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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Adoption Agency Abruptly Shuts

Services: About 200 area families stand to lose thousands spent trying to adopt children from abroad.

August 23, 2000|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Ventura adoption agency that promised to help prospective parents adopt children from overseas has shut its doors, leaving about 200 area families out thousands of dollars and with many questions.

In a letter to families dated Aug. 18, Marilyn Adams, executive director of Adoption Services International, said: "It is with a heavy and sad heart that I tell you that ASI will close operations as an adoption agency on September 1, 2000. Our telephones are no longer turned on."

The letter referred clients to Family Connections Adoptions in Modesto and promised that "once the dust settles" the adoption process will be completed as scheduled.

Adams could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Danny Ruffin of Ventura, a member of the ASI board of directors for 15 years, would not say when the agency knew it was in financial trouble.

"I think that's best left unsaid," said Ruffin, who adopted two Korean children through ASI.

"Adoption is a very emotional issue, and the families have every right to be upset. We'll do our best to make sure no one is damaged by this. What they will need, and I know how hard this is, is patience."

Ruffin declined to be specific and referred questions to Family Connections. He said efforts would be made to ensure that families do not lose money.

ASI board President Wendy Basil was unavailable for comment.

Audrey Foster, director of Family Connections, said the troubled adoption agency contacted her a few weeks ago about a possible merger, which Ruffin confirmed.

"They called us to say they wouldn't make it financially if they kept going the way they were going," said Foster, who had worked with ASI before. "They have been around for 16 years and have been a very reputable agency. I don't think anyone realized how dire their situation was."

A merger, however, would have been too complicated, Foster said.

Foster said ASI staff members had told her they were planning "fund-raisers" in an attempt to recoup clients' money--which, she said, is very likely lost. But Ruffin said he had never heard of any such fund-raisers.

ASI makes its money by guiding families through the bureaucracy of adopting children in other countries. It arranges physicals and background checks, helps deal with various federal agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service and locates children for adoption in other nations.

Foster said ASI's troubles began when the Korean market for adopted children dried up. The agency had previously worked exclusively with Koreans, she said.

"A year or two ago they [ASI] started to enlarge their scope," Foster said. "The Korean program no longer had children to refer to them."

ASI's sudden and unexplained demise adds another frustration for April Miech, who has endured the ups and downs of fertility treatments. Adoption, she thought, would guarantee a child.

Miech, who has already spent $12,400 trying to adopt a baby girl from China, tried to call ASI on Monday but found its phone disconnected. She drove to the office and found it closed. Those who work nearby reported seeing ASI staff members moving furniture and files out of the office Monday.

"It's horrible, they prey on the hopes and dreams of those trying to start a family," said Miech, a 38-year-old elementary school teacher.

Family Connections will take the cases, but not for free. Clients such as Miech may have to pay again for services they already paid for.

Dan Paris, 33, of Ventura has spent $13,000 so far trying to adopt a Chinese baby girl. The news that ASI shut its doors and that his money might be gone hit him hard.

"Just to start it off with an application costs $2,295," he said, noting the entire cost of adopting a child from China is about $25,000 and can take more than a year.

Paris said he was suspicious of high turnover among ASI staff members and that "things just haven't been getting done."

More troubling, he said, was that his paperwork, which costs thousands of dollars to process, is locked inside the ASI offices.

"Those documents are worth more than you know," Paris said. "Any delay in adoption is devastating."

Miech has used the Internet to track down other families statewide affected by ASI's closing. She and Paris have also filed consumer fraud complaints against ASI with the Ventura Police Department.

Ventura County Deputy Dist. Atty. Greg Brose said his office would serve as a mediator between the families and ASI.

"We don't know if anything illegal went on," he said.

For Benu Malensant of Thousand Oaks, who wants to adopt a girl from India, there were signs of trouble.

Malensant, who chose ASI because it was close to home, said she called Thursday and, like others, found the phones disconnected and so visited the office.

But the office manager met her at the door and assured her everything was fine, she said.

"I said I wanted my file," the 43-year-old Malensant said. "They told me that I really didn't want to come in but they gave me my file. I think there was nothing left inside the office."

She has spent $3,400 to date but refused to pay some of the fees up front.

"They were very kind; there was a lot of 'God blessing' going on," she said. "It's a very emotional situation when trust is gone."

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