HOLLYWOOD (CBS4)- A long running South Florida adoption agency is being accused of a pattern of abuses, and the state is trying to shut down Adoption by Shepherd Care.
At the Hollywood-based adoption agency, more than 5,000 children have found homes in 30 years of operation, the agency said.
But the state Department of Children & Families is trying to shut down the agency. DCF accuses the agency of a pattern of abuses, including pressuring a a birth mother into giving up her infant twin sons.
The not-for-profit company, which also has an office in Casselberry near Orlando, is fighting to stay open. It will argue its case later this month before a judge with the state Division of Administrative Hearings.
“Again, it’s something that does that happen here,” Shepherd Care’s executive director Joseph Sica told CBS4’s Tiffani Helberg. “We do not coerce birth mothers. I have to go home and sleep at night.”
Adoption in the United States can be a very lucrative business, with many prospective parents willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to gain legal custody of a child they can call their own.
The agency said they have sought to provide lower-cost adoptions. The average price of a domestic adoption with Shepherd Care ranges from $17,000 to $33,000, well below other agencies’ rates, Helberg reported.
Adoption by Shepherd Care promises on its website to help expectant mothers place their babies in loving homes, and to pay medical and other costs related to the pregnancy.
Over the years, it has located children for adoption in countries as far afield as China, Guatemala, Russia and Moldova, but now limits its overseas efforts to Colombia, according to the Sun Sentinel.
The U.S. State Department has received no complaints about Shepherd Care’s international efforts in the past three years.
Records obtained by the Sun Sentinel, however, show repeated and growing concerns about Shepherd Care on the part of state regulators, which have culminated in the state’s current attempt to force it to cease operations.
“Allegations involving this agency have continued to escalate over the past three years,” DCF wrote in its complaint, filed March 19 with the state Division of Administrative Hearings. One recurring worry for state officials: Shepherd Care’s alleged missteps in the delicate task of procuring children for adoption from young, sometimes unsophisticated mothers.
The agency is accused by Florida regulators of failing to protect at least one non-English speaking birth mother’s civil rights by not providing her with a translator, a proper counselor and an attorney of her own, and by having her sign adoption-related paperwork at an “incomprehensible” rapid pace.
It is also accused by state regulators of falling short in efforts to locate or fully advise two potential birth fathers of their rights to claim paternity and contest the adoption. But Sica disputed the claim.
“They were notified,” he said. “As a matter of fact, one of the birth fathers signed the consent for adoption. One was eventually located and decided not to show up. You know, a judge ruled…the consents were fine in both of those cases.”
On the advice of his attorney, Sica declined in a brief interview to discuss the specifics of DCF’s charges. In a written response to the state Division of Administrative Hearings, however, Shepherd’s attorney denied the state’s allegations in the case.
In a petition filed April 19 to dismiss the state’s action, the adoption agency’s attorney, Alexander Brown, said, “Shepherd has done nothing wrong.”
A two-day administrative hearing on the merits of the state’s case is scheduled in Fort Lauderdale beginning on June 15 and 16, Helberg reported..
Controversy has touched Adoption by Shepherd Care in the past, too, the Sentinel reported.
Under prior management, it had the unfortunate distinction of placing 20 foster children for adoption in the home of a Gainesville woman, Nellie Johnson, who beat and terrorized them. Johnson was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
In recent years, records show, Shepherd Care has faced other difficult situations, including the case of a 9-year-old boy with behavioral problems whose adoptive family gave him back; a lawsuit involving a birth mother who physically attacked the adoptive parents’ attorney during a deposition; and a bitter dispute over billings to a Seminole County couple who ended up cutting the agency out of the adoption process and dealing directly with the birth mother and her lawyer.
The couple had complained to DCF in 2008 about Shepherd Care’s charges, saying they were billed for rent and utilities for days the birth mother was not living in housing provided by the adoption agency. They disputed other charges, including $500 to apply to Medicaid for the baby, $285 for a new mattress, $300 for an unreimbursed security deposit, and $120 for the birth father to paint the adoption agency’s office.
In court records, Shepherd Care defended the charges, saying the birth parents and an older child had ruined the mattress and left the apartment in poor condition, and the birth father never painted the room but used the money to buy groceries.
DCF reviewed the matter and concluded that the charges were “reasonable” but that the agency’s bookkeeping was “archaic” and employed handwritten ledgers that “were not reader friendly.”
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