It's a buyer-beware world for Floridians who adopt a child from overseas each year, beginning with the state's standards for international adoption agencies.
The difference between the state's evaluation of Celebrate Children and the Council's assessment reflects in part a challenging and confusing regulatory landscape.
As a practical matter, state licensing agencies can't send their investigators to countries such as Ethiopia and Guatemala to check out complaints about suspect adoption practices. In addition, Florida and other states are hamstrung by state laws written decades before Americans began adopting large numbers of children from abroad.
"International adoption was never on the legislatures' radar screens," says Joni Fixel, a Michigan attorney who has represented a number of prospective adoptive parents in lawsuits against adoption agencies. "They were really focused on what do we need to do to make sure our domestic adoptions are done absolutely correctly, and there's huge gaps because there's this no-man's land called international adoption," says Fixel.
The Council's refusal to accredit Celebrate Children also reflects the difference between the state's standards for compliance and the Hague standards, however.
DCF spokeswoman Maria Nistri, program administrator for DCF's central licensing zone, says the state's three primary licensing requirements are that the agency has solid fiscal practices, adheres to its service agreements/contracts with clients, and performs appropriate assessments in finding safe families for any placement of a child.
Nistri says that while Hedberg's agency generated more complaints than any other adoption agency in her region, it performs far more adoptions than any of its counterparts in the central licensing zone and has worked in countries "that have subsequently experienced problems where they closed their doors," thus producing delays and difficulties for prospective parents in adopting children.
Hedberg, likewise, says the complaints don't reflect the quality of service she's provided in the 1,000 adoptions her agency has handled in the past five years. She says she's received hundreds of letters and e-mails from families "telling us how happy they are with CCI, with their adoption and with their children. It's only the few unhappy families who have taken their gripes to the internet that creates a false impression."
The Council on Accreditation — which evaluates adoption agencies for compliance with Hague standards through on-site visits, interviews with agency personnel and clients and through other means — won't disclose its reasons for denying accreditation to an agency. However, it supplied reports to Hedberg that identified areas in which it said Celebrate Children didn't comply with Hague standards.
Hedberg later gave copies of the reports to the state, which supplied them to Florida Trend under a public records request. Hedberg did not provide the state with the Council's letter of denial but quotes from it in a copy of a letter she sent to the Council of Accreditation requesting "reconsideration of denial for accreditation."
The areas of non-compliance Hedberg refers to include:
» Allegations that when prospective adoptive parents learned of the misrepresentation and confronted the agency, "CCI's response was to threaten the client with loss of referral" if they complained further.
» Allegations that the agency had referred some Guatemalan children to prospective parents before their home study was completed; tried to take a referral from one prospective family and give it to another without first obtaining the required withdrawal from the original adoptive parents; and pressured prospective adoptive parents to accept a referral within 48 hours under the threat of extending it to another prospective family.
» Allegations from a "significant number of prospective adoptive parents adopting from Guatemala" that Celebrate Children discouraged them from asking questions about the status of their cases and that Celebrate Children threatened retaliation, including "threats to cancel the contract and withdrawal of the referral, threats to withhold in-country services if parents tried to verify information on their own, threats to require parents to obtain a psychological evaluation to prove they were fit to be adoptive parents and threats to delay their case further," according to the Council of Accreditation.
The Council also said Celebrate Children didn't disclose its complaint history with the state as it applied for Hague accreditation.
Hedberg sent a lengthy letter to the Council in which she said her agency "categorically and vehemently denies" making any misrepresentations or threats. Any deficiencies, she said in the letter, had been corrected. And she disputed the "misimpression" that CCI has a low rate of client satisfaction and treats its clients poorly. Hedberg cited as evidence the 57 families who had returned to Celebrate Children for second or third adoptions, high attendance at the adoption agency's annual reunions, a high rate of client referrals, Celebrate Children's "low percentage of client complaints" and 65 letters of support for Celebrate Children's candidacy "as a Hague accredited entity."
The Council rejected Hedberg's appeal and upheld its decision to deny accreditation to her agency. Hedberg says she has not reapplied for accreditation.