exposing the dark side of adoption
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Sandy Springs woman banned from arranging adoptions in Georgia is named by British couple as their link to a Guatemalan lawyer some call the `baby bandit.' The couple also charges she gave them a `shopping list' of children.

Kathy Scruggs

The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution

A Fulton County woman banned from brokering private adoptions in Georgia and Florida is in business through a South Carolina storefront and a childless British couple says she led them on an intercontinental odyssey to a notorious Guatemalan lawyer and a "baby farm."

The couple's claims about the Sandy Springs woman, Lya Sorano, are being investigated by Georgia authorities to determine if Sorano has violated the terms under which her licenses to arrange adoptions in Georgia and Florida were revoked seven years ago.

"If we find evidence that she is operating as a child-placing agency in violation of a previous 1989 court order, then she may be in contempt of that order and punished accordingly," Attorney General Mike Bowers said.

`I don't handle adoptions'

Sorano vehemently denies doing anything wrong.

She denies that her South Carolina business, Lya Sorano and Associates International Services Inc., is an adoption agency, but says instead that she simply consults with parents who want to adopt.

"I don't handle any adoptions," she said. "I have never handled any adoptions. I have given out information and advice . . . on all kinds of difficulties (prospective adopting parents) encounter along the way. It is a consulting firm. It is not a placement agency. I don't want to be in child placement."

But Pat and Stephen Hampson of Darwen, England, say Sorano did more. In their case, the couple said, Sorano offered them a "shopping list" of adoptable children and facilitated a relationship with Guatemalan lawyer Juan Varela, who arranged for them to adopt a baby they call Jonathan.

Bruce Harris, executive director of Covenant House in Costa Rica, a New York-based agency that works with orphans and homeless mothers, says Varela is notorious for arranging international adoptions. In fact, Harris said Varela has been nicknamed the "nino bandito" - the "baby bandit."

"It's an open secret that Juan Varela has become very, very rich trafficking in babies," Harris said. "He is one of the most corrupt lawyers in adoptions."

Varela, contacted by telephone, denied doing anything wrong, but acknowledged he was being investigated by authorities in Guatemala for the Hampson adoption.

He said adoptions make up 30 percent of his practice and said he had "suffered a lot of harm" because of the allegations in the Hampson case, which surfaced earlier this year in British television reports.

He offered to answer additional questions submitted in writing, but provided a fax number that did not work. Attempts to reach him by phone again were not successful.

Sorano denied any knowledge of questions about Varela's reputation and said the Hampsons had heard about Varela through a Guatemalan support group and insisted on using him.

"When I checked him out, he came across as fine," Sorano said. "He was working with two adoption agencies in the United States and they were happy with him. The families were happy with him."

She would not name the agencies.

Through Sorano and Varela, the Hampsons traveled to Guatemala and briefly were given a child that they expected to adopt and name Jonathan.

The couple said they began looking to adopt last year, after 13 years of failed attempts to conceive a child.

Pat Hampson said that while trying to lose weight to increase her chances at in vitro fertilization, she was given Sorano's name by a doctor at the weight-loss clinic. The doctor had adopted through Sorano, she said.

But the Hampsons, believing the promised "quickie adoption" sounded too good to be true, became suspicious.

"No one has the right to take a child away from its birth mother, because they have money," Stephen Hampson said. "I couldn't have kissed Jonathan good night knowing that I ignored all the alarms, and knowing that his mother was breaking her heart on the other side of the world. My conscience wouldn't allow that."

The couple contacted "The Cook Report," a British news magazine television show. A reporter and producer began working with the couple undercover and they contacted Sorano, Pat Hampson said. The show paid the couple's expenses during their attempts to adopt.

Sorano's letter to the couple bears a Greenville, S.C., return address, but Fulton County telephone numbers. Sorano is not licensed as a placement agency in South Carolina, state officials said.

"You don't need a license to do the work that I do," Sorano said.

But a South Carolina official said that may not be true.

"The bottom line is if she's got a list of families and a list of people who want to place children, that would be considered adoption," said Carolyn Orf, an official with the S.C. Department of Social Services. "As far as we know, she's not doing anything here. As far as we know, she's doing it in Georgia."

In Greenville, a woman who identified herself as the owner of a business that leases the offices where Sorano lists her corporate address, said Sorano does not staff an office there, but instead pays $75 a month to have her mail forwarded to Atlanta.

"I don't staff an office, but she does," Sorano said of the woman. "And those people work for me just like they work for everybody else who uses their services."

A `shopping list' of children

When Sorano wrote the Hampsons on Nov. 17, 1995, she said she had just returned from Guatemala and listed children available for adoption.

"It was like a shopping list," Pat Hampson said. "She asked us if we wanted to buy a girl or a boy and what color hair we wanted. She guides you all the way through it, right from the start."

The couple said they then flew to Atlanta to meet with Sorano and paid her $2,100. A few months later, Sorano called them to "tell us the good news" - a baby boy was born in February in Guatemala. They flew there immediately and eventually were presented with a child.

But they were forced to leave the baby behind after discrepencies were discovered in the log recording his birth.

Pat Hampson said the memory of the motel at which Varela insisted they stay is emblazoned in her mind. "There were babies and lawyers coming in and out all day long," she said. "It was a baby farm."

Authorities in Guatemala now are trying to determine if the woman who represented herself as Jonathan's mother is really his biological parent, said Edmundo Nanne, the Guatemalan consul to Britain. Jonathan is in state custody until the DNA test results are completed, he said.

Harris said the original log of Jonathan's birth was whited out of the registry and another entered in its place, apparently as the result of an error. "There are still a lot of questions in this case," he said, adding that the mother may have been intimidated by Varela to give up her child.

Guatemala has become a source of questionable adoptions because of its poverty and lack of legal controls on adoptions, Harris said.

"Babies have become one of the most important nontraditional exports for Guatemala," Harris said. "Lawyers are trying to fill the international demand for babies, and people with very good intentions . . . are creating a demand."

Because of such practices, in 1992 the United States government began requiring DNA tests for suspicious adoptions headed to American homes, said Duke Lokka, chief of the American Citizens Service Section of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala.

"Anyone can register a baby in this country," Lokka said. "It's very easy. Birth certificates are worthless. . . . We do work with local authorities, but it's like beating your head against the wall."

During a recent interview, Sorano charged that the Hampsons concocted their story because they belong to an anti-adoption group and want to end all adoptions.

"I don't really know why they came here, other than to set me up," she said.

"They did this because they think adoptions are morally objectionable," Sorano said. "They are totally against it."

"She must be on another planet," Pat Hampson responded, adding they still hope to adopt Jonathan once his parentage is established.

After they lost Jonathan in Guatemala, the Hampsons flew to Atlanta to meet again with Sorano to confront her, they said.

When Sorano realized they were working with a television crew, she declined to be interviewed by "The Cook Report." But on April 29, she fired off a scathing letter to the Hampsons, calling them "vermin."

"God sure knew what he was doing when he decided not to permit you to have children," she wrote. "All the worst!"


Photo: Pat and Stephen Hampson of England, in a photo of a televised image, say they went to a British television news show when their suspicions over `quickie adoptions' were aroused. / The Cook Report

1996 Jul 16