exposing the dark side of adoption
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Agency leaves trail of broken adoptions



St. Petersburg Times

When adoptions go awry, professionals call it a ""disruption'' gentle word that might describe an unruly schoolboy or a telephone solicitor.

The grim reality is that children get torn between adults who love them.

At Tampa's Adoption By Choice agency, disruptions are more than fodder for the occasional headline or lawsuit such as the Baby Sam case. They are regular traumas.

While some agencies and adoption lawyers say they have never experienced a disruption, regulatory files list 11 disrupted adoptions at ABC during the last five years.

That ""is not an unreasonable number,'' said ABC's executive director, Debra West, citing ABC's history of accepting older and hard-to-place children. Disruptions occurred in less than 2 percent of ABC's placements, she said.

""There are hundreds of birth mothers, who in their time of greatest peril, are thankful for the help and counseling provided at ABC,'' West said. ""By providing a choice, a choice for life, God only knows how many children exist today because of ABC.''

Three former ABC workers, however, described a culture where aggressive baby marketing competed with the painstaking legwork that permanent adoptions demand.

Some adoptive parents paid thousands of dollars in bogus expenses that never reached the birth mother, said one worker, who complained to authorities.

Sometimes, only minimal efforts were made to locate birth fathers and secure their consent, the ex-workers said.

And they said birth mothers were pressured to give up babies, sometimes by workers who stood by their side as labor coaches.

""Every time a girl chose to keep the baby, we were called into the office and asked: What did you do wrong?'' said St. Petersburg resident Christy Hallas, who worked at ABC from 1990 to late 1992.

Florida has become a central marketplace for adoptions in recent years. With little oversight from judges or regulators, the system relies heavily on the skill and integrity of those arranging the adoption.

Whatever the reasons for problem adoptions at ABC, some in the field say 11 disruptions in five years is remarkably high. When 12 South Florida agencies and lawyers recently counted their disruptions, they came up with three total, said Delray Beach adoption lawyer Linda McIntyre.

""If I were running that agency, I would retire myself,'' McIntyre said. ""There's no way that would be acceptable to me.''

Business quickly grew

ABC, at 4102 W Linebaugh Ave., started in 1990 as a branch of an Ohio agency called Gentle Care. With extensive Yellow Pages and billboard advertising, it quickly became the busiest agency in the Tampa Bay area, sometimes handling more than 100 adoptions a year. It touted itself as a not-for-profit Christian agency, and when things went wrong, workers frequently turned to prayer.

Inverness resident Lynne Hensley vividly recalled how ABC trained her to be a ""birth mother worker.''

A man had called the agency one night from a St. Petersburg pay phone. He and his wife were in desperate financial straits, he said, and couldn't take care of their toddler and infant.

Hensley and a social worker who was showing her the ropes went to the couple's apartment the next day. They brought adoption paperwork and a notary, Hensley said, but they offered no information about social programs that might help the young couple keep their children.

ABC wanted to tape-record statements that the parents were surrendering their children voluntarily. But the mother kept sobbing, Hensley said.

The social worker ""stopped the tape and told her, "You are going to have to stop crying,' '' Hensley said. "" "If you are crying on the tape, they will say we are pressuring you or coercing you.' ''

The woman gathered herself together and ""stopped crying as ordered until the tape machine was turned off,'' Hensley said. As Hensley and the social worker headed out the door with the blond, blue-eyed children, she said, the mother's cries turned to a howling.

""I'd never heard such a sound.''

West said other ABC workers had been counseling the couple for months about alternatives to adoption. If a mother cries during a surrender, it's proper to stop the tape and make sure she wants to follow through, West said. ""The mere presence of strong emotions does not necessarily indicate the lack of free will.''

In her last case, Hensley said, a birth mother was in labor when the father called to say she had changed her mind about adopting. Assistant director Nancy Nagelhout ""told me to offer her services as a labor coach to further enhance her bond to me,'' Hensley said. ""She reminded me how I would be saving a child from a terrible life.''

After Hensley refused, she said, Nagelhout drove to the hospital, two counties away, trying to secure the mother's signature.

""When a girl went to the hospital, you basically went there and you camped out,'' said Clearwater resident Elise Free, a birth mother worker who left at the end of 1993. ""I remember not feeling comfortable. But I felt pressure from Debra and Nancy. You were to sign a surrender as soon as possible. The sooner the better because you didn't want her to change her mind.''

West said workers who acted as labor coaches were merely providing a service, not pushing for surrenders. Often, birth mothers had no family to support them in the hospital. ""Our agency policy is never to pressure birth parents.''

Few fathers located for consent

A critical step in the adoption process is securing the biological father's consent. An adoption can proceed without it, but he may surface later and demand the baby back.

Children's Home Society, a statewide welfare agency, has placed about 450 children for adoption in the last three years, said legislative liaison John Haines. In all but five cases, the agency found ways to secure the father's cooperation.

Initially, about half the pregnant women say they don't know where the father is, Haines said. With counseling, however, the agency convinces them a secure adoption requires the father's consent. Haines said almost 99 percent of fathers were located and cooperated with the adoption.

At ABC, ""You did whatever the girl wanted,'' Free said. ""I didn't ask her about the birth father or anything. I never knew it was important.''

(After leaving ABC, Free worked for a time at St. Petersburg's Gift of Life, a competing adoption agency that Hallas helped start after she left ABC. They both left that agency before giving interviews for this story and are no longer in the adoption field.)

In 1993 and 1994, state regulators sampled 19 ABC adoption files and found birth-father consents in only four. More recent reports by regulators make no mention of birth-father consents.

According to West, the 1993 and 1994 samplings did not reflect ABC's success with fathers. Over the years, the agency has secured the father's cooperation in 70 to 75 percent of adoptions, she said.

In 1994, Pinellas mental health counselor Dale Jankowski complained to state regulators on behalf of a client, whose name was withheld from public documents. The client's girlfriend had taken their infant and toddler to ABC and left them there. Jankowski and his client went to ABC to object.

According to Jankowski's complaint, ABC attorney Gregory F. Boyer told the father ""that if he did not sign the surrenders, that they (ABC) may file a petition alleging that he is incompetent and that then (state child welfare authorities) might get involved and that the father then would have no control over what happened to his children.''

The children eventually were placed with their grandparents.

Boyer said he didn't remember specifics of the conversation but might have mentioned that the state could end up with temporary custody if the dispute couldn't be resolved.

ABC has not reported the highly publicized Baby Sam case as a ""disruption'' because he still lives with the Alabama couple who are fighting to adopt him.

His biological mother went to ABC a few weeks before the birth and said she didn't know who the father was, which was a lie. State law required ABC to seek out the father with newspaper ads. Though Baby Sam's mother lived in Pinellas County, ABC advertised for an unknown father in a small paper that circulates only in Hillsborough County.

""We publish in the county where the agency is located,'' West said.

Fees are questioned

ABC charges a basic fee of $9,500 for in-state couples and $11,000 for out-of-state couples. That covers a home study, legal fees and overhead. The birth mother's medical and living expenses are added to that fee.

Sometimes, workers said, adoptive couples paid for bogus expenses.

In late 1993, when Free was placing her final report in an adoption file, she noticed a copy of a $500 expense check supposedly paid to the birth mother. Free said she never gave the birth mother that check.

""I called her up and asked, Did anyone else from ABC give you money? Did you ever receive a check for $500? She laughed and said, "I wish I did.' ''

Digging deeper, Free said, she found copies of more checks she had never given to the mother. Some were written out of sequence with the ostensible date of the check. Free found similar discrepancies in other files. She confided in another birth mother worker, Tabatha Bowden, who also found overcharges in her files, Free said.

""In one case we hardly gave any money to (the mother), they charged the couple an exorbitant fee, like $10,000 (in expenses),'' Free said.

Free and Bowden took documents to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, where Detective Joe DiBetta spent six months investigating. In his report, DiBetta said two other birth mother workers also confirmed overcharges.

West says these birth mother workers weren't aware of all the money spent on their clients. After the workers were shown documentation ""they were surprised to find that the expenses actually exceeded the amount paid by the adoptive couples,'' West said. ""This matter was fully investigated by authorities.''

Free denies that anyone at ABC ever discussed the allegations with her. And files at the State Attorney's Office and Sheriff's Office make no mention of ABC providing documentation.

The investigation was dropped, DiBetta wrote, because the adoptive couples, who were the alleged victims, refused to cooperate. They feared their adoptions would be jeopardized.

Medical expenses "exorbitant'

The state Department of Children and Families, which regulates adoption agencies, does not monitor expense payments to birth mothers, charges to adoptive couples or salaries and benefits that adoption agencies pay their officers.

Judges have authority to challenge an agency's charges, although lawyers say it rarely happens. One exception was a case about two years ago before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Richard Luce.

Clearwater adoption lawyer John Fricker, a direct competitor of ABC's, had been hired by an ABC couple to finalize their adoption. Fricker and Luce say the couple paid about $40,000 for the baby, about $30,000 to cover medical and living expenses. Supposedly, the mother had required extensive medical care.

Luce asked for documentation. ""I believed the bills were exorbitant,'' he said. ""I couldn't just approve the adoption and make the adoptive parents be responsible for such a substantial bill unless I could see what was going on.''

When medical records came in, Fricker said, ""It turned out that she didn't have those medical expenses.''

After considerable wrangling, Fricker said, ABC refunded all the money. Luce said he would alert prosecutors if he saw any similar bills.

""I told Mr. Boyer I will be scrutinizing his bills more closely,'' Luce said. ""In the event I see this happening on a frequent basis, perhaps it would be appropriate for somebody to be looking into a full investigation.''

Boyer and West said they provided the necessary documentation in the case, but they declined to discuss details, saying the settlement terms are confidential.

Sometimes, ABC's adoptive couples have no idea that a dispute is swirling around the child they are raising.

Two months ago, ABC placed a 3-year-old child whose birth mother belongs to an American Indian tribe in Minnesota. A few days later, trouble arose. Federal law gives Indian tribes right of first refusal on any of their children placed for adoption. And a Florida official who checked with the tribe discovered they wanted to keep this child at first.

ABC can't talk about this case because it is confidential, West said.

However, a memo at the Department of Children and Families shows that the adoptive couple had been caring for the child for eight days when the department's program director, Mike Katz, called ABC's Nagelhout to find out what was going on.

Nagelhout ""plans to speak with and write to the tribal chief,'' Katz wrote. ""The prospective adoptive family has not yet been advised of this situation. She plans to tell them once she has more certain information about the tribe's plans.''

The tribe changed its mind. Katz received word 18 days after placement that the adoption would proceed.

A history of disruptions

MARCH 1996: The Adoption By Choice agency places a newborn with an Alabama couple. ABC's attorney, aware the Palm Harbor birth father has sued for cusotdy, files court papers saying the child wasn't subject to litigation. Two years later, the fate of ""Baby Sam'' is still in limbo.

SEPTEMBER 1997: In a lawsuit, Jessica Bowman contends ABC pressured her to give up her 5-month-old daughter. She says she changed her mind within hours, but ABC told her the signature was final. Seven days later, ABC returns the child to Bowman.

NOVEMBER 1997: John and Susan Terrones sue ABC. After spending their $10,000 retirement fund to get a baby in 1996, they say ABC officials demanded him back after three months. They say ABC offered them another baby if they would pay more.

1998 Mar 22