of foreign-born children adopted into U.S. homes had dropped by nearly 2,000, to 20,679. By last year that number had dropped further, to 18,748.

"This has been a disastrous two years in the world of intercountry adoptions," Johnson said.

Two years ago, as many as 700 agencies nationwide were licensed to arrange international adoptions. Now they number 400 or so, Johnson estimated. Over the next year, that number will dwindle further, he predicted.

In Colorado, four of the 27 agencies - including the Claar Foundation - licensed to handle international adoptions have closed in the past year. Of those that remain, nearly half are losing money, according to a state report released May 1.

They are losing money, despite fees typically in five figures. But international adoptions are often tricky and expensive to complete, Johnson said.

The Singhs say they paid Claar $58,950 for two adoptions.

Then, in November 2007, the Singhs say Novak told them the orphanage was demanding more money to care for Manolo while the paperwork dragged on.

"Lisa threatened that if we didn't come up with $6,471, we would lose our son," the Singhs said in an e-mail.

After some haggling, the Singhs say they paid her $3,471.

Depending on the country, being asked to pay more for a child's ongoing care isn't all that unusual, Monahan said. "If there is a situation where it is delayed, of course you might have to pay additional expenses for the child. You don't want a situation where the child isn't fed."

But the new Hague standards require that every expense be documented. In the Singhs' case, the additional money never made it to the orphanage.

The couple says Novak told them she stopped payment on the check "to use it as leverage" to persuade the orphanage to move ahead with the adoptions, Jaspal Singh said.

In court last month, however, Boulder police Detective Jeff Kithcart testified that a check from Novak to the orphanage on the Singhs' behalf bounced.

Novak hardly charged excessive fees, her attorney, Lance Goff, argues.

In fact, the Claar Foundation was taking in so little money toward the end that she stopped collecting a salary in November 2007, he said.

On Dec. 26, Novak sent a letter to her clients, stating that the "adversity, stress, anxiety and personal sacrifice (in time, money and health)" of operating an adoption agency had become overwhelming. "I believe that it is now time to change my personal journey," she wrote.

In May, during the first of two preliminary hearings of the charges against Novak, Goff argued that the complaints against his client are at best a civil matter.

At both hearings, one involving the Singhs and another involving charges stemming from another couple's experience with Claar, a judge ruled there is enough evidence for Novak to be tried on felony charges.

The charges are the most serious, but not the first, legal trouble for Novak. She has been ordered to pay restitution in one suit and has been the target of at least half a dozen others.

In criminal court last month, Novak was a riveting presence. At times, she hunched over a legal pad, furiously penning notes to Goff; at times she smiled and shook her head, conveying incredulous disagreement as Judge Carolyn Hoye Enichen outlined her reasons for rejecting Goff's arguments and ordering Novak to stand trial.

The Singhs are prepared to testify at that trial. The couple are angry at Novak, angry that they lost more than $25,000 trying to adopt a second child, and that money is gone.

The Piccolos, meanwhile, figure they're out about $4,000. But they have a new agency and the prospect of a child from Ethiopia.

``I just feel so bad for other people who lost so much money and have no child," Jennifer Piccolo said.


Tips for selecting an adoption agency

Ask as many questions as possible. If an agency doesn't respond in a timely manner or won't answer your questions, that may indicate it won't have time to speak with you during the adoption process.

Ask how long the agency has been in business, what the time frame is for the country you are considering adopting from and how long the agency has had a program in that country.

Thoroughly check the reputation of the agency through outside sources, including the state licensing office and the Better Business Bureau.

Do an Internet search on the agency to see whether there are complaints against it. Talk with families who have used the agency.

Question the agency about the qualifications and experience of any facilitators it might use in a foreign country and the degree to which the agency assumes responsibility for the actions of its agents or facilitators in other countries.

Get a copy of all fees you will pay. Agencies licensed by the state or under Hague adoption guidelines are required to reveal all expected costs upfront.

Get copies of all contracts you are asked to sign.

Sources: U.S. State Department and Ethica, a nonprofit corporation that describes itself as an "impartial voice for ethical adoption"


Adoption guidelines

The Hague Convention on International Adoption provides, for the first time, formal international and intergovernmental recognition of intercountry adoption.

The convention sets up a network of participating countries, which to date numbers 75, that agree to adhere to its standards.

For an adoption agency to legally work with a Hague-participating country, the agency must be accredited by the U.S. State Department or the Colorado Department of Human Services.

Among the new requirements adoption agencies must meet to gain accreditation are:

Disclose all fees before beginning services.

Have a written policy forbidding the agency's staff or agents from giving money to a child's birth parents.

Have a board of directors or governing body that oversees the agency.

Maintain cash reserves to cover at least two months' operating expenses.

Meet liability insurance guidelines.

Train staff on intercountry adoption.

Disclose to accrediting bodies all written complaints, investigations, bankruptcy filings and disciplinary actions.

Provide information regarding how many adoption placements the agency has done and how many adoption applications it processes each year.


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