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Couples allege adoption agency duped them


Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis, MN)

Minnesota's attorney general is investigating the New Hope agency over its fees and tactics.

Author: Patricia Lopez, Dane Smith

Staff Writers

Brad and Beth Kantor already had two children in July 2005, but they wanted to open their hearts to a third.

Through Reaching Arms International, a New Hope adoption agency, the Kantors hoped to adopt a baby boy from Guatemala.

But after forking over more than $15,000, the couple said that instead of a baby, they got threats and pressure from

Tom Hilton

, an agency board member who told them that the "devil had a hold on them" and that was the reason they "could not have their own children."

The Kantors are one of a dozen couples involved in court action filed Wednesday by Attorney General Lori Swanson in Ramsey County.

She is seeking a financial audit of the agency and is working with the Department of Human Services (DHS), which also is investigating the issue.

Swanson said that after an audit is completed, DHS will determine whether to take action against the agency. Some of the couples, Swanson said, have hired private attorneys in an attempt to recoup fees.

"We've never seen a case like this in Minnesota involving this level of complaints against an adoption agency," Swanson said, adding that she was "very concerned" not only about the money the couples had lost, but the pressures to which they had been subjected. "This is already a very emotional process," she said. "You don't want it exploited."

Pledge to 'cooperate fully'

Reaching Arms officials declined to be interviewed about the allegations Wednesday, but in an e-mailed statement,

Nila Hilton

, president of the agency, pledged to "cooperate fully with the investigation," but said the agency could not discuss the investigation or specific cases because of confidentiality concerns.

Hilton said in the e-mail that Reaching Arms "contracts with a licensed CPA firm to do an annual audit, as required by the Department of Human Services, since its incorporation in 1993. It is our intent to cooperate fully with the investigation and order. Our books and records are open. We are confident that this will all come out fine."

But families appearing with Swanson at a news conference announcing the action said their adoptions had not come out fine.

Choking back tears, Christine Moulder, 45, held up a picture of the Guatemalan girl she and husband, Rick Spaulding, 46, had visited last February as part of the adoption process. "This is Josephine," Moulder said. "She's almost 14 months old. We don't know when we will get her."

Moulder said Reaching Arms officials coerced her into attending a "parenting session" that actually turned out to be a three-hour religious lecture by Tom Hilton that was laced with references to sin and Satan. "He never once tied it into parent training," Moulder said.

On its website, Reaching Arms says that it was "inspired by God" to help needy children and that it unites "orphan children with loving, Judeo-Christian families."

Angela and Joshua Lair of Glenville said they have paid their life savings of $17,000 to Reaching Arms. They said they would still like to adopt a child but no longer have the financial means.

When the Lairs were asked to come up with more than the $15,750 they had already paid, their relatives held a fundraiser and sent in an additional $704.25. The Lairs said Nila Hilton later told them that the agency had never received the money, even though the Lairs had already gotten copies of the canceled checks. The Lairs said in the court document filed by Swanson's office that they later discovered that the agency had also used a credit card number from a previous payment to make an unauthorized transaction.

"We put our heart and our money and our emotions into this," Angela Lair said Wednesday.

According to court documents, one couple, Randall and Laura Nelson of Big Lake, said they were in the process of adopting two Russian boys through the agency and hosted the boys for a month as part of the process. At one point, they were instructed to bring an additional $9,500 in cash when they traveled to Russia to cover "overseas expenses," the complaint said, but were given no receipts. When they questioned the expenses, they were told the fee could go up to $30,000, which Randall Nelson said he took as a threat to keep them quiet.

The Nelsons ultimately did adopt the boys, and Swanson said that a few of the other couples who have filed the complaints did as well, "but only after much heartbreak, coercion and added cost."

Financial problems at agency?

The court documents also offered indications of financial problems that appeared to erupt last year at Reaching Arms. David and Kathleen Gora of Cottage Grove said that while attempting to adopt a Guatemalan girl, they received a letter from the agency last February stating that Reaching Arms was on the "brink" of financial disaster. Kathleen Gora said she later found that the agency was "downsizing" and had listed its building for sale. Soon after, the price of their adoption was increased to $19,000, with $450 in additional fees for which the Goras said they were refused receipts. The Goras completed the adoption but still have not received the amended birth certificate needed for their daughter's citizenship.

Brad Kantor said: "We were threatened from the very beginning. They seemed to not be able to answer any questions."

The Kantors later adopted their son Alex through another agency, but said they have never gotten their money back from Reaching Arms.

Moulder and Spaulding say they have received neither their money nor any word of Josephine.

"It's like nothing we've ever known," Moulder said Wednesday. "It's tested us in so many ways."

Patricia Lopez - 651-222-1288

2007 Feb 1