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Updated: 7:27 p.m. Sunday, April 25, 2010 | Posted: 8:26 a.m. Sunday, April 25, 2010

Adoption agencies break rules, escape punishment

AJC investigation: Weak oversight on private adoption agencies



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Adoption agencies break rules, escape punishment photo
Joshua Anderson
Jonathan Freeman holds his adopted son Josh, 11 months, at their home in Hendersonville, Tenn. The Freemans started trying in late 2008 to adopt a child through Valley of Hope. After many twists and turns, they were unable to proceed with the agency and finally adopted a child late last year using another agency.
Adoption agencies break rules, escape punishment photo
James Crisp
Three year-old Matthew is pushed by his mother Krista Arduz, right, on the swingset in the backyard of their home in Lexington, Ky.

By Alan Judd

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

She was 24, a fair-skinned, curly haired brunette from California’s San Joaquin Valley. She quit school after the 11th grade but wanted to go back to become a teacher or maybe a corrections officer. She said she liked “shopping, swimming, going out.” Her favorite food: Mexican. Her favorite places: the mountains and the beach.

She smoked while she was pregnant.

For Krista and Luis Arduz, she represented their best hope for a baby.

Early last year, the Kentucky couple agreed to adopt the California woman’s infant through a Georgia adoption agency. Like many modern private adoptions, this was to be a complex multi-state transaction, conducted mostly through e-mails and cellphones, Web sites and text messages — not to mention wire transfers involving thousands of dollars.

And the way it unraveled sheds light on the state’s weak oversight of the 336 private agencies that arrange adoptions and foster care and operate group homes in Georgia, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.

Just three times since 2008, the Journal-Constitution found, has the state imposed penalties against agencies that exclusively handle adoptions: two fines and one license revocation.

The newspaper’s review of more than 1,500 reports of inspections and investigations found that regulators repeatedly forgave violations of rules fundamental to safe adoptions: failing to check parents’ criminal records, for instance, or not documenting safe environments in adoptive homes.

Several agencies received citations for failing to show that payments to birth mothers covered only legitimate medical or living expenses. At least one agency — Valley of Hope Adoption Inc. of Woodstock, with which the Arduzes worked — was cited for having money for a birth mother’s expenses deposited into its executive director’s personal bank account.

None of those violations resulted in penalties.

State law allows fines as high as $25,000. But officials say they prefer to persuade agencies to comply with the rules than impose harsh penalties.

“We try to work with as many agencies as possible so there are viable options for Georgia’s children,” said Keith Bostick, director of the Office of Residential Child Care, which regulates adoption and foster care agencies.

“It is a balancing act,” Bostick said. “Often it’s not black, it’s not white — it’s gray.”

Valley of Hope is one of many agencies that existed in the gray area.

The agency eluded punishment for almost two years, even though state officials knew it was violating adoption rules. But the state didn’t share information about the agency with the public until late 2009.

Erin Chaffee, Valley of Hope’s founder and executive director, declined repeated requests for an interview. In an e-mail to a reporter late Friday, she said, “Adoption is a highly personal and confidential business and for those reasons it is not appropriate for me to engage in a discussion with you.” In another e-mail Saturday, she added, “We have helped over 100 clients adopt successfully and only a handful of clients have had failed adoptions.”

The Arduzes knew nothing about Valley of Hope’s regulatory history when they made the first of several payments that were to total more than $31,000. Neither did Brea and Jonathan Freeman, a Nashville-area couple whose own attempt to adopt through Valley of Hope overlapped the Arduzes’.

In late 2008, the Freemans decided to expand their family of three biological children and one adopted child. They considered several adoption agencies before settling on one that had only recently gone into business: Valley of Hope.

“We found them on the Internet,” Brea Freeman said recently. “I could find nothing bad about them, at the time.”

‘Free gift’

Valley of Hope broke the rules even before it completed its first adoption.

Chaffee, a licensed social worker who had worked for another adoption agency, established Valley of Hope in January 2008 as a for-profit business. State law requires adoption agencies to operate as not-for-profit organizations to guard against the appearance of baby selling.

Chaffee accepted the agency’s first adoption application fee from prospective parents in June 2008 — two months before Valley of Hope received a state license allowing it to do so, records show. In her e-mail Saturday, Chaffee said regulators “had trouble understanding” that she was working with those parents through a separate consulting company.

As at other agencies, an adoption handled by Valley of Hope could be expensive — $40,000 or more — and lacking guarantees. Birth mothers may change their minds at any time, leaving adoptive parents with little to show for their financial and emotional investments.

But on Valley of Hope’s Web site, Chaffee reassures both prospective parents and birth mothers. She describes Valley of Hope as a Christian mission offering the “free gift” of “everlasting life.” All children, the Web site states, are “wonderfully made by the Creator.”

Elsewhere Chaffee takes a more secular tone:

“So many couples come to us after spending a lot of money on their adoption without success, or they tell us they have been waiting forever to adopt and nothing has panned out,” Chaffee writes. By working with birth mothers in “states that have favorable adoption laws,” she says, prospective parents could expect a “match” in four to six months — half as long as at many other agencies.

On the Web site, several clients praise Chaffee and her agency.

“We were so happy with the level of personal service and support we were given at Valley of Hope,” a couple identified as Paul and Miriam of New Jersey say. “Erin was always available to talk to us, and seemed almost as excited as we were about the whole process. We could not believe that she found us a match after TWO WEEKS!!”

Another couple, identified as Pamela and Jason from Canada, wrote to Chaffee: “When we contacted you, we had come close to losing the dream of becoming parents. Now the pain is almost forgotten.”

‘My baby’

Krista and Luis Arduz also dreamed of becoming parents once more.

But Krista, a physician’s assistant in a dermatology practice, was in her 40s, and her last pregnancy and delivery had been difficult. She feared she would not be able to conceive again. Adoption, she said recently, seemed the best alternative.

In early 2009, the Arduzes hired an adoption facilitator to help sort through the Internet’s hundreds of posted “situations” — pregnant women offering their babies for adoption. The couple settled on what seemed to be a good match: a baby due April 17 to a 24-year-old California woman offering her child for adoption through Valley of Hope.

Chaffee faxed the Arduzes a contract, which they signed Feb. 13, 2009, the same day they wired $12,500 to Valley of Hope for the adoption fee. A few hours later, Krista Arduz said, Chaffee wanted another $2,000 sent immediately for the birth mother’s expenses. It was Friday afternoon, too late to send the money from the Arduzes’ credit union. Chaffee wouldn’t wait, Krista said. So the Arduzes wired the money from a Western Union outlet.

The birth mother, by then seven months pregnant and living on food stamps and Medicaid, remained in her small, remote hometown. She was married and had two boys, a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old. Her husband, who was not the father of her sons or the unborn child, did not know she planned to give up the baby, she wrote in a birth-mother questionnaire that Valley of Hope shared with the Arduzes. The biological father, whom she knew only as “Joe,” wasn’t aware of her pregnancy.

The birth-mother form posed a question: “If you could, what would you tell the baby about yourself and your decision?”

She answered: “I love you and I think I did what was best for the future of child.”

The next question: “Why are you placing this child for adoption?”

Her response: “I am not in any way financially stable or in the position to bring a baby into this world to suffer because I can’t provide.”

Still, she wrote that although she would allow the adoptive parents into the delivery room, she wanted to hold the baby first and to spend time alone with the child. She said she would let the adoptive parents name the child, so long as they told her what they planned to call “my baby.”

From the start, Krista Arduz said, everything was complicated and confusing. The Arduzes had so many questions: When should they buy airline tickets to pick up the baby in California? How long should they expect to stay there? What kind of relationship might they have with the mother?

“No guidance,” Arduz said of Valley of Hope’s responses to their inquiries.

“It would be nothing to call them two or three times and never hear back from them,” she said. “We were very frustrated.”

Cautionary tale

In Nashville, Brea and Jonathan Freeman were frustrated, too. When they began working with Valley of Hope in late 2008, they had been impressed. Brea Freeman had imagined Chaffee as someone who could be a close friend if they lived in the same city. And Chaffee had called frequently with possible adoption matches, exuding what Freeman called “a sense of urgency.”

But, she said, Chaffee began asking whether the Freemans might exceed their self-imposed $20,000 cap on adoption expenses. After they said no, Brea Freeman said, they heard from Chaffee less often, a criticism made by others in complaints to state regulators. “If there was a chance you might be willing to spend money,” Freeman said, “she would call you back in 30 seconds.”

Freeman took copious notes of her conversations with Chaffee and saved dozens of e-mails. Her documentation, which she shared with a reporter, depicts an increasingly muddled and contentious adoption.

The Freemans thought they had been “matched” with a birth mother in Atlanta. Valley of Hope later told the couple the match had been only preliminary.

By early April, the Freemans were worried. The birth mother’s due date came and went. Chaffee was supposed to arrange a telephone conference call between the birth mother and the Freemans, but that fell through. Communication from Chaffee became less frequent.

“When you get matched with somebody, it’s like being pregnant and waiting to give birth,” Brea Freeman said. “To pull the rug out from under us, it was devastating.”

On April 5, Chaffee e-mailed the Freemans to say the birth mother was waffling. But she said she hoped to keep the adoption on track by acting “more like a friend” to her, and reminding her that by keeping the baby, she would forfeit the money for her expenses.

“She made comments like, ‘I have to do the plan,’ meaning the adoption plan, and then later said, ‘I really don’t want to give up my baby,’” Chaffee wrote in an e-mail to Freeman. “I explained to her in great detail about the benefits of an open adoption.”

Freeman felt uncomfortable with Chaffee’s strategy. The next day, she and her husband backed out of the adoption.

The woman kept her baby. After Freeman complained about the outcome, a Valley of Hope caseworker sent her an e-mail describing the woman as “not stable,” adding that her erratic nature was why the agency had not asked the couple to pay fees in advance.

By e-mail on Saturday, Chaffee said: “I have never pressured a birth parent to place a child.”

Freeman discussed the episode at length on her blog. She sees it as a cautionary tale.

“I couldn’t imagine,” she said, “looking my child in the eye one day and saying, ‘You know, the agency pressured your mom to give you up.’”

‘Everything was fine’

The Arduzes’ birth mother was due April 17. Krista Arduz booked a flight for April 15, reserved a room in the town’s new Holiday Inn Express, and waited for word about the woman’s latest visit with her doctor.

With five days to go, Luis Arduz e-mailed Chaffee: “I wanted to inquire if you have had contact ... after her doctor appointment.”

Chaffee replied from her BlackBerry: “Her mom told me everything was fine at the appt, but no details.”

That weekend, the Arduzes got a call from a California lawyer who was handling legal work on the adoption. He had just heard that the baby had arrived at least a week earlier — and the birth mother had backed out of the adoption.

The child was born, the lawyer told the Arduzes, before Chaffee purportedly spoke with the woman’s mother.

The news enraged the Arduzes. Why, they wondered, had Chaffee not told them about the birth? Did she even know about the baby? If so, why had she misled them about the birth mother’s appointment with the doctor?

Chaffee says that when birth mothers change their minds, “the adoptive parents are notified as soon as the agency has confirmation of the decision.”

Regardless, last April 13, a Monday, Krista Arduz sent Chaffee a seemingly innocuous e-mail: “Wondering if you talked with [the birth mother] to find out about her visit to the hospital this past week. We’re anxiously waiting to know how she’s doing and would appreciate any info you have (even if you haven’t spoken with her).”

Chaffee wrote back: “I spoke with her Tuesday and everything was good. ... Her doctor’s office said there was no new information since her last visit.”

On the telephone that evening, Luis Arduz confronted Chaffee about the mother’s decision. Chaffee, the Arduzes say, repeatedly said she didn’t know what she could have done differently.

Luis Arduz was incredulous.

“You,” he asked Chaffee, “are the last one to know?”

No evidence of fraud

Later in the month, Krista Arduz filed a complaint against Valley of Hope with Georgia regulators. Already, they were looking into a similar case that had been reported in March.

It wasn’t until July 7, though, that an inspector visited the adoption agency’s offices in Cherokee County.

Generally corroborating the Arduzes’ allegations, the inspector found numerous rules violations: a failure to document why money was wired to birth mothers, the depositing of mothers’ expense money into Chaffee’s bank account, a variable fee schedule that suggested different prices for different babies.

Other citations alleged that Valley of Hope had not adequately screened adoptive families. For instance, the agency didn’t check whether at least one prospective parent had a criminal record, didn’t document another’s mental health evaluation and could not show it had confirmed the character references for a third.

And, the inspector said, Valley of Hope still was operating illegally as a for-profit adoption agency. (It changed its corporate registration to non-profit in December 2009, records show.)

But the inspector recommended no punishment; she found no evidence of fraud, and concluded the agency had not intentionally broken rules.

Chaffee now denies violating the rules, although she never contested state citations.

By this February, officials determined Valley of Hope had neither corrected deficiencies nor submitted a plan to do so. “All of it added up to something that didn’t look right,” said Bostick, the chief state regulator.

On Feb. 15, the state revoked Valley of Hope’s license.

As far as Bostick is concerned, the agency is out of business. But its Web site is still active. It is advertising three “situations” to prospective parents on adoption sites, although Chaffee says her company is accepting no new clients. Regardless, she continues to operate her separate adoption consulting firm.

A closed chapter

The failed adoptions left the Freemans and the Arduzes in different places.

The Freemans worked with another agency, in Houston, and adopted a child later last year.

The Arduzes hired a lawyer to request a refund from Valley of Hope. Finally, they got back $3,000, half the money they had paid for the birth mother’s expenses. But they still are out $15,500.

With that, the Arduzes gave up on adoption.

“We lost so much money that I’m still paying for,” Krista Arduz said. “We sort of closed that chapter.”

Shortly after the adoption fell through, Arduz’s appendix ruptured. In bed for weeks with plenty of time to think, she wrote a letter to Chaffee — “woman to woman, mother to mother,” she said. She asked for a full refund, or at least an apology.

She never heard back.

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Meet our reporter

Alan Judd is an investigative reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, focusing on articles that hold government officials and institutions accountable to the public. He worked on the AJC’s award-winning “Hidden Shame” articles on suspicious deaths in state psychiatric hospitals and the “Borrower Beware” series about predatory lending practices.

More recently, he has written about the lobbyist-friendly culture of the state Capitol and delays in dispatching emergency calls by Atlanta’s 911 system.

Judd joined the AJC in 1999 after working for newspapers in Florida and Kentucky.

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Adoption resources

People considering adoption can check a private agency’s regulatory history in Georgia on a Web site published by the Georgia Office of Residential Child Care at 167.193.144.216/facsearch.asp

The Georgia Center for Resources and Support, www.ga adoptionresources.org, offers information and assistance to adoptive and foster parents.

A list of adoption agencies in Georgia and links to adoption laws and procedures is available at www.adoption.org/adopt/adoption-agencies-in-georgia.php

The state Department of Human Services’ adoption unit offers information at dhs.georgia.gov

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How we got the story

This is the third in a series of four articles about Georgia’s private foster care and adoption system. Today’s article is based largely on documents compiled by Krista Arduz and Brea Freeman as they and their husbands attempted separately to adopt children through Valley of Hope Adoption Inc. of Woodstock.

Arduz and Freeman shared e-mails to and from the adoption agency, a questionnaire filled out by the birth mother in one of the adoptions, contracts and records of financial transactions, among other documents. The article also reflects The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s examination of more than 1,500 reports on state inspections and investigations.

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