‘Too little oversight’: A Utah adoption agency owner violated state law and lost her license. Why did officials grant her a new one?

The owner was granted a new license in March, five years after her first license was revoked.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Utah adoption agency owner who lost her license after state regulators discovered “repeated and chronic violations” of the state law was granted a new license in March by regulators who operate in the Multi-Agency State Office Building, seen here on Tuesday, April 25, 2023.

A Utah adoption agency owner who lost her license in 2018 after state regulators discovered “repeated and chronic violations” of state law — including some a judge called “potentially criminal” — has received a new license and opened another adoption agency.

Some parents who adopted children through Denise Garza’s previous agency, Heart and Soul Adoptions, are concerned that state regulators gave Garza a second chance, and feel that doing so compromises the safety of birth mothers, adoptive parents and the children being placed with new families.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the licensing office that regulates child-placing agencies, said in an emailed statement that, “The DHHS Office of Licensing reviewed the new application along with the applicant’s past/historical record with the agency including past violations.”

They issued the new license to Love and Light Adoptions, Garza’s new agency based in Kaysville, on March 20.

Garza provided The Salt Lake Tribune written responses to its questions, stating that she started Love and Light Adoptions after being approached “by people encourgaing [sic] me to open an adoption agency to help expectant moms” in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year to overturn Roe v. Wade, which mandated access to abortion.

While Garza said she takes “full responsibility for the situation,” she said she doesn’t believe her license should have been revoked.

“I did not agree that we had violated any rules. I believe things were misunderstood. But that is now water under the bridge,” she wrote. “We have demonstrated that we are entitled to be licensed again, and we plan to operate under the rules.”

Two parents who adopted through Heart and Soul told The Tribune that they were concerned Garza had received another license. One of those parents, Ray Johnson, said when Garza’s license was taken away, he hoped it would be permanent. He and his wife had worked with Heart and Soul Adoptions to adopt between 2013 and 2014.

“In my opinion,” he said, “the state is handing out too many chances with too little oversight.”

Another adoptive parent, whose identity is known to The Tribune and who testified to state officials during the revocation process but requested that the details of her adoption remain confidential, said she doesn’t believe Garza has taken responsibility for any wrongdoing, doesn’t believe she’s changed and doesn’t think the state did enough to hold her accountable and repay adoptive parents for the exorbitant — and perhaps fraudulent — fees they paid during the adoption process.

“And the birth moms, let’s not forget about them,” she said. “They’re being taken advantage of as well. The whole situation is just yucky.”

Past violations, and a new license

Administrative rules say state regulators can consider an adoption agency’s past violations and “misleading information that has been presented by the program” to determine the likelihood that the agency will follow state rules when choosing to approve a license application.

DHHS said in its statement to The Tribune, “Based on a review of the facts, the Office determined the applicant qualified for an adoption agency license.”

When asked if state regulators inquired about her past violations when she applied for a license, Garza wrote, “Please refer to the application process when an agency is applying for a new license.”

The license application form asks the applicant to disclose if individuals associated with a new program have had their license revoked in the past five years, and requires all staff to undergo background checks. DHHS did not specify if they provided additional oversight.

In the June 2018 ruling to revoke Garza’s license, administrative law Judge Sonia Sweeney noted 22 violations of state rules, including charging adoptive parents “for fees that were not actually incurred,” like for birth mother medical expenses “for which there was no evidence” — an apparent violation of Utah code that says agencies can only charge adoptive parents the “actual and reasonable costs of maternity, medical, and necessary prenatal living expenses.”

This rule is meant to help birth mothers and adoptive parents “freely and willingly make informed decisions” in a “highly emotionally charged situation,” Sweeney wrote.

She mentioned that it’s against the law to sell a child, as well as “giving or attempting to give money or something of value to a person with the intent to induce or encourage a person to sell a child.”

In October 2017, when DHHS placed Heart and Soul’s license on conditional status, the agency noted that “a lack of transparency in billing practices and insufficient record keeping practices” could “allow for harm or fraud.”

In an interview with state regulators prior to her license being taken away, Garza said she charged adoptive parents $4,000 for a birth mother’s medical expenses, regardless of whether the mother was covered by Medicaid, because Garza “doesn’t do Medicaid” because “she hates it,” according to the administrative judge’s order. Garza said she’d “been doing this for 10 years.”

A witness testified that an agency employee would “provide an envelope full of at least four thousand dollars ($4,000.00) cash to the birth mothers” and that all birth mothers received this amount of money and “knew they would get paid.”

The order stated that Garza said “the overwhelming majority” of birth mothers placed with Heart and Soul were “very low income and either homeless or transient.”

“To the birth mother population Ms. Garza described, the promise of [$4,000], as cash in hand, is likely a substantial amount of money that very well may incentivize their decision to relinquish,” Sweeney wrote. “In contrast, a reimbursement for expenses actually incurred may hold less life-altering promise to a birth mother standing in the shoes Ms. Garza described.”

Sweeney continued, saying Garza’s “open and unabashed statements that for the last decade she has been charging adoptive parents fees that are not for actual and reasonable expenses and the evidence demonstrating that she has been providing birth mothers money in the amount of at least [$4,000], as a matter of course, in what seems to be a simple payment, are acts that appear to be potentially criminal.”

Through the period of her license being placed on conditional status, Sweeney said Garza acted in “a manner that appears obstructionist and untrustworthy,” and added that despite receiving multiple notices to correct “misconduct,” Garza “failed to do so in a brazen manner.”

Sweeney found that “in the face of these facts and the rule violations referenced herein, revoking [Garza’s] license was not an abuse of discretion, but the most appropriate action [the Office of Licensing] could take to protect the public from a business that had openly disregarded the law.”

Sweeney issued her final order to affirm the revocation June 18, 2018, about five months after the Office of License notified Garza that it intended to revoke her license.

Garza filed a complaint to appeal the decision in court less than a month after Sweeney’s decision. That case was ultimately dismissed.

‘Above the law’?

Even after Garza’s license was revoked, she continued work with an adoption agency, according to Office of Licensing documents.

The office issued a notice of agency action to Brighter Adoptions in June 2019, about a year after it had first learned Garza had been “associated” with the Layton-based adoption agency, despite losing her license. At the time, the notice states, Brighter Adoptions indicated “she will no longer have direct client contact.”

Yet, in May 2019, state officials learned while interviewing Brighter Adoption clients that Garza “is, again, associated with Brighter Adoptions” and was “providing direct care” for clients by transporting clients. It also said that Garza had not yet taken down her website.

“Brighter Adoptions continues to associate with Denise Garza by accepting referrals from Ms. Garza, in spite of the illegally operated website,” the notice stated.

That notice of agency action placed Brighter Adoptions license on conditional status because of its connections with Garza and ordered them to “terminate all association” with her, among other provisions, to remove their license from conditional status.

When asked about her association with Brighter Adoptions, Garza told The Tribune, “I was not an employee for Brighter Adoptions.”

The adoptive mother who asked to remain anonymous told The Tribune that she believes in second chances, that people can change if they acknowledge their mistakes and learn from them — but she doesn’t think Garza has done that.

She also pointed to Garza’s work with Brighter Adoptions after her license was revoked.

“If that there doesn’t even show that she obviously feels like she’s above the law,” she said, “then what does?”

Johnson, the other adoptive parent who spoke with The Tribune, said that Garza had completed hundreds of adoptions through Heart and Soul, and had an opportunity to follow state rules “from the outset” but didn’t, even with years of notice that her agency was violating state rules.

The Office of Licensing first issued Heart and Soul a corrective action plan in May 2015, saying Garza wasn’t providing adoptive parents with written disclosures of average costs before accepting their applications and payment, and failed to disclose a possible conflict of interest by serving as both the birth parent coordinator and supervising the adoptive parent coordinator.

The state issued Heart and Soul its second corrective action plan in February 2017. Her license was put on conditional status about eight months later, requiring Heart and Soul to notify existing clients of the licensing change, post the notice on its website and social media, and not recruit, match or transport clients, among other provisions.

Regulators found that despite this notice, Heart and Soul failed to notify all of its clients, didn’t post the notice on its website, recruited two new birth mothers, conducted at least four matches between birth mothers and adoptive parents, and transported one birth mother to Utah, according to Sweeney’s order.

“When the welfare of infants is at stake, second chances should be few and far between,” Johnson said. “Granting a license to Ms. Garza’s new company goes way past second chances.”

He added that it’s “all too easy to form a new corporation and leave the first one behind,” and said that’s “exactly what Ms. Garza has done.”

When asked why she chose to open a new adoption agency under a different name, Garza said, “Heart and Soul was closed by the state. We wanted to open under a new name.”

She later added, “Love and Light Adoptions will empower clients to understand how powerful they are when we support one another,” Garza wrote. “We are all in this together to make sure all clients feel supported, and have the information they need, to make the best informed decisions.”