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.
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, 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.