exposing the dark side of adoption
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Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis, MN)

The collapse of a New Hope adoption agency has put in limbo some Minnesota families waiting for children around the world. It also highlights the uncertainties and perils in international adoption.

Author: Patricia Lopez

Staff Writer

Perched on the coffee table of Terry and Barb Sonnentag's Monticello home is a book of photos devoted to a child they may never see again.

Willy, a 5-year-old Kenyan, grins brightly in one of the pictures. He is atop Terry's shoulders, ready to leave an orphanage for life with his new American family.

But two weeks after Terry Sonnentag landed in Kenya in December to plan Willy's departure, the family's dream fell apart.

The lawyer retained in Kenya by

Reaching Arms International

, an adoption agency in New Hope orchestrating the adoption, turned out not to be a lawyer. Soon after, Kenyan officials informed Sonnentag that he had to stay six months to complete an adoption, not the three weeks he had been told. Then came the crushing blow: Reaching Arms didn't even have the credentials to do Kenyan adoptions.

"I was stunned,'' Terry Sonnentag said. "We had put our faith in them completely."

The unusual case illustrates the complex, often dicey nature of international adoptions, a growing trend fueled by love and desperation - and at times touched by corruption and greed.

The state revoked the license of Reaching Arms last month. The attorney general's office is auditing the agency's books, and further action may be pending.

On the rise and with few protections

Foreign adoptions by Americans have doubled in the past decade, to more than 20,000. That sharp increase has provoked an array of problems and concerns that governments around the world are working to resolve. Until they do, there is little uniformity and few protections for prospective parents, birth parents or the children.

"It's very different from other business transactions," said Connie Roller, director of adoption services for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. "And you're looking at such a vulnerable population. If there was ever a group that could be taken advantage of, it is people who want to build their family in this way. You have to be very careful about who you work with, both here and in other countries. You can't assume anything."

The concerns are especially relevant in Minnesota, which has been a national leader in adoptions of foreign children.

Despite delays and obstacles, most efforts to adopt internationally result in the birth of a new family.

But few adoption cases more starkly reveal the potential for disaster than the scandal surrounding Reaching Arms, a small agency that had, since the early 1990s, completed hundreds of successful adoptions before appearing to spiral out of control.

Reaching Arms officials have been unavailable for comment, to reporters and to a number of the families with whom it still has contracts.

Sonnentag, who got to know one of the agency's co-founders in a local Bible-study class, has since turned to an agency in North Carolina.

He hasn't heard from Reaching Arms owner Nila Hilton since late February.

"I asked if I could get any of the money returned," said Sonnentag, who so far is out $17,000. "She said, 'Not a chance.'-"

'A lot you don't know'

Brian and Sheree Danielski of Zimmerman aren't sure the little girl they wanted to adopt, Carmela, even exists.

They saw her photo on the Reaching Arms website. During their initial phone call, they were told that for $9,500 they could put a "hold" on Carmela.

Uncertain, they held off for four days. "Every day we got a call," Brian Danielski said.

On the fourth day, they relented. Two days later came the request for another $6,500. Again, the Danielskis complied.

They knew that Danielski's sister had completed two successful Guatemalan adoptions through Reaching Arms several years ago.

Even so, Danielski checked with the state Commerce Department to see whether officials had complaints about the agency. Told the department had nothing, Danielski and his wife signed with Reaching Arms in November, unaware that the state Human Services Department was two months deep into an investigation, which has produced

findings of forgery, falsified documents, unscheduled fees and other violations.

Anne Barry, deputy commissioner for human services and an adoptive parent herself, said the department does what it can but has a limited oversight role.

"We issue licenses, do background checks, visits every two years," she said. "If there are complaints, we check them out. But licenses are a tool and not always the tool we need."

They were several dozen complaints about Reaching Arms.

In international adoption, Barry said, "You take a certain amount of personal risk. There's a lot you don't know. There is a leap of faith in the process. Right now, we're all trying to figure out internally what we can learn from this, to do better."

Barry said she is confident that the department's revocation will withstand Reaching Arms' appeal when it goes before an administrative law judge. At that point, the agency would be forced to turn over its cases. No one knows yet who will take them.

An unpredictable process

Kris Huson of the

Children's Home Society and Family Services

said that as emotional as adoption is, prospective parents must lead with their heads - not their hearts.

"The international adoption process as it exists is really very unpredictable," said Huson, whose agency, one of the state's oldest and largest, placed 742 foreign adoptees last year.

Last week, Russia, the third top source of adoptees for the United States in 2006, called a temporary halt to new adoptions as it reviews its accreditation process.

The U.S. State Department now says it can no longer recommend adoptions from Guatemala, the second largest source, because of what it says are "serious problems" with the process there. China, still the world leader, has tightened restrictions that prescribe length of marriage, income and even proper body-mass index for would-be adoptive parents.

Huson said Ethiopia's program has now become the agency's most popular, with more than 200 placements last year, followed by South Korea and China.

'We know these children'

Devout Christians, the Sonnentags say they pray nightly over what to do about their situation. Their grief over the potential loss of Willy is compounded by their knowledge that Reaching Arms' meltdown has also jeopardized the fate of Willy's home, the

Cradle of Children's Hope orphanage

. Started by Reaching Arms as a conduit for what was to be its Kenya program, Cradle now houses 36 children.

"There's no money and all those children to feed and support," Barb Sonnentag said, looking at a group shot of Terry with three dozen smiling orphans. "I know there are children all over the world in trouble, but we know these children. They're real now, not just faces in a far-off country."

Terry Sonnentag broke down and cried a few days ago as he looked at a photo of a skinny, shaved-head 11-year-old girl, standing ramrod straight as she smiles for the camera in her best white dress. Mary, 11, ran away after being forced into prostitution and now lives at Cradle of Children's Hope, he said, helping to care for Willy and the others.

"What's going to happen to them?" he said, his voice dropping to a whisper.

In addition to wrestling with their adoption, the Sonnentags said, they are trying to line up sponsors to hold together the orphanage that Reaching Arms started.

'Come to Kenya'

Willy doesn't know about the tragedy that has engulfed his dreams, and is apparently impatient with the delays. He's waited a long time already.

Two months after he was born, Willy was wrapped in a plastic shopping bag, placed on the street and "left to die," according to an e-mail from the orphanage.

The Sonnentags last talked with Willy a week ago.

"He said, 'Daddy, Mommy, come to Kenya,'-" Barb said, crying.

Terry said the North Carolina agency has recommended that they consider another child, perhaps from another country. Even done correctly, they said, the Kenyan program is "very demanding," and proceeding with Willy's adoption could cost an additional $20,000.

But Terry can't forget Willy falling asleep on his shoulder as he carried him along the dirt roads of his remote village outside Kisumu, or his delight in the new underwear and clothes Terry brought him.

The Sonnentags know that should Willy remain in Kenya, life will be hard and limited. The children there rise at 5 a.m. daily, down porridge for breakfast, walk an hour to school and an hour back for lunch. Then they have another two-hour round trip for the afternoon session, then back home to sweep the dirt yard with straw brooms and wash their clothes in a pan under the big tree. Sleep comes in narrow, double-stacked beds.

"We're praying over what to do," Terry said. "We feel like this is it. This is our child, and to not bring him home is very difficult."

And then there's Adriana, the Sonnentags' 3-year-old, whom they've carefully prepared to accept Willy as family.

"Who's your brother?" Barb asks gently, as Adriana half turns in shyness. Head down, Adriana replies: "Willy."

Patricia Lopez - 651-222-1288



2005 22,710

2004 22,911

2003 21,317

2002 21,063

2001 19,087

Source: U.S. State Department



More than 20,000 foreign-born children are adopted each

year by Americans, according to immigration statistics.


-- China, Russia, Guatemala (See microfilm for chart.)

Source: Department of State


1. Read books on adoption. Search the Web. Talk to those who have adopted internationally. Go to the U.S. State Department's website at www.travel.state.gov and click on "international adoptions" for information, specific country requirements and updates.

2. Shop around. Most agencies do informational meetings. Attend two or three before deciding. Request informational packets and complete fee schedules before signing a contract.

3. Check the Better Business Bureau, the attorney general's office and the state Human Services Department, which handles licensing and complaints.

4. Ask about the agency's backup. What can you expect if adoption in one country falls through, or if the agency itself has a financial setback? Get an annual report.

5. Find out how long your agency has been working in specific countries.

6. Call the U.S. Embassy in that country to ask about the agency and its emissaries.

7. Look for a provider with pre- and post-adoption services.

Source: Children's Home Society and U.S. Department of State



2007 Apr 15