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Continued: Burned by a baby broker

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: June 29, 2012 - 12:07 PM

Three cribs stand empty in the unused bedroom of Suann Hibbs' Edina home, and the closet is full of unworn baby clothes.

Sad reminders, Hibbs says, of her broken dream of bringing home three orphans from Guatemala to raise as her daughters.

She spent three years and thousands of dollars on what she thought were legitimate adoption expenses. Instead, Hibbs says, she discovered a trail of lies, altered birth records and evidence that a Guatemalan family was paid to turn over three children to an unscrupulous baby broker.

"It was heartbreaking that I had been so deceived when I was trying to do something good," said Hibbs, a longtime flight attendant for Northwest Airlines.

She is one of thousands of Americans who each year wade into the sometimes treacherous waters of international adoption. It is a world where greed, fraud and child-trafficking often intersect with the good intentions of people looking for orphans to raise as their own.

Adoption-related payoffs and even kidnapping have cropped up in Vietnam, Cambodia, China, India and Liberia in recent years. Some countries temporarily stopped international adoptions to clean up the process. U.S. officials are hoping a newly implemented treaty will rein in abuses, but critics say the new system still isn't sufficient to root out problems.

It's impossible to know how many children have fallen prey to corrupt operators in America or abroad. While the federal government tracks foreign adoptions, it doesn't report how many go bad.

Cleaning up the business could be difficult. In Minnesota, which has the highest rate of international adoptions in the country, some families have encountered little but grief in their quests to bring home children.

A couple from Mayer, Minn., adopted two girls from India in 2006, but later discovered they were years older than their doctored birth certificates indicated. One girl turned out to be 21, and both were deported back to India. The family has sued, and state regulators are investigating the conduct of Edina-based Crossroads Adoption Services, which handled the adoption. The firm's attorney said the claims have no merit. ¶ A Minneapolis couple recently spent two years on a complicated adoption in Guatemala that involved firing their Pennsylvania adoption agency, spending $170,000 on legal and other expenses and unraveling false information about the child's origins.

Governments hardly ever prosecute anyone for such wrongdoing. Even when state licensing authorities take action against U.S. adoption agencies, international adoption experts say, penalties are rarely severe. Sanctions are based on what those firms do in the United States, not on the core problem of corruption abroad.

In Minnesota, there are 17 agencies that help people find children in foreign countries. In the past three years, state regulators began 14 investigations against eight firms.

A Family Journey, which handled Hibbs' failed adoption, was cited for 13 licensing violations this year, including overcharging her. Investigators also found that Hibbs paid $9,000 in foreign fees before she fully qualified for adopting.

Attorney Scott Hillstrom, who represents the agency, said state investigators conducted "a blatantly incompetent investigation," but his 24-page appeal was rejected on every count. Hillstrom said his sister's agency handled 175 adoptions and failed to deliver children in just two cases, including Hibbs'.

Experts say the willingness of Americans to spend $25,000 or more adopting a child is a big part of the problem and has contributed to illegal activities in such countries as Guatemala, where that kind of money is a fortune.

The money "becomes a motivation for people to illicitly obtain children,'' said David Smolin, a law professor at Samford University in Alabama who has written about the ethics of international adoption. "In most cases, the obtaining of the children is outsourced to facilitators and to foreign agencies, and the Americans really don't know. Some are so ideologically committed to international adoption that they really don't believe it is happening, even when there is a lot of evidence. Sometimes they just turn a blind eye."

High expectations

Hibbs, who flies around the world for her job, said she started thinking about adoption a few years ago after meeting so many smiling Americans coming back to the country with foreign children in their arms.

Hibbs was over 50, single and never married. But she decided to take the plunge, figuring that many Americans were starting families later in life these days. She joined her church's adoption support group and searched adoption agencies on the Internet. She wanted two children, preferably twins.

Like other Americans, she shopped around before settling on A Family Journey. She first tried to adopt from Russia and paid $2,000 to an agency, but nothing came of it. She signed up with a second adoption agency but grew impatient when a referral didn't quickly materialize.

Then a friend told her about A Family Journey, which specialized in Guatemalan adoptions. Unlike many nations, Guatemala didn't bar adoption by singles or people her age.

The agency was run by Tamara Hillstrom out of her Minneapolis home. Before starting the nonprofit agency in 2005, she was in the clothing business, selling hand-painted goods to retailers and running a Mall of America kiosk. She had no social work experience, but had adopted a child from Guatemala.

In August 2006, before Hibbs even filled out initial paperwork with the agency, Tamara Hillstrom announced she had located twin girls in Guatemala. Hibbs fell in love as soon as she saw photographs of the infants. She wrote her first check to the agency. She was told the adoption could be finalized in as little as six to nine months.

Two months later, Tamara Hillstrom asked if Hibbs would be interested in a third child, a recently born sister to the twins. Hibbs agreed. Altogether, the adoptions would cost her more than $70,000, including $58,000 in foreign fees. But, Hibbs was assured, she wouldn't have to pay half of those foreign fees until Guatemalan authorities signed off on the case. The agency vowed to work with "experienced and ethical facilitators and attorneys," according to Hibbs' contract.

Big problems in Guatemala

At the time, Americans were adopting nearly 5,000 children a year from Guatemala, or one in every 100 children born there. The country has been especially popular with Minnesotans, accounting for 25 percent of the 2,361 foreign children adopted here in the last three years, topping even China, which leads the rest of the nation, federal records show.

Yet the same poverty that orphaned thousands of children also fueled kidnapping and trafficking in boys and girls for international adoption. In Guatemala, birth mothers were being paid $1,500 a child, according to a UNICEF investigator.

Recently, three birth mothers and their supporters have been staging hunger strikes seeking the return of their children, who they say were kidnapped and placed through other U.S. agencies with adoptive parents in Missouri, Illinois and Iowa.

Altogether, 300 adoptions in Guatemala remain stalled while authorities try to sort out the facts, according to the State Department.

"Guatemala was an absolute case study of how inter-country adoption should not be done," said Kelley Bunkers, who formerly worked for UNICEF-Guatemala. "The incredible lack of oversight by any one institution created basically a free-for-all."

So far, criminal charges regarding Guatemalan adoptions appear to have been filed against just one American, Mary Bonn, an adoption coordinator who worked for A Family Journey and other U.S. agencies. She was arrested while working for a Pennsylvania agency in February 2007 after smuggling a baby out of Guatemala to her home in Florida. She pleaded guilty to harboring an illegal alien and spent 10 months in prison.

Bonn also was involved in Hibbs' case, collecting medical records and photos of the children Hibbs hoped to adopt. That work was not connected to Bonn's criminal case.

As it turned out, however, the three girls Hibbs was pursuing were never legally up for adoption.

Investigators determined that the girls' birth records were falsified and their mother was apparently 15, making her too young to offer her children for adoption. A Guatemalan baby finder preyed on the young woman's fears, offering her money needed to obtain medical treatment for her mother, who had been seriously injured in a car accident. The broker told the young woman to lie about her actions or she would end up in jail, investigators found.

The two Guatemalan women "were really afraid because their lives were at risk,'' according to a translation of the investigative report.

Scott Hillstrom said his sister was unaware of any illegal activity.

"We had nothing to do with it,'' he said.

Hibbs didn't find out about the problems until her case ran into significant delays. After Bonn's arrest, U.S. officials spent months digging into the Guatemalan adoptions connected to her. A few months later, Guatemalan authorities started cracking down on abuses, seizing 46 children from an orphanage suspected of harboring fraudulently obtained children.

In November, the Guatemalan government put Hibbs' adoptions on hold after discovering the phony birth records. The children were put in a state orphanage.

For Hibbs, time was running out. Guatemala halted all new adoptions after Dec. 31, 2007. If she wasn't able to bring the three girls to America, she would soon lose any chance to adopt other Guatemalan children.

At about this time, Tamara Hillstrom's agency offered to hook Hibbs up with a Guatemalan attorney who "had a reputation for handling difficult cases,'' according to a report by Minnesota regulators. The attorney told Hibbs that he was optimistic things would work out.

Soon, the Guatemalan attorney was able to transfer the children to a home he controlled, making it easy for Hibbs to visit the children twice in early 2008. She spent a total of 15 hours with the girls. On the first visit, the baby settled on her lap and one of the twins gave her a hug. Hibbs said the girls played with her hair and jewelry. She fed the baby by bottle.

"They were just so sweet, so innocent, mostly shy, but they still were receptive to me," Hibbs said.

Hibbs became uneasy, however, when the attorney started demanding more money. In June 2008, the lawyer suggested to Hibbs by e-mail that she come to Guatemala, pay him $33,500 in cash and meet the children's mother and grandmother. Hibbs said she didn't go because paying in cash seemed unsafe, even unethical.

Scott Hillstrom said Hibbs blew it, claiming the adoptions would have been approved if Hibbs had made the trip.

As things unraveled, Hibbs hired a new law firm in Guatemala, whose private investigators exposed the phony birth records and other problems. The report broke her heart.

"I was shocked that I had been lied to at so many levels," Hibbs said.

State sanctions agency

While most Americans come home with the children they wanted, tales of stomach-churning delays and unexpected demands for money are fairly common. But for those like Hibbs who come home angry and empty-handed, there haven't been many places to go.

State licensing agencies don't send investigators to places like Guatemala and China to check out complaints about corrupt child-welfare practices.

"We have regulatory policies that come from laws that were enacted before inter-country adoption was a real industry," said Karen Smith Rotabi, assistant professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work. "The states need to be honest that they don't have the capacity to investigate."

Under Minnesota law, agencies must disclose in writing how much an adoption will cost, how long it will probably take and the likelihood of success. If things go wrong, the Minnesota Department of Human Services looks closely at how an agency conducted itself, said Jerry Kerber, head of the department's licensing unit. But he said investigators do not try to assign blame for what happened in other countries.

"These are competent adults entering into a contractual relationship," Kerber said. "The focus of our licensing standards is on helping that to be as informed a decision as possible."

When Human Services looked into Hibbs' complaint about A Family Journey, regulators determined she wasn't the only client with a legitimate grievance. In other adoptions, regulators found, people paid higher fees than they were supposed to or paid fees far earlier than required. The agency also placed children with two families before fingerprints and background checks were submitted to the state, as required.

Regulators also faulted the agency for keeping $7,000 in foreign fees from Hibbs. The money was returned to the agency by the baby finder who allegedly orchestrated the deal with the girls' family. Scott Hillstrom said the Guatemalan woman returned the money because "she felt bad that things were not working out," and she wanted to maintain good relations with his sister's agency.

In 2008, Tamara Hillstrom offered to give the money to Hibbs if she agreed not to sue. Hibbs did not accept. State officials say they lack the authority to order the agency to repay the $7,000.

As punishment, state officials made the agency's license conditional for one year. Until next August, Tamara Hillstrom must disclose the state's findings to all current and prospective clients. Scott Hillstrom said that could put the agency out of business.

"Who would ever hire an adoption agency that had this scarlet letter pasted on its front door by the state government?" he said.

If A Family Journey closes, it would become the second agency effectively forced out of business by the state in recent years. In 2007, the state revoked the license of Reaching Arms International of New Hope after regulators received dozens of complaints about bungled adoptions. Investigators found forgery, false documents and other problems.

By comparison, regulators in other Midwestern states have conducted relatively few investigations. In the past three years, Missouri investigated complaints against two international adoption agencies but found no violations, while regulators in Indiana and Iowa reported no such investigations. Officials in Michigan and Wisconsin provided no data.

'My moral obligation'

Hibbs still hopes for a happy ending in which she gets the girls.

The odds of that happening are low, yet she hasn't emptied the furniture in the nursery. A lonely row of kids' clothes, including shower gifts from friends and relatives, dangles on hangers in the closet. She calls the room her museum.

The girls, now ages 3 and 4, are believed to be living with their grandmother somewhere in Guatemala. Hibbs has searched for them, but the family may not wish to be found. The grandmother told authorities she wants to keep the kids, and she missed several custody hearings, Hibbs said.

If the children someday are declared adoptable, the rules might favor a Guatemalan couple. Yet Hibbs stands in the wings, hoping at least to learn the girls' fate.

"It almost seems more unconscionable to walk on and not have a final resolve," Hibbs said. "How can you just say, 'I am going on with my life and whatever happens to them, happens to them -- it's not my concern anymore?' I think it is my moral obligation to find out what's happened to them."

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090

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