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.