Hollywood adoption agency avoids shutdown

Date: 2011-09-24

By Megan O'Matz, Sun Sentinel

State regulators have backed off efforts to close a Hollywood-based adoption agency but imposed stringent conditions that Adoption by Shepherd Care must meet to stay open.

The adoption agency also must pay a $10,000 fine, according to the settlement agreement it signed last month with Florida's Department of Children & Families.

"We were willing to give them, literally, one more chance," said DCF spokesman Mark Riordan.

The agency contends that it proved to DCF administrators that the state's case against it was flawed and without merit.

The settlement was crafted "so DCF could save face," said Joseph Sica, director of Adoption by Shepherd Care, which also has an office in Fern Park, near Orlando.

"For whatever reason our relationship had gone sour with the department," he said. "I'm still not sure where or why or how it did."

In April, DCF filed a complaint with the state Division of Administrative Hearings, seeking to shut down the adoption agency, which had been in business for more than 30 years.

Adoption by Shepherd Care finds homes for children born in Florida and Colombia. It places healthy newborns but takes special pride in locating parents for kids who are far less in demand, such as drug-addicted babies and older, sick or developmentally delayed children.

The typical cost of a domestic adoption with Shepherd Care ranges from $17,000 to $33,000, Sica said.

In recent years, state records show, DCF had growing concerns about Adoption by Shepherd Care's business practices, involving billing, efforts to locate fathers of children up for adoption and advise them of their rights to claim paternity, and providing non-English speaking birth mothers with translators, lawyers and counselors.

The state sought to shut down the agency, which contested the action before the Division of Administrative Hearings.

"There was no evidence," Sica said.

After negotiating with Adoption by Shepherd Care and its lawyers, DCF agreed to allow it to remain open under a rare "provisional" one-year operating license.

"We still believe as a department that what we've seen is very serious," Riordan said. "And we've put them on notice that they will comply, clean up and comply, or they will no longer be in business as a child-placing agency in this state."

The settlement agreement, which was signed Aug. 24 and obtained from DCF via public records request, calls for Adoption by Shepherd Care to:

Give DCF a list of any and all adoptions in process.

Provide potential adoptive families with detailed monthly bills that track exactly what has been paid, for what services, and what is still owed.

Notify clients that they can contact DCF if they have a grievance.

Supply non-English speaking birth mothers with translators, lawyers and forms, contracts and disclosures in their native language.

Make a concerted effort to find birth fathers and inform them of their rights to claim paternity and object to the adoption of their offspring.

Furnish DCF with contact information for any birth mother who will not or cannot identify the birth father. In those cases, DCF may contact the woman to explain that a diligent search for the father must be conducted.

Share copies of any legal settlements with DCF, regardless of confidentiality agreements.

Inform DCF about any adoption that falls through after the child has been placed.

"The conditions of ASC's settlement with the department are extraordinary and reflect how serious we think this situation is," Riordan said.

Sica said the settlement provisions involve practices long in place and records regularly available to DCF during its annual licensing inspection. "We have been doing these things for years," he said.

Sica said he only agreed to the settlement to avoid a prolonged and costly legal battle that could have jeopardized pending adoptions.

As for the $10,000 fine, he said, it will be paid to DCF's Family Safety Program, which aids families in crisis.

"We are working on rebuilding our relationship with the department," Sica said.

Challenges remain, however.

On Sept. 12, DCF warned Shepherd Care that two employees — both caseworkers — do not have the proper degrees in social work required by law.

The adoption agency has until Oct. 12 to rectify the problem by applying for a waiver or firing the staffers.


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