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


Doreen and Jim Vitale, one of four New Jersey couples stiffed by an adoption agency that took their money but left town without delivering their children, finally became parents last week - of a baby girl from Korea.

"It was a very long labor. It took us three years, but we are finally a family," said Doreen, who buried the dreams of two Honduran-born boys last fall and signed up with a new adoption agency, Holt International. "We have a new life, a new beginning, and are very happy."

The Vitales' story, which began in 1991 when the childless Brick Township couple signed a $9,000 contract with

International Adoption League

of Freehold, is a tale of financial loss, personal heartbreak and government powerlessness. New Jersey eventually lifted the agency's license, and a civil court here granted all four plaintiffs judgments against the agency.

Yet Mary Ann Cacacie, head of the agency, moved to south Florida to open an adoption agency, named

Adoptions International

. And although her clients back in New Jersey won in small claims court, none of them has recovered any money, according to the Vitales.

The story is also testament to how strong the longing for a child can be. Every one of the people who brought actions against International Adoption League went on, through other means, to become a parent.

"We're the last to get our baby," said Doreen Vitale. That event finally took place a week ago at Philadelphia International Airport, where the Vitales and some 40 friends and relatives went to greet the new arrival, Danielle Elizabeth, aged eight months.

In Florida, meanwhile, licensing authorities identified Cacacie as the head of Adoptions International in Royal Palm Beach. Though Adoptions International originally told Florida authorities it was not involved in Florida adoptions, the state later learned otherwise and has since notified the firm that it must be licensed, said Nancy Lambrecht, a spokeswoman for the Florida State Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

When Doreen Vitale, now 38 years old, and her husband, 44, first signed a contract with International Adoption League, they had tried in vain for 10 years to have a child.

The agency, which specialized in central and South American adoptions, was appealing because

it offered two babies for the price of one

, and because it promised swift delivery, they said.

Instead, the Vitales walked into a 2 1/2 year-long ordeal as they rode an emotional roller coaster. One week, they prepared for the boys' arrival; the next, they heard that a new stumbling block had been uncovered.

For months, a message on their home answering machine told inquisitive callers, "This is Doreen and Jimmy, we're not able to answer the phone right now. And, by the way, the boys have not arrived."

"The boys" were two unrelated Honduran babies who, the Children's Social Welfare Department of Honduras informed the couple, had been surrendered by their mothers. Fairly early on, having been assured that the boys were theirs, the couple flew to South America to meet them and to be certified as parents.

Despite the trip, and notice that they were acceptable parents, the Vitales kept encountering hurdles. Sometimes, Doreen said, the explanations sounded plausible. Sometimes they were hard to believe.

Things seemed to be back on track about a year ago, until a representative of the agency telephoned one day to report that one of the boys was gone. He had been adopted by his foster mother.

"I was devastated. I felt like this child, who I had in my heart for two years, was taken away from me," she said.

She put away both boys' photographs, toys, and the mostly outgrown clothing she had carefully stored in a room furnished with two cribs. But she held out hope for the remaining child, who was now almost four years old.

Last October, the Vitales got a phone call notifying them to buy airline tickets at once; the little boy was, at last, heading home. The night before they were to catch an early morning plane, the attorney from Honduras telephoned to say that

they should bring thousands of extra dollars, in cash

, Doreen Vitale said.

"He said, 'Don't forget to bring money for his fee, which was $5,000; for past medical care; and for back foster care,' " she said. "We didn't have that kind of money - the agency had said everything but $200 was paid for. That was it. That's when we dropped it."

The Vitales have a judgement against the agency for $7,500, the maximum recoverable in the state's special civil courts. But they have been told they would have to get a lawyer in Florida if they want to recover it.

The fee they paid Holt International, the new adoption agency, was about $8,000, minus the cost of a still-valid "home study" from 1991.

"It was worth every penny," Doreen Vitale said. "Everything was done so professionally, and it took only five months. Our baby was healthy, very, very well taken care of, and loved. She's a Korean-American princess, a happy, contented baby, very jolly, who goes to everyone."

Richard Danback, the New Jersey official who licenses adoption agencies, said he barred International Adoption Agency from taking on new business in New Jersey after investigating its practices. Previously, he said, the firm did place 12 foreign-born children with New Jersey families.

"We really felt for these people, and we continued to work with them. At this point, I probably know four out of the five couples better than I do members of my own family," he said. Attempts to reach the Florida office of Adoptions International were unsuccessful. At the agency's listed phone number, a taped message said, "We will not be in the office today due to the arrival of a Guatemalan child. This machine is not equipped to deliver messages, so please return your call."

1994 Mar 6