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Utah adoption agency accused of leaving trail of broken dreams, emptied wallets

Published January 15, 2013 12:14 pm

Courts • An American Fork adoption service, facing numerous lawsuits, operates under a conditional license.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When they arrived in Arizona for the birth of the baby they planned to adopt, Wes and Becky Jones were brimming with excitement.

After three children, the Joneses had turned to adoption to expand their family and had twice come close to realizing that dream. At last, in July 2010, they got the hoped-for news: A woman set to give birth in just a few weeks had selected the northern Utah couple to be her daughter's parents.

But the Joneses went from dream-come-true to nightmare within 24 hours of arriving in Phoenix as they learned there was no baby and the supposed birth mom had never even been pregnant.

The Joneses allege in a lawsuit that The Adoption Center of Choice — the same American Fork agency under scrutiny for its handling of a married father's child — was negligent and reckless in its handling of their adoption. The couple already have won a partial summary judgment for $39,275, the sum the center agreed to pay in a settlement but then failed to honor. The center is appealing that ruling.

Court filings reveal other troubles for The Adoption Center of Choice, currently functioning under a conditional state license after regulators identified problems with its record-keeping and other operating rules.

The agency is being sued for nonpayment of fees by a law firm that represented it in several cases involving adoptions contested by unmarried birth fathers. It also is being sued by a Florida couple who allege the agency negligently misrepresented charges and is operating a "Ponzi scheme," shifting funds between prospective adoptive couples.

The Florida couple paid the agency more than $41,000 in April and May of 2011 for twins, but the mother changed her mind three hours after giving birth prematurely that spring. According to court documents, the couple were then promised another set of twins; that placement never materialized.

The agency refunded $20,000 to the couple, but owner James C. Webb has refused demands for full repayment, telling the couple the firm has no money, according to court documents.

A Georgia woman alleges in another lawsuit she is out $37,850 paid to adopt a baby through the agency, which she claims gave her misleading information about the marital status and drug use of one birth mother.

Several other adoptive couples contacted The Salt Lake Tribune about their experiences with The Adoption Center of Choice after the newspaper's story on Terry Achane, who is fighting for custody of the daughter his ex-wife placed for adoption at birth through the center.

The story told by Jim and Jodi Cech, of Zeeland, Mich., is typical: Their relationship with the agency fell apart amid shifting monetary charges, an unsettling urgency to complete an adoption and misleading information about the status of a child's birth parents, particularly the birth father.

Like the couples who have sued the agency, the Ceches are out tens of thousands of dollars, money they paid for an adoption that, in the end, they could not financially or ethically complete.

"This is the end of our adoption journey," said Jodi Cech.

But money is not their main concern.

"We don't want this to happen to another family," she said.

Nancy Pomeroy, spokeswoman for The Adoption Center of Choice, said Thursday the agency could not comment on pending litigation. "The Adoption Center is still moving forward and we're doing the best we can here."

Since its founding more than 17 years ago, the agency has completed 1,300 successful placements, she noted.

"There are a lot of good things that have gone on here and in the adoption world," Pomeroy said. "The Adoption Center of Choice really tries to give birth mothers and families the best experience we can, but there are some things out of our control."

Hope and despair • By the time the Joneses arrived in Arizona, they had had a single 20-minute telephone conversation with the birth mom who had chosen them.

She was from North Carolina, had a strained relationship with the birth father and spoke with confidence about her decision to place her baby for adoption.

"It seemed she was very committed to this," Wes Jones said. "She was definitely telling us everything we wanted to hear."

They had also paid the agency's fee of $28,325, including nearly $10,000 toBlue Sky Choice Marketing, an advertising firm Webb also owns. They'd been told the marketing fee was nonrefundable, so the Joneses asked the agency to sign a document confirming they would get the rest of the money back if the adoption fell through.

Days before their trip, an agency representative asked the Joneses for an additional $3,000 for a caseworker to travel to Arizona for the birth — a charge that, unbeknownst to the couple, is prohibited by rules governing Utah adoption agencies.

"When we said no and that with the money we'd already paid she would be able to cover her fees to fly down there, they asked, 'Is that your final answer?' " Wes Jones said. "That bothered us. It felt like the chances of this working out were contingent on that. We said yes, that was our final answer."

That ended the discussion and the adoption remained on track. The Joneses gathered diapers and clothes, scheduled days off from work and arranged for a grandmother to stay with their children while they went to pick up their new baby. They arrived in Arizona on Aug. 3, 2010, the night before the mother was supposed to be induced. The Joneses planned to meet the caseworker and birth mom for dinner, but there were red flags before they even left the airport.

The caseworker called and said she had not been able to reach the birth mom for several days.

The next morning, there was still no word from her. The Joneses, fighting off feelings of trepidation, decided to go to the hospital and wait in the parking lot; the birth mom had said Becky Jones could attend the birth, and they expected to be called once she arrived. But the scheduled time for the induction came and went.

An hour after the delivery was supposed to begin, the Joneses called the caseworker, who said she had no clue what was going on.

At that point, the Joneses went to meet with the caseworker, who disclosed that when she had met with the birth mother some months earlier, the woman did not appear to be pregnant. The Joneses said the caseworker told them she figured the birth mom was one of those women who don't show much during pregnancy.

Hours later, the Joneses got a devastating call from another agency representative: He said the agency had learned "100 percent" that the woman had faked her pregnancy.

"I couldn't believe what was happening," Becky Jones said. "We went through a reputable company who should have done their homework. They had told us the baby was a girl but they had no ultrasound on file. How would they just know it was a girl?"

The agency told the Utah couple the woman had provided a doctor's statement confirming the pregnancy, Wes Jones said, but the "agency hadn't validated any of it."

The Joneses said that in a later meeting at their home the representative acknowledged the agency should have done more, adding that there was little to be gained by going after the woman and that their money had been spent.

"They made us feel like this is just part of adoption and that is the risk you take," Becky Jones said. "They made us feel like we should have known that this could have happened. We were prepared for [a birth mom] to change her mind, but not for this."

In June 2011, the Joneses negotiated a settlement with The Adoption Center of Choice, which agreed to pay the couple $48,275 in installments. But after getting about $9,000, the agency stopped making payments. That led to the default judgement, which the center is now appealing.

"We feel like you should forgive people," Wes Jones said. "But we also feel like if we didn't do something, other people would suffer the same consequences."

An ethical dilemma • That same sentiment drove Jim and Jodi Cech to share their story, which one adoption expert said should serve as a cautionary tale for all prospective adoptive parents.

"It sounds like in their enthusiasm and desire to be parents they got ahead of the due diligence steps that should have been taken with licensed professionals," said Denise Bierly, president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. "Please have adoptive families go over any sort of agency contract, third-party contracts or agreements to pay medical expenses with their attorney face to face and not have this rushed urgency. Take the steps very deliberately because this is a significant life change for this family. The loss of this money is going to have a permanent effect on this family."

When they married 10 years ago, the Ceches formed a blended family with three children from previous marriages. From the start, they planned to expand their family through adoption, an interest kindled by the positive examples all around them. Jim Cech is adopted, as is his sister and a niece.

In September 2012, the Ceches hired an adoption consultant from Georgia to help them. Two weeks later, they were connected with a birth mom in North Carolina who wanted to place a 7-month-old girl.

"We were told there was an urgency in placing this baby as the mother was homeless and did not have support in raising her," Jim Cech said. The placement was supposed to take place on Oct. 26, with adoption becoming final a month later.

They also were told the pregnancy was the result of a one-night stand and that it was a "favorable adoption" because the father's name was not on the birth certificate.

On Sept. 26, the Ceches learned the birth mom had chosen them as her daughter's adoptive parents. That same day, the Ceches received an itemized bill from The Adoption Center of Choice for $22,350. That statement noted the birth father was not aware of the adoption but would be sent relinquishment paperwork "if possible." It also said the adoptive family might have legal expenses associated with terminating parental rights, especially those of the birth father.

The agency put the Ceches in touch with an attorney, who they were told would charge legal fees of $6,000, about what they expected to pay. But that fee quickly escalated to $12,000 — and maybe more — as the attorney uncovered surprising news.

The birth father, who lived in Pennsylvania, had a diminished mental capacity and was unable to make legal decisions for himself, which made terminating his rights a more complicated — and expensive — process. When the Ceches told their consultant they could not afford to continue with the adoption, they were referred to a second attorney, who they were told would be able to do the legal work for the originally quoted price.

Under pressure from the agency — and despite their growing concerns about the birth father — the Ceches wired The Adoption Center of Choice $22,350 on Oct. 12.

They also continued to push for more information about the health of the baby and the birth father.

"When we started asking legitimate questions that should have had an answer," Jim Cech said, "that's when the red flags started."

The Ceches also reached out again to their first attorney for any additional information she might be able to share with them and say they learned for the first time that the birth father's mother, who had power of attorney for him, would not relinquish his rights and wanted to raise the child.

Meanwhile, both the adoption consultant and a representative for The Adoption Center of Choice urged the Ceches to move forward.

"Every time we asked about the birth father, we were dismissed," Jodi Cech said. "We were told the fact that he lived in a different state was to our advantage and that he would never show up to our court date, that they could pretty much guarantee he would never be 'an issue.' Something just didn't feel right with how the info with dad kept changing."

And there was another financial surprise: The Ceches said their new attorney informed them they would have to cover the birth mom's legal expenses and the tab to terminate the father's rights might be as much as $120,000.

Amid multiplying concerns, the Ceches decided to contact the birth father. They ended up speaking with his mother, who informed the Ceches that the birth mom and birth father had had an ongoing relationship and, while not married, already had a 3-year-old son. They would not consent to theadoption and hoped to raise the child — the grandmother was already helping her son rear two children.

"At that point, we ethically and morally could not pursue the adoption any further," Jodi Cech said. "We were personally done."

The next telephone call the Ceches made was to their adoption consultant. In that brief conversation, the Ceches relayed what they had learned and expressed concern about taking a baby away from a family who wanted her.

Within minutes of hanging up, the Ceches received an equally brief email from their contact at The Adoption Center of Choice.

Dated Oct. 22, it said: "Be advised that in light of your direct contact with the birth father, [the birth mother] has decided she doesn't wish to proceed with this adoption with you." The Ceches also were told that the birth mom had already chosen another family.

Since then, the Ceches have engaged in a fruitless battle to get their money back — or at least a portion of it, which they deemed reasonable given that child was placed with another family who also paid agency fees.

In a letter dated Nov. 1, a representative for the agency told the Ceches it would not refund their payment since "we have provided our service to you ... and therefore have earned the fees associated with your adoption opportunity," according to an email shared with The Tribune. The agency offered to roll the money into a "new opportunity." It later said that would happen only if the Ceches participated in counseling. But communication dwindled and the agency stopped returning emails and phone calls; numerous pre-arranged telephone conferences never materialized.

As the adoption collapsed, the Ceches sent the birth mom a message on Facebook letting her know she could contact them if she needed anything.

Just before Thanksgiving, the birth mom called. The Ceches learned she had been told to pick another family because the couple had failed to pay their bill.

"It angers us that the agency took advantage of us and our emotions," Jim Cech said. "We worry that the agency will knowingly rob the dreams of another family by taking money for an adoption that cannot ever be finalized. This experience has forever changed our family."

Added Jodi Cech: "I think many families working with the agency see red flags but they so badly want to bring a baby home that they are willing to do so at whatever price — financial, moral, ethical."

brooke@sltrib.com