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Whose Standards?

U.S. Bound
International Adoption
12,753 -- Children adopted by American families from foreign countries between
October 2008 and September 2009

543
-- Florida families that adopted internationally last year [Map: Jeff Papa]

Parents who want to adopt a child from another country face big expenses, piles of paperwork, long waits and a host of logistical challenges.

One of their most critical decisions is choosing an agency to help guide them through the process. Agencies handle everything from locating the child to be adopted to dealing with orphanages and foreign authorities, helping the parents compile documents and assisting with travel and immigration arrangements for the child.

In deciding which agency to pick, adoptive parents can check with the state Department of Children and Families, which licenses all "child-placing" agencies in Florida by monitoring employees' credentials and the agencies' business practices. In the past decade, at least four international adoption agencies have closed after the state investigated problems with their operations ["Shuttered"].

What some parents don't know is that the state's standards for international adoption agencies aren't as stringent as those used by some other groups.

Consider the case of Celebrate Children International, an Oviedo-based international adoption agency that opened in 2003. Among the more than two dozen licensed child-placing agencies in Florida that handle international adoptions, Celebrate Children is one of the busiest. The agency has, by its own count, handled more than 1,000 international adoptions for Americans in countries including Guatemala, China, Haiti, Ukraine, Vietnam and Ethiopia. Celebrate Children is run by Sue Hedberg, who took over the agency in 2004.

Over the past five years, DCF has received 19 separate complaints about Celebrate Children. Among the allegations: Some of Celebrate Children's clients said the agency failed to adequately communicate when there were delays in their cases. Some said the agency threatened them with the loss of "child referral" when they asked questions about the status of their cases. There were complaints that Celebrate Children's contract didn't allow adoption applicants to contact foreign entities that were involved in the adoption. Some former clients said Hedberg asked them to undergo psychological evaluations after they raised concerns about how long the process was taking.

Sue Hedberg - Celebrate Children
Sue Hedberg, right, hands an Ethiopian child to her new adoptive mother. Hedberg’s Celebrate Children adoption agency operates legally under Florida law but has been denied permission by the Hague Convention to participate in the international adoptions it oversees.
[Photo:Chris Stewart/Dayton Daily News]

Of the 19 complaints against Celebrate Children, DCF found five didn't warrant a formal investigation. In 2007, it consolidated 11 complaints into one investigation. DCF investigated three other complaints individually.

Ultimately, from 2007 to 2009, the agency issued 10 corrective actions against Celebrate Children. Internal DCF documents indicate the agency discussed revoking the adoption agency's license given the number of complaints and the "issue of public trust." But a DCF legal adviser concluded that Celebrate Children continues to meet the minimum standards for licensing as a "child placing agency" in Florida and could continue to conduct international adoptions.

A different regulatory body, after reviewing much the same information and talking to many of the same clients, decided not to allow Celebrate Children to participate in the international adoptions it oversees, however.

Some 80 countries, including the U.S., have signed a treaty called the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. The treaty, created in 1993, is meant to safeguard against the abduction, sale or trafficking of children. The treaty establishes standards for intercountry adoptions, including ethical and professional standards for agencies that handle international adoptions. The United States signed the convention in 1994, and it went into force in the U.S. in April 2008.

In the U.S., an independent group called the Council on Accreditation based in New York must accredit U.S. adoption agencies before they can handle adoptions in countries that have signed the Hague agreement.

In 2008, the Council rejected Hedberg's application to have Celebrate Children accredited. It later rejected Hedberg's appeal to reconsider, telling her she could reapply again in one year.

Hamstrung

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 Celebrate Children had "fabricated facts" about the status of cases to "assuage prospective parents" when it did not have the facts about the case.

» 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.

Homework

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."