exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in



Peter Clough, The Province

Adopt a baby for Christmas, the ad said. A B.C. couple were alarmed at the tone of an e-mail they received from a Haitian adoption service called Precious in His Sight, which has begun to place children in Canada. As we reveal in part two of our four-part series, complaints are mounting and the agency has drawn the attention of U.S. adoption authorities.

Haitian adoption agency Precious in His Sight offers this computer wallpaper to website visitors. Wendy and Robert Chenard adopted their daughter, Taylor, last year, but had to dodge an Internet adoption scam along the way. The Province

Karen Madeiros is head of the Adoptive Families Association of B.C., a support group that promotes adoption in the province.

In the past decade, the number of North American couples seeking to adopt -- mostly affluent, infertile baby boomers -- has doubled. Increasingly, they want nothing less than a healthy newborn.

The Internet has helped to match thousands of children with loving parents. But critics say it is also the gateway to a $2.5 billion, U.S.-based "industry" that operates much like any other business -- only with children as the commodity.

Canadians hoping to adopt know that their chances of finding a healthy baby through our own system are slim. Some say their dossiers are never even opened. They quickly learn that the U.S. is the place to look. Adoption advocates say couples with babies in their eyes are increasingly vulnerable when they enter the murky side streets of the U.S. child-placement market -- made ever more accessible by the Internet.

A baby for Christmas. For dozens of Canadians desperate to start a family, the offer contained in an e-mail last Nov. 29 seemed too good to be true. Carla and Jonathan Rybchuk, a young couple in Campbell River, took one look at the message from an American adoption service and decided to strike the organization from their list.

"Hi guys," said the e-mail from Precious In His Sight and its founder, Annette Thompson. "If you are wishing for a baby or child for Christmas, our orphanage in Haiti is full of babies and children who are wishing for a mom or dad for Christmas. We have over 80 wonderful little ones right now waiting for families."

adoptcouple The Rybchuks weren't buying it. "That's impossible," Carla told her husband. They were also turned off by the e-mail pitch for washing machines, baby formula and vehicles -- and by the sugar-dipped profiles of waiting children:

"I am a three-year-old princess in Haiti," is how one began. "I am so happy you are reading my story. Maybe you will be my forever family . . . " After reading the e-mail, several members of the Yahoo chat group Canadians Adopting posted messages to complain: "I find this agency's marketing practices disgusting and placement ethics discriminatory," said one. "Who doesn't want a baby by Christmas?" added another. "Seeing e-mail like this twists that knife just a little bit more."

What members of Canadians Adopting didn't know was that Thompson -- who takes credit for creating the world's first online photo-listing of adoptable children -- is facing mounting legal problems with adoption licensing officials in her home state of Wisconsin.

They say they've received dozens of complaints about her organization. One official told the Sunday Province that some allegations are under investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

At the same time, Thompson has begun to place children with families in Canada -- three in the first year of her Haitian orphanage program. One of the children was placed with a single dad in Delta in an adoption finalized by the provincially licensed Hope Adoption Agency in Abbotsford.

Its owner, Lorne Wellwood, said he was unaware of the complaints and pointed out that it's impossible for agencies here to scrutinize the hundreds of organizations involved in sending children to Canada. All international adoptions in B.C. must ultimately be approved by the Ministry of Children and Family Development and federal immigration officials. But in Wisconsin, where Precious In His Sight is based, loopholes in the law allow Thompson to send children to Canada without the direct supervision of U.S. child-placement authorities.

In an interview with the Sunday Province, Margaret Guyette, Wisconsin's head of adoption-agency licensing for LaCrosse County, said she had read more than 200 complaints about Precious In His Sight -- not all from different families. She says she has been in contact with officials from the FBI and INS who are investigating the complaints -- though neither agency would confirm or deny any investigation to us.

Guyette says Thompson has been at odds with the state since 1997, when she first applied for a child-placement licence. Thompson was served a cease-and-desist order when officials discovered that she was using the Internet to match children with families -- an activity they said was illegal in Wisconsin.

Thompson pointed out to the licensing department that Wisconsin law makes no mention of the Internet and continued her mission with what she claimed to be the world's first online photo-listing service of adoptable children -- hundreds of them, through links with agencies and facilitators around the world. Guyette says state legislators are plodding along in their effort to plug the loopholes that have allowed Thompson to operate from her modest home in LaCrosse, arranging adoptions beyond their control.

The day after Thompson posted her "babies for Christmas" message on Yahoo e-groups, Guyette wrote a chat-group message of her own. At the end of the warning about Precious In His Sight she listed the contact numbers for state and federal agencies involved in the monitoring of international adoption.

"I'm getting complaints about the way money is taken in," Guyette told the Sunday Province. More disturbing, she adds, is that at least one family is terrified that their two children, adopted through Thompson, will be sent back to Haiti. Guyette says the INS is investigating whether the adoptions were legal. "These are families who've gone through heck to get these children home," says Guyette. "And now all of a sudden they're faced with the possibility that they could lose their children."

Thompson, reached by the Sunday Province in Miami en route to her orphanage, says Guyette is on a "personal vendetta" against her and has exaggerated complaints. The orphanage director says a "smear campaign" against her began in September 2000 when she broke away from the Heart of God orphanage in Haiti to start one of her own. She had looked after adoptions at Heart of God, run by an American pastor and his wife, but says she left as the result of a power struggle. She took some of the children and set up shop in an eight-bedroom house in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. She says the pastor and his wife have been bad-mouthing her ever since. "International adoption as a whole is very cutthroat, unfortunately," she says. Thompson says the dozens of complaints about her organization posted on Internet adoption message boards are mostly the work of a few disgruntled families and don't represent the majority of her clients.

In the spring of last year, Tina Szantyr and her husband, David, scrolled through Precious In His Sight's photo listings and fell in love with a newborn baby called Gabrielle. "She was beautiful," says Tina. The Connecticut couple paid Thompson $3,500 US to put their new Haitian daughter "on hold." Szantyr says she also agreed to donate supplies to the orphanage during the short adoption process. On March 15, ecstatic that she'd soon be a mom, she phoned Precious In His Sight.

haitian kids "I called to find out some things, get some suggestions about what I should bring," says Szantyr. "And that's when they told us." She says she was devastated when an assistant at the orphanage informed her that her "daughter," Gabrielle, had died four days earlier, a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The Szantyrs were so upset that they decided to put their adoption plans on hold. But Thompson, she says, refused to refund their down payment on the baby. "We were told we would not be getting any of our money back and that we could take the first girl that was born," says Tina.

The couple realized they had no choice but to proceed with their adoption plan through PIHS -- and ended up bringing home not only a girl but a little boy as well. Thompson says Szantyr's story is simply not true. She says she called the adoptive mom personally on the day her baby died. "I was the one that held her child in my arms when we took the child to the funeral home," says Thompson. "She still went ahead and told other people that she believes her baby didn't really die and that we sent the child to another family." Thompson says a refund was offered to the couple and it was their choice to apply the money to another adoption.

The woman who looked after most of the paperwork for the Szantyrs' kids was Stephanie Thoet, of Spokane, Wash. Thoet had gone to Haiti to volunteer her time at the orphanage. She eventually took a salaried position with the organization as its clerical worker -- and, inevitably, decided to adopt a baby. Thoet quit the organization in disgust last November. She says the last straw was finding out that a "birth mom" who relinquished custody of a baby to Precious In His Sight was not the mother at all but the birth father's new girlfriend. The baby was adopted into the U.S. But, says Thoet: "The true birth mother of this child never signed an abandonment for her to be adopted."

She also says she was with Thompson in a meeting with the director of Haitian social services -- "the woman who signs off the dossiers." Thompson, she says, agreed to pay the woman $5,000 US.

Thompson describes Thoet as a disgruntled former employee with an axe to grind. She says the story about the phoney birth mom is completely false. But she does agree that she handed over the $5,000 to Haiti's social services director -- after being asked to make a donation to a state-run orphanage. "We thought it was our duty to help," says Thompson. "It was in no case a bribe to get this adoption approved." Thompson says the allegations against her are made more hurtful by the fact that she has taken "not one penny" in the form of salary and benefits from her organization.

Working out of her small office in North Carolina, Mary Mooney is something of a lone crusader when it comes to consumer protection in the adoption market. She runs an award-winning website called The Adoption Guide which lists complaints about facilitators, attorneys and agencies. Mooney says Precious In His Sight is one of her biggest files. "I've got books on her," she says. Mooney is among a growing number of adoption advocates in the U.S. who are calling for new federal regulations to bring the industry under stricter and more uniform control. As it stands, adoption laws vary widely from state to state. In some states, for instance, Internet-based facilitators are allowed to operate without any licensing controls -- and don't have a problem recruiting out-of-state families. "You find yourself some pregnant women and you match them up with people," is how Mooney describes the adoption facilitation business. "There's no recourse. There's basically no regulation."

She warns that "non-profit" agencies are not necessarily exempt from the temptation to exploit well-off couples seeking babies. Mooney says some directors of non-profit agencies pay themselves more than $200,000 a year. In some cases, spouses appear on the payroll as well. But the U.S. adoption field has also helped to match hundreds of children -- many born right in the U.S.A. -- with loving families here.