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.
For Hedberg, the Council's denial of accreditation means her agency can't conduct adoptions between any of the 80 Hague-signatory countries. As long as Celebrate Children meets the standards of Florida law, however, it can continue to handle international adoptions in countries that haven't signed the agreement.
Among them is Ethiopia, which in recent years has been the source of thousands of children adopted by Americans [See "Supply and Demand"].
Information in the agency's licensing file shows that Celebrate Children has turned to Ethiopia as adoptions from Guatemala slowed and eventually ground to a halt. Guatemala became the No. 1 source for children adopted overseas by Americans in 2008 but closed its borders to adoptions in 2009 after reports of widespread corruption, violence and fraud. (While Guatemala implemented the Hague Convention in 2008, the U.S. government doesn't consider it to be Hague compliant.)
In 2007, Celebrate Children reported gross receipts of $5.152 million to the Internal Revenue Service, with 84% of that revenue derived from adoptions in Guatemala, according to an audit. By 2008, Celebrate Children's gross receipts dropped to slightly more than $2 million. One year later, in 2009, the agency's board reported that Celebrate Children was "surviving off Ethiopia" and "Sue agreed to take a pay cut to stay open."
By 2010, Celebrate Children was on better financial footing. "The company is as financially sound and profitable as it was back in October of 2008," minutes from a March 14, 2010, board meeting state. "Ethiopia as a country program has been very profitable to date. Approximate cash balances are $625,000 in the country fee account ... and $115,000 in the office account." "Sue is back to full salary," the board reported.
Nistri acknowledges that the Hague standards are more stringent than the state's. She says she'd welcome a change in state law to make Florida's standards conform with Hague. "We always would prefer to align with a larger federal organization like that, a federal accreditation like that. Their expertise in the development of the Hague has to do with knowledge and exposure to international practice, so we would love that."
Meanwhile, it remains a buyer beware world for the roughly 500 Florida families who adopt a child from overseas each year.
Nistri advises prospective parents to do their homework before they adopt internationally. "Do the research not only on the agency stateside, but do your research on the country you want to adopt from — see if there's any problems over there," Nistri advises. Equally important, she says, is doing a "critical review" of the contract language before signing or handing over any money.
Finally, she says, use a Hague-accredited agency if possible. "Any additional protections that are built into the system that a prospective family can utilize for themselves, they need to. Any extra certification, anything that's additional to the minimum standards of a license, would always be a good decision for an applicant to use as part of their research and selection process."
» For more information about adopting children from countries abroad, go to adoption.state.gov/countryinformation.html
» Read the Council on Accreditation's report on Celebration Children International and Sue Hedberg's letter requesting reconsideration. (Note: This PDF file is large and may take a few minutes to download.)