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Stolen Dreams: Adoption Agency Screws Over Families Across the Country

The Independent Adoption Center was collecting fees and recruiting clients just days before declaring bankruptcy

Every once in awhile, I’ll be asked to write a piece that then never makes it to print. There can be a lot of reasons this happens, and most of the time I just move on to whatever the next assignment is.

That was the case with the piece I’m about to share. It’s old news now, but it’s also a story I feel really passionate about putting out into the world–these families deserve that much. So, I decided it was worth publishing here way after the fact, simply to serve as a reminder of the wrong that has been done.

 

About 3 years ago, I came into contact with an adoption scammer who unnerved me in every way. Jessica Lynn Shea had a long history of emotional scams, but when she reached out to me, it was as a birth mother looking to place her child for adoption.

I had adopted my own daughter just a year earlier, and wrote frequently about the random set of circumstances that led to my meeting her birth mother. So Jessica played into what she knew was a weakness of mine.

Unfortunately for her, I figured out what she was doing pretty quickly. I was even able to track down her real name (she’d given me a fake) and several other families she had scammed for months on end. I worked with her parole officer and the police department in her hometown, and she was eventually thrown back in jail for a parole violation… she’d previously been convicted of fraud.

What Jessica was doing deeply bothered me, but it was very clear that she was a sick woman. As I dug into the details of her case, though, I came to feel strongly that the agency she was scamming families through held a large portion of the blame.

The Independent Adoption Center (operating in 16 states) had given her access to freely contact their list of hopeful families without making any efforts at all to vet her. They hadn’t collected a driver’s license, or obtained any paperwork from her. They hadn’t confirmed her pregnancy with a doctor. They hadn’t even arranged a face-to-face meeting with her.

They just took her word that she was pregnant, and allowed her access to their database of families who had paid them anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 to protect their interests.

Essentially, they were operating as a Craigslist for adoption. Only they were charging a great deal for families to have that exposure, and doing almost nothing to protect those families from scammers. In fact, they had been notified by two separate families about Jessica already, and yet continued to allow her to contact their families at will.

At the time, I wrote a scathing piece about all the Independent Adoption Center was doing wrong. Their practices were negligent, at best, and certainly borderline unethical.

Jessica Shea was a woman unhinged, but the Independent Adoption Center (IAC) had made a business of allowing scammers just like her access to families desperate for a child.

It recently came to my attention that Jessica is scamming again—a family she had offered yet another non-existent child to reached out to me to share their story. And when they did, I decided to do a quick Google search on IAC, curious to see if they had been implicated in any additional scams.

What I found was so much worse.

On Tuesday, January 31st, IAC declared bankruptcy, closing their doors forever. In business, this isn’t entirely uncommon. Bankruptcy is often a solution when the ship is sinking. But in adoption, this kind of move is especially heartbreaking when you consider who is left out in the cold.

Nicole Davis and her husband had been with IAC for almost 4 years. They had paid roughly $20,000 in fees, and had been waiting longer than most families with IAC for a placement. Recently, the agency sent them an e-mail promising more exposure to their profile… if they were willing to pay an additional $2,400 in fees. They were given no warning of the impending bankruptcy.

Two separate attorneys have told the Davis’s that the agency’s liquidated assets will first be disbursed to banks, then owed wages, then creditors, and last of all to the families who were working with IAC. According to the bankruptcy filing, there is only about $55,000 remaining in assets. Meanwhile, the agency reports owing clients around $650,000.

By the time all other debts are paid, there will be nothing left for the families that trusted IAC.

The agency retained a bankruptcy attorney in November of 2016. They paid that attorney over $18,000 in fees to begin the process of filing for bankruptcy. Yet they continued to recruit new clients, and to accept payments, up until just days before officially closing their doors.

Gwyneddh Jones had been preparing to officially sign with IAC and write them a $21,000 check when she got the news. The agency had last contacted her on January 27th to confirm her workshop registration and go over the fee schedule. No one gave her any indication she should hold off on writing that check.

Meanwhile, the bankruptcy paperwork shows that the Interim Executive Director for IAC, Marcia Hodges, was making over $18,000 a month. The Assistant Executive Director, Kathleen Silber, was making $10,000 a month.

Both women will be paid lost wages and unused vacation time before the families they collected checks from ever see a dime.

Caitlin Stuart had actually been matched with a birth mother through IAC in October of 2016. In December, her daughter Evelyn Louise was born. The adoption is still in the post-placement stage, which means that IAC was still technically supposed to be completing the legal end of things as part of the $18,500 Caitlin had paid them.

There were 1,886 adoptions in progress through IAC when the bankruptcy was announced. All of these families now have to deal with getting new home studies and hiring lawyers to complete their adoptions. In Caitlin’s case, the Department of Social Services has stepped in to help. But not all families have been as lucky.

Greg Wilson and his wife had been with IAC for about four years. They had paid around $15,000 in fees. “We’ve given up now,” he told me. “We had been waiting for so long, and now we feel like it’s too late, and too expensive, to start over.”

Their hope for expanding their family is gone.

Marianne Puechl and her partner had actually connected with a potential birth mother through their own efforts. They spoke about a week before IAC’s announcement, and Marianne had urged the woman to contact IAC for information and counseling, telling her that was the agency they were working with. They had a strong connection and Marianne felt hopeful. The woman first contacted IAC the day before the announcement was made. No one from their offices let her know they would be closing their doors, or provided her any additional resources for counseling and support. She spoke to a counselor from IAC one day, and then had zero resources the next.

Since IAC’s closing, Marianne has not heard from the birth mother again. “Did the bankruptcy of our agency delegitimize us as a prospective adoptive family in her eyes?” She asked me. “It breaks my heart to think about the fact that we may have lost a precious contact because of this.”

Like a lot of families I spoke to, Brian and Ramie joined IAC because they were an agency open to LGBT couples. They had just gone live on IAC’s website in December, and had paid between $15,000 and $16,000 in fees. They still hope to adopt, but this has completely wiped them out financially. They want to know what happened, how the agency went from being up over $2 million in public tax filings in 2014, to having just $55,000 in assets today. They also want to know why the agency was pushing a new advertising program (and begging clients for more money) just days before closing their doors.

In their official statement, IAC wrote “The climate of adoption has changed radically in recent years. Societal changes have created an environment in the United States where there are fewer potential birth parents than at any other point in IAC’s history.” This may be true (and if it is—it’s actually a good thing. Because a society that helps families who want to stay together, to stay together, is doing something right.) But even if fewer placing parents were the problem, why was IAC continuing to take on new clients as though there were no shortage at all?

It’s a question several of the families I spoke to had, including Brandi Daveiga, who had been with IAC for two years. Why did IAC continue to cash checks, all the while knowing they would only be able to serve a fraction of the clients they were taking on? Why did they never reduce their staff, if there were fewer resources to provide? Why did they continue to present the same timelines and statistics to families who recently signed on as they did to those who signed on years ago?

IAC’s statement also claims that all families and birth mothers were notified by e-mail prior to the official announcement being made, and that resources were provided to all. However, several of the families I spoke to dispute that, telling me that many clients and birth mothers were missed in those notifications. And many more families have found they have no way of getting their files back from IAC. As for resources, families were simply provided the numbers for other agencies. No one at those agencies was notified that IAC would be closing, or given a heads up to expect an influx of calls. They simply don’t have the resources to help all the families who are contacting them now.

There is some hope. The American Academy of Adoption Attorneys has pledged to assist the displaced families, writing, “This is a situation which should never have happened,” in their statement to affected families.

They’re right, of course. What happened here was criminal, and some of the families I spoke to are considering a lawsuit. But who do they sue? And what do they stand to gain if there’s already nothing left?

Three years ago, my dealings with IAC left me with a bitter taste in my mouth and the feeling that this agency wasn’t looking out for anyone’s best interest but their own. I was saddened to find out I was right, but there are lessons to be learned here.

Agencies have to bring in potential birth mothers to survive—they have to have a track record of providing babies to families who are willing to pay. The ethics of adoption as a business are murky, as it is difficult for any agency to truly have a birth parent’s best interest at heart when they need that birth parent to place in order to get paid. The situation with IAC proves it is also difficult for an agency to truly have an adoptive family’s interests in mind, when they are counting on those families to pay their bills.

Adoption should always be about finding homes for children who need them. But too often it becomes about finding babies for families willing to pay for them. I say that even as an adoptive mother myself, one who was blessed to hold my little girl the second she was born. What happened with IAC wouldn’t have been able to happen if, as a society, we hadn’t allowed adoption to become a business in the first place.

But here we are.

So what can families do to protect themselves moving forward? To start with, they can thoroughly vet any agency they might consider working with, asking questions like:

  • How many clients do you take on each year, and how many placements do you make?
  • What services do you offer to birth families, and how do you protect their interests both before and after a placement has been made?
  • Do you encourage adoptive families to pay monthly stipends to potential birth families (if the answer is “yes,” question the ethics of this agency.)
  • How stringently do you vet birth parents and adoptive families before allowing contact?
  • What measures do you take to ensure all placements through your agency are ethically handled and truly in the best interest of all involved? (If you have questions about what an ethical adoption should entail, read this.)

Several of the families I spoke to now feel especially uneasy about working with an agency again. But that hasn’t caused them to give up their adoption dreams. Some are choosing to work with adoption attorneys instead, while others are turning to foster care adoption.

Most will eventually get over the heartbreak IAC caused them. But that doesn’t make it okay. And it doesn’t absolve those at IAC who continued to solicit clients and cash checks even as they knew the end was near.

Because no matter how you feel about adoption as a whole, we can all agree… there is nothing ethical about that.

Blogging Failure

So fine, I admit it, calling this a “Week in Review” has gotten a little ridiculous, seeing as I haven’t updated this space weekly in months.

Would you believe I used to have a blog I updated daily?

A funny thing happens when you start writing professionally: You suddenly have a whole lot less time for your own blog. The good news is that when things are silent here, that usually means I’ve been busy with clients. Which has absolutely been the case these last few months, and is always something that makes me happy. But for those of you who don’t follow along on Facebook (where I am much more active, I promise): rest assured, I’m alive and well.

Here’s some of my recent work you may have missed:

In other news, the snow is melting in Alaska and summer is right around the corner. Not that I’m counting down the days or anything…

Week in Review: Birthday Girl

I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly… I have a 4 year old. And this is how we spent her birthday:

I mean, I’m not bragging, but that’s what a spa day in Alaska looks like. Just saying.

We have her birthday party tomorrow, and she could not be more excited. I also transformed her nursery into a big girl Moana room, and again, totally not bragging, but I’m pretty proud of the final result:

So, yeah… it’s been a busy week!

Actually, it’s been a busy month. Which is why I haven’t updated here in a while. But here are some of the articles I’ve had published recently:

I also have some very exciting news! As most of you know, developmental editing is a huge passion of mine. I love helping authors to take their work to that next level, and I’ve been blessed to work with some truly talented writers who have incredible ideas and passion of their own. Tiffany D. Jackson is one of those writers. Over three years ago now, I had the pleasure of working with her on a manuscript that I knew was something special, right from the start. She had submitted it to several agents at that point, but hadn’t had any takers yet. So we worked together on it, tweaking the parts that weren’t working and improving upon the parts that already were.

Not too long after our work together, she received that coveted acceptance letter from an agent that wanted to take her on. And within just months of that, she had a traditional publishing contract – the dream so many authors go into this with!

Last month, that manuscript was published. And the end product is pretty incredible:

It’s a long road from putting those first words on paper to actually being able to call yourself an author. And these days, few are lucky enough to find that success through traditional publishing. Tiffany beat those odds, and for good reason. Allegedly is an incredible read.

So pick it up! I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

And now, if you’ll excuse me… I’ve got some cupcakes to make!

Week in Review: We March

I’ve been going back and forth on whether or not to march tomorrow. The only thing holding me back, really, has been that my only option is to march with Cheeks… and I’m just not sure she’s old enough to bring to a politically charged event.

But, I’ve come to the conclusion that the march here in Alaska won’t be anywhere near as chaotic as the marches in larger cities. And even more important, this is a side of history I want my daughter to know I stood on. For her. For me. For all women. Because nothing about this:

is okay.

So, tomorrow we march. And my daughter gets her first taste of what it means to stand up for what’s right.

With the exception of what is happening to our country, the past few weeks have been crazy busy in all the best ways possible. I’ve had some really fantastic developmental editing projects, and some offers for new collaborations that have been exciting to receive.

As far as writing, this is some of my latest work:

 

Wish us luck tomorrow. It’s going to be a long 4 years…

Week in Review: The Most Wonderful Time of The Year

Have I mentioned before how much I love this time of year? The lights. The tree. The time together. And the fact that we can usually count on at least one visit into Anchorage by this kid’s extended bio family:

You see, pretty much all of my little girl’s other family live in remote Alaskan villages. We cherish the openness, but these villages don’t have roads in or out – the only way to arrange visits is by plane. And while I absolutely plan on taking Cheeks to the villages to see where she comes from when she is older, us visiting there right now isn’t really feasible. So we rely on the times when her family comes into town (either as they are traveling to or from other locations, or when they come in to stock up on supplies and—around the holidays—gifts) to make those visits happen.

And every year, around this time of year, we usually get to meet a new extension of that family.

This year we got a call a few days ago from an aunt we had never before met. She and her 14-year old-daughter (Cheeks’ cousin) were going to be traveling through town and wanted to know if they could meet her.

Let me just tell you… we loved them! This was such a fun visit, and I am especially elated because this aunt has offered to put together a book with old family photos and a family tree for Cheeks to have. Which is awesome! We’ve also already made some plans to get these cousins together again in a few weeks, when this sweet teenager has to travel through town again on her way back to school (it’s not uncommon for some of the kids in the villages up here to go to boarding schools for high school, which is exactly what she does!)

These connections mean the world to me, as I truly believe in the value of openness in adoption whenever possible. But on top of the biological connection, I also love that it is a connection to Cheeks’ heritage. It’s a window, for her, into who she is, where she comes from, and the rich cultural history that she is a part of.

So, yeah… I love this time of year. And these visits.

Work has been going great! I’m trying to get most of my month finished up now so that I can really relax and enjoy the holidays with my girl. But I’ve been pulling in some really exciting developmental editing jobs that I can’t wait to share with you all in the weeks/months to come!

In the meantime, here are some of the pieces I’ve had published over the last few weeks:

We’re in the middle of a snowstorm in Alaska that is looking as though it should last the next 4 days… so I’m looking forward to a weekend spent holed up with my girl, having a fire in the fireplace, watching the lights on our tree, and maybe bundling up for a bit of sledding!

I’m not sure if I could possibly ask for a more perfect weekend-before-Christmas weekend!

Week in Review: ‘Tis the Season

I love this time of year. Which is weird because, before motherhood, I was never much of a fan. But ever since this little girl came into my life:

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Christmas is pretty much my favorite!

We played hooky yesterday and spent the day visiting Santa, picking out our tree, decorating, and generally just getting into the holiday spirit. It was the perfect day. But of course, now I’m playing catch-up!

I’ve got some exciting editing projects in the works right now, and with NaNoWriMo wrapping up, I’ve been getting a lot of new inquiries about developmental editing – which is usually the service people need most after speed-writing a novel. So, you know… if you’ve got a newly finished first draft on your hands, let’s talk!

I’ve also been doing some writing of my own, both on my next book, and on these articles that were recently published:

I’ve been busy, but all with work I love and am passionate about. And that’s pretty much the dream as far as I’m concerned!

Week in Review: The Election

I’m tired. Is anyone else tired? Like really, deeply exhausted?

I have a lot of foreign clients who have asked me in the last few days how I feel about the election results. The truth is, I’m as shocked as anyone. And I’m sad. And I’m scared.

But I’ve also been trying really hard to re-evaluate, and to listen. I feel like I’ve been having some good conversations, even if I don’t always understand. And in the end, my feelings can be summed up here, and here, and definitely with this.

There has been SO much hate tossed around this election season, and to be fair – I’ve seen it from both sides. As an American, I’m hoping we can somehow find a way to rise above that. As a mother, I’m watching, and I’m waiting, and I’m not opposed to doing whatever may be necessary to protect my daughter.

As a writer… I’ve hit the wall. I simply cannot write about politics anymore. I need a break.

Thankfully, I have plenty on my plate to offer that up! I am in the process of negotiating the work on a project I am REALLY excited about right now. And I had a few new articles published this week as well:

Life is good, and I believe in the good of people enough to believe that good will prevail. So that’s where I’m focused right now: On the good in my life, the good in the people I love (even those with a different take on the issues from me), and the good in my little girl… who I can’t wait to have an entire weekend to spend playing with!

Week in Review: First Snow

It’s been a month since my last Week in Review, which is totally an indication of how freaking busy I’ve been. In fact, things have been so busy that I wound up making a pretty big decision about my business in the last week.

One of the things not a lot of people understand about freelance writing is that you don’t just decide to be a writer, and then spend your days making all kinds of money off of passion pieces. It’s a job, like any other job, and sometimes it involves doing work that you wouldn’t necessarily choose for yourself. In the world of freelance writing, that often means ghostwriting.

The way my business is, and always has been, structured is that only about 20 percent of what I do is true passion writing–getting paid to write the stuff I love. An additional 30 percent is editing, something I also really love. And about 10 percent is social media consultations and management. Then there is the 20 percent of work I write under my byline, but that I’m not particularly passionate about–some of that I share with you all, and some of it I mostly find myself hoping will never really see the light of day. From there, there is 20 percent of what I do that doesn’t have my name attached to it at all: Ghostwriting.

Now, I have a few ghostwriting projects I really love, and about 7 clients I’ve worked with as a ghostwriter for years now. I tend to stick to subjects I know (so I do a lot of career and HR ghostwriting, since that was my former professional life), but I also blog regularly for several small business owners: A wedding photographer, a fitness guru, and even a novelist who just doesn’t feel like she has the time to blog.

The thing about ghostwriting work is that it helps to pay the bills, and I genuinely like the clients I work for. But the stuff I’m writing isn’t in line with the subjects I would want to brand myself as being an expert on… it’s just consistent work I can count on, which is a big deal for a freelancer.

But over the last few years, I’ve been bringing in more and more of the passion work; the writing and editing jobs I get truly excited about. And then in July, mom.me hired me on as their social media manager. It is by far the biggest, most consistent project I’ve ever had. There are a lot of good things that come with that–I’m taking on new challenges, still working from home, and I’m making enough money to be able to be really picky about the other work I do.

Which means more time to focus on my passion writing, and even to work on that first fiction novel I have my heart set on completing.

The downfall is that given the hours I’m dedicating to running social media for a big brand now, I don’t have as much time to commit to the many smaller projects I was previously juggling.

Something had to give.

Now, I have the typical freelancer mentality: This part of me that struggles to let go of any potential income stream, because you never really know when work is going to dry up. But things have been going really well with mom.me, and I’ve also had several other dream writing opportunities come my way in the last few months. I’m knocking on wood as I type this, but I think I’ve reached the point in my career where the dry spells may be a thing of the past. Which left me with the realization that I could no longer continue to hoard all the work that comes my way. At least, not if I also want the opportunity to sleep.

I knew I needed to establish a very clear understanding of what I could and could not take on from this point forward. And more importantly, I knew I needed to then stick to that.

After a lot of reflecting, I realized I obviously want to keep my passion writing, and I still want to make developmental editing a big part of what I do as well (I genuinely enjoy it, and it’s something I like to think I’m very good at). But it no longer makes sense to contribute time to ghostwriting, when that’s the one facet of my business that doesn’t really contribute in any way to where I want to go.

So… over the last week, I gave my notice to several clients. Which was weird, because again, as a freelancer–you don’t typically turn down work. It was also hard, because I’ve worked for some of these clients for several years now–they’ve become my friends, and I hate letting friends down!

Thankfully, everyone was incredibly understanding–even if they did try to bribe me to change my mind a little. I gave them all plenty of notice, promising to continue on until the end of the year. But after that point?

  • I’ll only be writing content I pitch and want to write.
  • I’ll be dedicating time every week to finishing my fiction novel.
  • I’ll only be taking on 3 developmental editing clients a month–which means my editing slots WILL be booking out months in advance. I’d suggest getting in touch now if you want me to edit your book!

I had a friend confess to me the other day that she thought I was totally crazy when I quit my job 3 years ago. I had a newborn, and no real guarantee that I could make this work. “But you’re doing it,” she said, “And it’s kind of incredible to watch.”

What she didn’t realize is how incredible it is for me to experience. I feel so ridiculously lucky to be able to do what I love for a living, and to have the flexibility with my career that I know not most single mothers have. I got an e-mail recently asking me how I managed to build up a career as a writer, and my abbreviate response was just that… luck. I really do think that’s what it came down to for me. Timing, and networking, and luck.

But I’ll take it, because yeah… I’m grateful.

So… that’s what’s been going on with my career this last month. On the home front, we got our first in-town snow last week, and this kid could not have been happier!

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We’ve already done some sledding and snowman building, and are just hoping for another good dump-down of snow to really make for a perfect winter!

One of my writers recently published her first book and it’s one I can absolutely recommend:

I provided developmental editing for Sandra, but Masao completely captivated me from beginning to end–which is saying a lot, because historical war biographies wouldn’t typically be my preferred niche. But the way Sandra sheds light on WWII through the eyes of a soldier who might otherwise have been shunned on US soil is absolutely fascinating. This is a true story that shines an entirely new light on this less-than-stellar piece of US history, and it is absolutely worth the read.

As for my own work, here are some of the pieces I’ve had published over the last few weeks:

Now, we’re heading into a weekend with snow and two birthday parties… so pretty much lots of fun ahead! I hope you all have great weekends as well!

Week in Review: Winter’s Coming

Last weekend, some friends and I drove a bit out of town planning on seeing some fall colors and doing a bit of exploration. Instead, we found this:

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Funny story: I posted that picture on my personal Facebook page, and was immediately inundated by text messages along the lines of, “Who’s the guy?” and “Dude, are you coupled up?”

Ummmm, yeah… no. That’s my cousin. He’s been up here for the summer for work, and we’ve had a ton of fun having family around. Not my boyfriend. Everyone needs to calm down.

The whole thing had me cracking up; people are apparently hard up for me to find love. But I’m also half convinced, “Is that  your boyfriend?” might be the single woman’s, “How far along are you?” It’s just one of those questions that maybe, if you don’t know the answer, is better left unasked. Because, wah… wah… wah… no man in my life. Thanks for asking though! 😉

Now, back to that snow. We were about an hour out of town, and up in the mountains a bit. So this hasn’t hit Anchorage yet. But just seeing it? Just being ankle deep in it? It got me SO excited for winter!

Bring on the snow! I’m ready! And my girl is too!

Here’s what I’ve had published recently:

 

I’ve also been plenty busy with a few new editing jobs and the big social media management gig. So busy that I am WAY behind on e-mails. Ooops! Probably time to catch up on that…

Week in Review: Outnumbered

We had Trick or Treat in the Heat last weekend, which is basically an excuse to get kiddos out celebrating Halloween before there is snow on the ground up here in Alaska (not entirely true – it’s actually a really cool charity event, too).

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Unfortunately, it absolutely poured on us, which kind of defeated the purpose. But Cheeks didn’t mind. Because… candy.

Work is going well and I’m finally feeling all caught up. I’ve got two new big editing jobs on my plate, and I had these pieces published this week:

 

 

This weekend I’m watching a friend’s two little boys while she and her husband take off for an anniversary celebration. I’ve actually really been looking forward to it, especially the cuddly baby time (she has an 8 month old). Until she reminded me that babies wake up early (6 am… blah). And I remembered the numbers are not in  my favor: Three kids to one adult.

I’m going to need gobs of coffee.