Napa adoption firm closes under fire

Date: 2006-01-07

By DAVID RYAN, Register Staff Writer

Napa police were responding to the concerns of just one woman when they raided a Napa-based adoption business last month. But the list of those who say they were bilked by Yunona USA is long and diverse, with several families claiming they were never able to adopt a child and lost more than $10,000 in the effort.

A review of public records, Yunona's business connections and public statements, complaints made to the District Attorney's office, interviews with the FBI and talks with an adoption watchdog agency reveal the organization may have defrauded more than a dozen would-be adoptive parents, as well as broken international laws and admitted to bribing foreign officials as a normal course of business.

Records also show local authorities first received serious allegations against the company as early as April 2003, but no formal investigation was launched until November 2005.

Yunona USA obtained a Napa business license in 2000 and operated out of its 1612 Jefferson Street location under the direction and ownership of Ivan Jerdev, 42. Jerdev has now returned to his native Russia, according to former Yunona Vice President Nick Sims. Sims said Friday the business would close its doors immediately and indefinitely under an agreement he signed with the police department on Friday.

A global affair

Jerdev, who claims on a Web site the company was founded in 1994, used a loophole in California law that allows Yunona to connect foreign orphans with would-be adoptive parents without obtaining a license as an adoption agency. Other states have more restrictive laws, according to a Silver Springs, Md.-based adoption agency watchdog called Ethica.

Yunona posted pictures of Kazak, Russian, Vietnamese, Ukrainian and Guatemalan children -- sometimes in apparent violation of those countries' laws -- claiming they were ready to be adopted. It then worked with coordinators based around the world to connect American families with foreign orphans at a cost of thousands of dollars, some of which Jerdev said in a radio interview was used to bribe foreign judges and officials.

Yunona USA operates under many different names and Web sites, including Yunona Orphan Relief Fund, Adorable Adoption, Yunona.org, adoptwithlove.com and yunonaadoptiongroup.com. At least 18 adoption Web sites have Internet links with Yunona or are Yunona sites, so the company is hard to miss for would-be adoptive parents searching online for a way to adopt a child.

"I had been doing a lot of Internet research on adoption agencies and I found Yunona," said Nicole Peragine, a Jacksonville, Fla. woman who used Yunona to try to adopt a Guatemalan boy in 2005, with no success. "They state they had been doing adoptions for nine years. Everything looked fine to me."

Yet in complaints Peragine and others filed to the Napa County District Attorney's office, they said they were the victims of Yunona bait-and-switch scams or outright theft costing them tens of thousands of dollars the company refused to refund.

The complaints to the DA date back to 2003, yet local police claim they found out about the concerns when Peragine filed a complaint in November.

"The complaints were never filed with the police department," said Det. Ron Appel. "They went to the district attorney's office as consumer complaints and that's how they were handled."

Gary Lieberstein, Napa County District Attorney, said serious complaints were referred to the relevant authorities.

"I had gotten one or two letters through our Web site and I referred people to law enforcement authorities whether local or federal ... the normal course would be to forward things to people in law enforcement agencies," he said.

Deputy District Attorney Daryl Roberts said Yunona's consumer complaints were forwarded to the FBI because the agency had more resources than local prosecutors, but he said the U.S. Attorney turned down the case.

'Is it fraud?'

Special Agent Laray Quy, a spokeswoman with the FBI, would not comment on whether the FBI had investigated Yunona, but said, "I'm very familiar with this adoption agency," noting there could be difficulties at a jury trial. "... A lot of people just didn't get the child they thought they were going to get. A question is, is that fraud? It's a hard thing to look at the face of a child and say they shouldn't have been adopted."

Records kept by the District Attorney's office show many prospective parents received no children:

* In April 2003, Doreen Daniels of East Stroudsburg, Pa. told the DA's office she and her husband paid Yunona $17,280 to adopt a 7-year-old Kazak girl, even traveling to Kazakhstan in 2002 to meet her. A Yunona coordinator in the former Soviet republic failed to get the proper documents from the girl's parents to release the child, Daniels said.

"Although he located them, he returned one week later without a letter and so intoxicated he could not walk or talk for two days," Daniels wrote.

In the end, Yunona could not provide proof the girl was legally available for adoption. Daniels returned home, out more than $30,000 including travel expenses and other costs.

* On May 10, 2003, David and Susan Culver of Flushing, Mich., told Napa prosecutors that in 2002 Yunona representatives showed them a video of a Kazak girl. Months later when the Culvers traveled to Kazakhstan to meet the child, they were instead presented with an obviously sick girl who looked very different than the one in the video. The Culvers bucked Yunona pressure and decided not to adopt, yet by then the Culvers had spent more than $19,000.

"The child we had agreed to adopt was bright and alert, with fine straight hair, striking Asian features and was well developed physically," David Culver wrote. "The child we met was listless, unresponsive, with a stunted stature, curly ringlets and was very Mediterranean in appearance with obvious serious medical problems that we could get no honest information on."

Culver implored the DA's office to investigate, calling on it to "expose this agency for what it is and bring it to justice."

* On May 11, 2003, Deborah and Jeffrey Kupros of Morgan Hill in Santa Clara County told the DA's office that a child they paid $11,400 to adopt ended up not being available to them after all.

"We were told that the child has been adopted by a local Kazak family, when in fact, she was adopted by another couple from California," Deborah Kupros wrote. "So far, we have heard of 13 other families with similar, terrible stories. We are asking your organization to investigate Yunona and its branches. We are willing to cooperate in any way we can."

* On Sept. 3, 2004, Patrick and Kelly Brueggman told Napa prosecutors they gave Yunona more than $21,000 to adopt a Ukrainian toddler. The couple even traveled to the Ukraine, and after discovering the girl didn't exist, they tried to adopt two boys. The couple claimed Yunona representatives repeatedly lied to them about arranging paperwork. After living in the Ukraine for a month with the two boys but without gaining the legal right to adopt, the couple decided they had run out of time and had to return home to their three biological children.

"(Yunona) knew going in that this child wasn't available," Kelly Brueggman said in an interview. "They didn't inform us of that. They took our money and they knew good and well that this child wasn't available."

The Brueggmans later hired a lawyer and managed to get some of their money back under a confidential settlement agreement.

The final straw

The Napa Police Department got involved when Peragine complained to them directly in November 2005, saying her money was stolen. Police subsequently found another couple from Connecticut and a woman from the East Bay who believed they had been defrauded by Yunona.

In an interview, Peragine said she lost $13,500 trying to adopt a Guatemalan baby Yunona eventually said it couldn't give her. She said she talked to Sims and managed to get the phone number for the Guatemalan attorney she said Yunona claimed it had hired.

"I called there and they said they'd never heard of me or the child," she said. "... Obviously it was fraudulent because this child, they never had him."

Yunona's Sims, who is still living in Napa, said a woman named Mai Ly La Trace is to blame.

"They put her on as a coordinator," Sims said, adding La Trace worked in Florida. "... One of the reasons I resigned is I found out in late September or so (that) Yunona never had a contract with her. They had some phone conversations and they trusted her, sent her $75,000. And then nobody could find her."

As for Peragine's refund, Sims said the company had no money to pay.

"I filed a complaint with the Attorney General's office and the DA's office and they said they would attempt to locate (La Trace)," he said.

International troubles

Jerdev was unable to be reached -- Sims said he's been unsuccessful getting a response from Jerdev in Russia -- but in an October 2005 interview with American Radioworks, a documentary maker for National Public Radio, Jerdev said using bribes with foreign officials was part of doing business in the international adoption world.

"It's everywhere," he told American Radioworks. "It's the reality."

Jerdev also said he wasn't breaking American law, which forbids bribing foreign officials, because it was Yunona's foreign coordinators who do the bribing.

"We don't pay," he said. "The coordinators must do this. And they pay. They have to pay a lot of people. Bribes. The money always finds a way to go around."

Still, simply by posting pictures of Ukrainian children and claiming they were available for adoption, Yunona apparently has broken Ukrainian law.

"It's not legal according to our legislation," said Olena Kytsyk, a spokeswoman with the Ukrainian consulate in Washington, D.C.

If Yunona's former clients' allegations are true, it may have broken other Ukrainian laws as well.

According to the Ukrainian Family Code, "commercial activities" surrounding adoptions to non-Ukrainians is forbidden. Prospective foreign parents must register with Ukraine's National Adoption Center, the only place where they can get a first look at Ukrainian children available for adoption.

Yunona's alleged practices are cause for concern according to Trish Maskew, president of Ethica, a group that promotes regulation of the adoption industry.

Despite many smooth adoptions of needy children from less-developed parts of the world, international adoption has an ugly side, Maskew said, where among bribing and bait-and-switch operations, some adoption agency workers pay off foreign mothers to hand over their children. Sometimes, Maskew said, the kids are simply kidnapped.

Maskew would not go on the record to talk in detail about international adoptions, but according to Ethica's Web site, there is little regulation of the adoption industry.

"Individual states license adoption agencies, and some states allow unlicensed facilitators to provide adoption services," it reads. "However, there is little parity between state regulations, and all too often, little that states can do to sanction adoption agencies who provide unethical services. There is even less oversight on the foreign entities involved in inter-country adoption. Therefore, choosing an adoption service provider can be a lot like negotiating a minefield."

California rules

This is especially true for adoption businesses located in California.

Alex Valdez, a spokesman with the state Department of Social Services, which oversees adoption agencies, said Yunona-style adoption facilitators are not required to have a state license.

"Adoption facilitators are not regulated by the department and there is no state oversight," he said.

According to DSS, adoption agencies have the authority to take legal custody of children to make an adoptive placement, while facilitators merely find children that prospective parents can adopt. Despite facilitators' popularity and expensive fees -- Ethica estimates it can cost between $20,000 and $30,000 to complete an adoption -- the state maintains facilitators like Yunona are not within its regulatory oversight.

"There is no connection to the formal adoption system," Valdez wrote in response to a request for comment.

According to records with the Colorado state Division of Childcare, Yunona had run an official adoption agency in Colorado Springs, but by 2004 records show the agency was closed. Maskew claimed the Colorado officials shut it down.

Rules regarding international adoptions -- no matter who arranges them -- may change somewhat in coming years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In 2000, the United States took steps to enact provisions of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions that will set up some restrictions for countries that, like the United States, are part of the convention. Each country that signs the treaty will be responsible to designate a central authority to oversee requests for international adoption and control accreditation of adoption agencies.

Of the countries Yunona operates in, only Russia and Guatemala are part of the treaty.

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