exposing the dark side of adoption
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Star-Ledger, The (Newark, NJ)



Like many childless women, Lenore Catena decided to adopt about the time she hit 40.

A New Jersey adoption agency lined up a baby boy in Honduras who needed a home. Things seemed perfect, said Catena, a Newark teacher who is fluent in Spanish and lives in the city's multilingual East Ward.

Then a string of events in Honduras, including the arrest of her lawyer on baby-trafficking charges, put her baby, and her dream, on hold.

"I have no idea what is going on with my little boy. I don't know what to do. I'm afraid the agency is not going to be able to deliver. My boy will be two years old in May, and I'm not getting any younger, either," said Catena, who has filed a complaint with the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), which licenses adoption agencies. Other New Jersey families waiting for Honduran children are also in limbo. A new adoption law in Honduras, and a number of sensationalized baby-brokering scandals there, have produced an adoption climate that is inimical to foreigners.

"We do not recommend, at this time, that people adopt in Honduras," Gary Shaeffer, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said last week.

Lenore Catena says five other individuals or couples working with her adoption agency, Growing Families of Freehold, are in the same boat. All of them were linked, through the agency, to Maria Aguilar, a Honduran attorney jailed on baby-trafficking charges last Nov. 20.

After Aguila's arrest, nine babies destined for American families - including Catena - were removed from foster homes and put in a government orphanage, she said. The Honduran government announced it would suspend the adoptions, pending investigation of how the babies came to be relinquished.

Rose Averback, director of Growing Families, described the situation affecting Catena and the others as "temporary.

"We do not control the Honduran courts," she said. "My information is that the children will be cleared. If these children don't pan out, we will place other children with the families. International crises occur at all times, and our hands are tied."

Growing Families is not the only agency affected. Barbara Wright and her husband, residents of Middlesex Borough, contracted last March to adopt a newborn from Honduras through an agency in Atlanta, Ga. Though the agency estimated the process would be complete in three to four months, the Wrights have also run into problems.

Today, the baby is still in Honduras and now one year old. To date the Wrights, who flew to Honduras in August to spend a week with the baby and be evaluated by Honduran social workers, have spent $22,000.

Some of the problems delaying their adoption are related to the new law regulating adoptions, and to lingering effects of past adoption scandals, Wright said.

"During the summer, the process was put on hold while authorities investigated the wife of a judge in Honduras. There have been other problems," she said. "We just got a letter that we need more paperwork, that we have to go through eight more steps. Frankly, I'm worried."

Like many adopting couples, the Wrights did not choose Honduras. "Honduras chose us," Wright said.

Originally, the couple had hoped to adopt in the United States. As they investigated the field, however, they found that many agencies disqualified them as parents.

"I'm Protestant, my husband is Catholic. That was seen as a problem. Also, my husband has two children from a previous marriage, so some agencies refused to consider us childless," she said. "Finally, we settled with one agency. We applied for a domestic adoption, but three years went by. Nothing. At that point, the lady in charge of the agency's foreign program called and asked if we were interested. I said, 'What have you got?"'

Both Wright and Catena, looking for information and support, have contacted chapters of the Latin American Parents Association (LAPA), a support group for families adopting from Central or South America.

Leslie Bennett, a central New Jersey LAPA member, said that families who adopt internationally will "always fall prey to the economic, social, or governmental" conditions in individual countries. "A legitimate agency that is working with a legitimate attorney, following the procedures designated in a country, shouldn't have any problem," she said.

Bennett said she had heard about the arrest of the attorney representing Catena and the others.

"The attorney is in jail, supposedly, because the birth mother of record isn't necessarily the true birth mother. You begin to ask yourself, 'Who is this attorney?"' she said. "My personal opinion is that it's very difficult for an agency in the U.S. to maintain an attorney in a foreign country, if they don't show their face there. Something always gets lost in the translation."

Averback, head of Growing Families, said her director of social work met Aguilar in 1990 during a trip to Honduras. "We check them out, to see if they are on the up-and-up. She was a judge," she said. "Nothing has been proved against Maria."

Averback said she is attempting to find another attorney for Catena and the others.

A DYFS official confirmed that Catena had filed a complaint against Growing Families, but said it had not been investigated. The agency had already informed DYFS of the Honduran situation, he said.

Last fall, DYFS substantiated complaints by six individuals or couples against the International Adoption League of Freehold, another international agency. Richard Danback, head of the DYFS licensing division, has met with the families on a regular basis ever since. Maryann Cacacie, head of International Adoption League, left New Jersey after the families filed their complaints. She has since opened a new agency in Florida.

Doreen and Jim Vitale of Brick Township, one of the affected families, contracted with International Adoption League for two babies in March of 1991. The Vitales' attorney was also charged with baby-brokering in Honduras, and subsequently dropped from sight. They have a new attorney. One of their children, meanwhile, will turn three years old next month; the other was two in November.

"It's been 23 months, and still no children," Vitale said last week. "None of the other five has gotten a kid. Richard Danback is the only guy keeping all of us under control. I am keeping my cool only because I have been told I am very close to getting my children.

"I wonder, how close is 'close"'? she added. "Days? Weeks? Or months"?

1993 Feb 14