Utah adoption saga: New questions as fight continues
The Salt Lake Tribune has learned the Utah adoption agency that arranged for a married father's child to be given up at birth is under scrutiny by state licensing officials and the adoptive parents have acted on their pledge to try to block the toddler's return to her dad.
Ken Stettler, director of the Office of Licensing for the Utah Department of Human Services, told the Tribune that the Adoption Center of Choice has operated under a corrective action plan since September, when its license was extended but not renewed. The action was taken because of documentation deficiencies in some case files, Stettler said.
The extension expires at the end of December, the deadline for the agency to come into compliance. But allegations in the adoption case have raised new questions and prompted additional review, Stettler said.
Meanwhile, a new legal battle is forming over the child.
Attorney Larry Jenkins, who now represents Jared and Kristi Frei, confirmed Wednesday they have filed a motion asking 4th District Judge Darold J. McDade to stay his order dismissing their adoption petition and requiring the couple to transition Terry Achane's now 21-month old daughter to him by mid-January. Jenkins also said he is reviewing the case in anticipation of appealing McDade's decision.
In a statement released to KUTV on Monday, the Freis claim Achane abandoned his wife before their child's birth and has done nothing to build a relationship with the now 21-month-old girl.
"We are deeply saddened by the court's decision to give the child back to a father she does not know at all," said the Freis, who have four biological children and two adopted children, including Leah. "We believe that the court made serious legal errors in his decision and will address these concerns with the Utah Court of Appeals."
Achane, who calls his daughter "Teleah," told The Tribune he did not attempt to send gifts or other support once he learned the Freis had his daughter because, given her age and the circumstances, he felt those gestures were unlikely to reach her or make sense to her. Achane, 31, has had two three-hour visits with her during trips to Utah for legal hearings, but otherwise the Freis have not allowed contact.
But Mark Wiser, Achane's attorney, said the Freis have not responded to repeated attempts by Achane to connect with his daughter since the Nov. 20 ruling.
Achane "has called numerous times only to have the phone go to voice mail, or is busy," Wiser said. "He still can't talk with his daughter. He even left his phone number and if the Freis are out on the weekends, they won't return the call."
Achane and Tira Bland married in 2009 in Texas and learned in June 2010 she was pregnant and that the baby was due in mid-March of 2011. The couple had marital problems but were still together in January 2011 when Achane accepted a position as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. He left in mid-month to set up a home and report for duty, expecting to return to Texas for the baby's birth.
Less than two weeks later, Bland decided to pursue an adoption; she came to Utah in mid-February and stopped communicating with Achane. Bland, who claimed her husband had abandoned her, gave birth on March 1, 2011.
Achane says he had no idea what had become of Bland or his baby until Bland contacted him in June and informed him she had placed the child for adoption. Achane immediately contacted The Adoption Center of Choice and began asserting his parental rights as the child's father. He has since divorced Bland.
The Freis were "duped themselves, but eventually they found out what happened and they had to make a choice do the right thing and return the child to the legal father or keep the child," said Scott Wiser, Mark's son and part of Achane's legal team. "It is a human tragedy. There are victims all around, but two wrongs don't make a right."
On its website, the center claims to have facilitated about 1,400 successful adoptions since its founding in 1995. According to its corporate registration filing, it has done business under eight other names in the past, including A Heart of Gold Adoptions, An All American Adoption Agency, A Bridge Adoption Services and A Adoption with Love.
In 2005, the center incorporated as a nonprofit organization under state law, though it does not have federal tax exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service.
James C. Webb, who is currently listed as the only representative director, officer, president, and registered agent for the adoption center, did not return a call from The Tribune. His office referred the newspaper to Jenkins, who also represents the adoption agency.
Jenkins confirmed the business was set up as a nonprofit under Utah law.
In its incorporation filing, the center listed its purpose as a child placing agency; providing humanitarian relief and education to underprivileged children worldwide; sheltering children who do not have homes, families or both; assisting adoptive parents; and soliciting contributions.
The center, based in American Fork, has facilitated at least five other controversial adoptions that ended up in rulings by the Utah Supreme Court or Utah Court of Appeals. All of those adoptions involved unmarried fathers, unlike the current case. Each of those fathers Victor Johnson, Frank Osborne, Buddy Pruitt, Cody O'Dea and Bryn Ayers were unsuccessful in stopping adoptions of their biological children, mostly based on findings they acted too late under Utah law to protect their parental rights.
The center received harsh criticism in the ruling by McDade, who rebuked the agency for its failure to return Achane's daughter to him once he realized what had happened to her.
McDade also questioned the agency's requirement that the Freis pay an "advertising fee" of $9,800 to a marketing company, in addition to other adoption and pregnancy-related expenses it collected.
That business, Blue Sky Choice Marketing, was founded and is operated by Webb, who is the only principal listed for the firm in its corporate registration. According to that document, the marketing company is located in Cedar City and has been in business about two years.
While holding itself out as a nonprofit, the agency also requires clients to pay the advertising fee to Webb's other company, the judge noted.
Agency participated in reality show
Earlier this year, the Adoption Center of Choice was featured on an hour-long special on TLC called "Birth Moms," a reality show that chronicled experiences of three unwed, pregnant women who were living in homes provided by the center and struggling with their decisions to pursue adoption.
James C. Webb, the agency's executive director, told The Salt Lake Tribune as part of a report on the show that five of his seven daughters are adopted. Of birth moms, he said: "Here they are doing this amazing thing giving a gift of life to a child and a family. And it's not an easy thing. I can't even imagine how challenging it is."
Webb said that of the 150 to 200 women who seek the agency's services each year, about 100 decide to move forward with an adoption. On a blog at its website, a company representative says adoption fees can run from $22,000 to $30,000.
Donation funds for both sides
Jared and Kristi Frei are soliciting contributions for their legal fund on their blog at http://frei-adoption.com/Frei/Leah.html.
Numerous people also have asked how to contribute to Terry Achane's legal fund. Contributions may be sent to The Law Offices of Wiser and Wiser, 2825 E. Cottonwood Parkway, Ste. 500, Salt Lake City, Utah, 84121.