Adoption plan sours
Poughkeepsie Journal (NY)
Author: Poughkeepsie Journal
Dateline: MID-HUDSON VALLEY
Bruce and Charlene Ferguson fell in love with Lyubov Mikhaylovna Kobylkova the first time they saw her.
The 10-month-old baby, nicknamed ''Luba,'' was living in an orphanage in Yaroslavl, a Russian town about 100 miles northeast of Moscow, when the Fergusons met her in May 2004.
''She was beautiful,'' Charlene Ferguson said in a recent interview. ''As soon as we saw her, we wanted to take her home.''
Unable to have children of their own, they had adopted a Russian baby -- a boy named Abramov Oleg whom they renamed Jonathan -- four years earlier. And with a little prodding from their son, they decided they were ready for another child.
''When Jonathan started telling us he wanted a baby sister, we decided to adopt a Russian girl,'' Charlene Ferguson said.
The Fergusons had every reason to believe Luba would soon become part of the family -- they'd already furnished her room in their Town of Poughkeepsie home -- before they left for Russia for the second time, in August 2004.
But 18 months have passed since Charlene Ferguson first held Luba in her arms, and the family's prospects of ever adopting her are fading. Caught in a web of often confusing and conflicting regulations -- and conflicting accounts of how their documents were prepared and presented -- the Fergusons learned their application had been rejected by a Russian judge.
Officials of the two American agencies involved in helping the Fergusons try to adopt Luba disagree on how and why their application was denied. But those familiar with such cases say what happened in this case exemplifies the mine field prospective families often face when they travel to foreign countries to adopt a child.
''Hope springs eternal, but I can't say the Fergusons will ever get this child,'' said James Marsh, a White Plains attorney who specializes in foreign adoption cases. ''They were in the wrong place at the wrong time with what the judge said were the wrong documents. I feel their pain.''
Marsh said he believed the blame for the failed adoption rested with a Maryland-based agency, World Child International Adoption, that was responsible for gathering and preparing the necessary documents.
A woman who worked for Child and Family Adoption Inc., a Highland-based agency that was acting as World Child's agents in New York, had failed to adequately prepare some of the Fergusons' documents -- and forged some others -- when she changed jobs and went to work for World Child without telling the Fergusons, Marsh said.
The woman, 60-year-old Susan Dibble of Wallkill, admitted in Plattekill Town Justice Court she had forged a document police said was part of the Fergusons' application, according to Ulster County Assistant District Attorney Daniel Rusk.
Dibble entered a guilty plea Aug. 18 in Plattekill Town Court to third-degree forgery, a misdemeanor, and was placed on probation.
Several telephone calls to Dibble's Wallkill home and to the office of her attorney, Holley Carnright, were not returned.
Representatives of World Child say Dibble's forgery conviction had little or nothing to do with the Russian judge's decision to deny the Fergusons' application.
Sherrell Goolsby, the agency's executive director, said the documents sent to the judge in Yaroslavl were presented in a manner identical to the application prepared when the Fergusons adopted Jonathan five years ago.
''I don't think the Fergusons ever quite understood the reasons [why their adoption application] was denied,'' Goolsby said last week. ''They were understandably upset, and so am I.''
According to a translation of the Aug. 10, 2004, decree from Russian Regional Court Judge K. N. Ignatov, provided by World Child, the Fergusons' application was rejected for three reasons:
- A document known as an ''apostile,'' a verification by the New York Department of State that the Ulster County Clerk's office had properly witnessed and verified certain other documents, had not been attached to the application properly. Documents in the application included the Fergusons' financial and medical records and background checks from local police and the state Office of Child and Family Services.
Lilyan Spool, a director of Child and Family Adoption, said Dibble left her agency and was working for World Child when she prepared the documents for the Fergusons' adoption. Spool said Dibble forged or falsified some of those documents, and that is why the Russian judge noticed the apostiles and other seals were not attached in the prescribed manner.
- A deed to the Fergusons' Poughkeepsie property was the deed for the land but not for their home.
Goolsby acknowledged the deed to the Fergusons' property should have included information about their house and not just their land. But she said it was the Fergusons' responsibility -- not World Child's -- to obtain the proper deed from the Dutchess County Clerk's office. She said the deed included in the 2004 adoption was the same one provided to another Russian judge -- and accepted -- when the Fergusons adopted Jonathan four years ago.
Spool said Dibble told the Fergusons she would obtain the proper deed and apparently failed to do so.
The Fergusons said they had relied on Dibble to obtain the correct deed.
- A divorce decree dissolving Bruce Ferguson's first marriage in state Supreme Court mentioned ''cruel behavior'' as a reason for the divorce. Judge Ignatov contended that phrase characterized Bruce Ferguson in a questionable light.
Spool said her agency had included numerous divorce decrees that included such language and no judge had ever questioned them before, since it is common for the wording of such decrees to include such language. Normally, if all other background checks of prospective parents show they have no criminal history and are fit for adoption, the wording of a divorce decree will not affect their chances of adopting a child.
Goolsby said her agency's representatives in Russia appealed the judge's ruling, pointing out the purported deficiencies in the Fergusons' application -- the method of attaching the apostile, the land deed and the divorce decree -- all had been presented in the same manner when the family's first adoption in Russia was approved.
Charlene Ferguson said she blamed World Child's employees for failing to determine ahead of time exactly what this judge's requirements would be and then amend the application accordingly, if necessary.
''[Yaroslavl] was a new area for adoptions, and World Child should have done their homework,'' she said. ''We put our trust in them. They were the last people to touch the documents, and if something wasn't right, they should have known about it.
''The way Susan Dibble and the staff at World Child handled this, it was just really sloppy work,'' she said.
Charlene said she and her husband could have provided proof about the circumstances surrounding the divorce, such as an affidavit from Bruce's ex-wife stating he was not cruel to her, and that the decree was worded that way so the divorce could be completed quickly without a trial.
Money well runs dry
She said she and her husband could not stay in Russia to continue to fight the judge's ruling because they had run out of money.
''[World Child] said they were willing to do another appeal, but they weren't willing to pay us for another airfare and our other expenses,'' she said.
Goolsby said judges normally alert World Child's foreign representatives if they spot any perceived irregularities in the documents submitted in the adoption applications.
''Normally, when you're given a court date, that means [the adoption] is a 'go,' '' she said. ''The judge had the documents, and normally, if there's anything wrong, they tell you before the family gets there.
''I believe we followed the procedures we follow everywhere,'' the World Child director said. ''We have an experienced coordinator in Russia that the Fergusons had used before.''
The Fergusons said they remain convinced World Child could have done a better job. They said the agency returned their $12,000 adoption fee, but they spent ''tens of thousands'' of dollars for travel, furniture, baby clothes and other expenses involved in preparing their application.
They said they didn't have the money to continue to pursue the adoption.
''For some reason, this holiday season is worse -- not having Luba -- than the last one,'' Charlene said. ''Bruce still wants her, and so do I. But how many more credit cards do we max out for this?''
She said she had given away most of the clothes and furniture she had bought for Luba but did keep photographs she took of the child when they were together in Russia and one other item.
''I still have a red, white and blue dress I was going to put on her when I got her home,'' Charlene said.
''My husband wants me to give it away, but I can't. I put it in my hope chest,'' she said. ''To me, Luba will always be part of our family.''
(Larry Fisher-Hertz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)