Vietnam adoption nightmares
By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
Judi Mosely was enjoying life with her adopted Vietnamese daughter when she got some strange news: An adoption agency was offering her child to someone else. The other family already had paid money to "hold" the little girl.
Suspicious, she went on the Internet under an assumed name, saying she wanted to adopt a Vietnamese girl. Within a month, she got a picture of a girl who was ready to be adopted.
It was her daughter.
"My head was spinning," Mosely said. "I was horrified to see a photo of (my daughter) being sent to me as available for adoption, the very same girl that for the past five months I had tucked into bed every night in our home."
That discovery is unraveling an international adoption mess that has ties to an adoption agency outside Jacksonville called Tedi Bear Adoptions.
After inquiries from the St. Petersburg Times, the owner of Tedi Bear Adoptions said Monday night she was shutting down her agency's Vietnam adoption program. "I guess this is what I have to do," said Tedi Hedstrom.
Mosely wasn't the only family to find out that the Vietnamese child they had adopted was being offered to others. The families have started comparing stories. They say they are going public so no one else will have to live the same nightmare.
In Swansea, Mass., Sean and Lori Grace worked through Tedi Bear to adopt a girl last spring. They paid more than $10,000.
Then an agent from the Immigration and Naturalization Service visited their home. He informed them that the child they were adopting -- the little girl listed "on hold" for them on the Tedi Bear Web site -- had been adopted by an Australian couple three months before. The Graces contacted the Australian couple and confirmed it. The Australian family had used a private lawyer to complete the deal.
"We were appalled at the very least to hear that one U.S. family was given a medical report on (our daughter) dated March 12, 2002. This is impossible, as our daughter was already in our care," the Australian family wrote in a complaint this summer to Florida's Department of Children and Families, which licenses Tedi Bear Adoptions.
DCF family services counselor Linda Rosenthal has issued a license for Tedi Bear every year since 1997. This year, after the Graces complained that they were offered a child who had already been adopted, DCF again issued a new license.
"Although there have been several recent complaints which have not yet been resolved, the agency (Tedi Bear) has been instrumental in facilitating many successful adoptions," Rosenthal wrote in a DCF report.
DCF is now investigating.
"It doesn't get any worse than this," said Kathleen Strottman, aide to U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a leader of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption.
In December, the United States stopped issuing visas for adoptions in Cambodia, citing rampant corruption. Landrieu has been trying to help U.S. families who have adoptive children stranded there.
"In this case, with Vietnam, the fact that we are not doing something as fast as possible, that's really bad," Strottman said, "because it sends a message that we're not serious about cracking down on corruption."
Since 1994, 4,090 Vietnamese children have been adopted by Americans, according to U.S. State Department data. The Vietnamese government is working on reforms.
The Times interviewed 10 families who had bad experiences adopting in Vietnam, as well as 10 who had positive experiences with Tedi Bear Adoptions. The troubled adoptions all involve Mai-Ly LaTrace, a 29-year old Vietnamese-American woman who is a "facilitator," arranging adoptions in Vietnam.
Her mother, Marie LaTrace, also arranged some of the troubled adoptions. Mai-Ly works through Tedi Bear Adoptions in Neptune Beach. Tedi Bear also contracts with other agencies throughout the United States to arrange Vietnam adoptions.
"My clients have been very happy with Mai-Ly," Hedstrom said.
Some of the families with troubled Vietnam adoptions have complained to the INS, members of Congress, the U.S. Attorney General's Office and Florida's DCF -- but little has been done.
Some families say they have lost thousands of dollars trying to adopt children who suddenly become "unavailable" once they arrive in Vietnam. When they get there, they say, people offer them other children instead. Sometimes, they are asked to give even more money.
Hedstrom said she has never heard such complaints from Tedi Bear clients.
One woman, Sue Alves of Massachusetts, was supposed to adopt a baby girl in 1998 through Tedi Bear but backed out after the child's supposed "foster mother" cried continuously during their two-hour meeting.
"She acted like a mother," Alves said. "It was awful to see her struggle to give up this child."
Alves complained to authorities three years ago, but got no results. One Vietnamese mother -- tracked down later by an American family -- said that she had been paid to give up her child.
"There were always cases like this going on," said Pete Peterson, who served as ambassador to Vietnam from 1997 until 2001 and now lives in Tallahassee. "It was always a huge problem to stay up with it. But you have to remember there are 10,000 times more success stories than there are failures."
Hedstrom, Tedi Bear's owner, said that international adoptions are complex and that families are sometimes disappointed. The risks, she said, are clearly laid out in the contract every family signs. She says that most of her clients are happy.
Hedstrom admits a foulup occurred when the Graces were offered a child that was already adopted. She produced a letter from the Vietnamese government taking responsibility and apologizing.
"We haven't had any complaints, except the Graces," Hedstrom said. "We're not used to people looking for things that are wrong. We're used to people saying: Look at that cute baby!"
The adorable 5-year-old girl that Judi Mosely adopted in July 2001 and brought home to Saipan, a Pacific Island near Guam, was named Thuy. Mosely used a private lawyer to handle the adoption.
Nine months after she brought Thuy home, Mosely was surfing an Internet site for people who adopt Vietnamese children. She saw an inquiry from a woman in Boston named Carrie West. West wanted information about the little girl she was adopting, Thuy. Mosely responded: Thuy is my daughter.
The two women decided to set up a "sting," with Mosely pretending to be a woman who wanted to adopt. That's when Mai-Ly offered Thuy to Mosely.
West had her own story to tell. When she went to Vietnam to adopt Thuy, Mai-Ly said the girl had tuberculosis and might die. West agreed to pay for the child's medical care, never realizing that Thuy was fine and living with the Moselys. The medical bills were routed through Tedi Bear adoption's Florida address, West says.
West worked with an Ohio adoption agency, A Child's Story, which is now out of business. Mai-Ly arranged the adoption.
In an interview with the Times, Mai-Ly said she didn't know the girl had already been adopted. Hedstrom says she also didn't know and relied on Mai-Ly. Mai-Ly said she received bad information from the Vietnamese government.
"I was lied to," Mai-Ly said.
But West saved an e-mail that casts doubt on that story.
Mai-Ly and Tedi Bear adoptions were collecting money to build the "Home for Thuy," an orphanage for the supposedly sick girl and her older sister. Mai-Ly said that the sister had been raped by her father and was now pregnant. Neither story turned out to be true.
"I have spoken with both girls, and they wish to live in the orphanage together," Mai-Ly LaTrace wrote West in December 2001, which was impossible because the girl had left Vietnam five months earlier. "Thuy knows what happened to her sister, and I think she feels very sorry for her. I don't know what the future holds, but I believe it is all in God's hands. . . . The father is nowhere to be found."
In fact, the father was in Vietnam, raising Thuy's sister. Mosely went to Vietnam and tracked him down.
"She hadn't been raped, and she wasn't pregnant," Mosely said.
Mai-Ly did not respond to a request from the Times to explain the contradictory information.
West complained to everyone she could think of, hoping to save other families from similar heartache. But the same thing happened again last spring, when the Graces held a cherished picture of a little girl who had already been adopted by someone else.
"Every year, we get another round of this and we can't stop them. These parents are very vulnerable. I've seen this cycle for four years now," said Andrea Sperling, 43, of New York City, who had so many troubles with her 1998 adoption handled by Mai-Ly and Marie LaTrace that she figures the whole thing ended up costing her $37,000. Sperling did adopt a Vietnamese child, after two other adoptions fell through.
Some families say their adoptions through Tedi Bear were trouble-free. Bunny Rogers, a mother of seven in Fayetteville, Ga., brought a girl home from Vietnam in June.
"I think Mai-Ly did a very good job, given the circumstances of the Third World," Rogers said. "They change the rules in midstream."
Joni Reynolds of Exeter, N.H., adopted a girl last spring with Mai-Ly as the facilitator. "We had a very easy adoption," Reynolds said.
Two former Tedi Bear employees have complaints, as do two adoption agencies that worked with Tedi Bear or Mai-Ly and Marie LaTrace on Vietnam adoptions.
In 1997, Mai-Ly and her mother approached a California adoption agency called the Family Network and offered to help arrange Vietnam adoptions, said Georgia Leonard, who runs the Family Network. Leonard said she borrowed $35,000 to help the LaTraces open an orphanage in Vietnam.
"They took the money and didn't do anything," said Leonard, who is still paying back the loan. "The U.S. Embassy (in Vietnam) knows about this, but they don't stop it. We've all complained."
Mai-Ly and her mother worked for a South Carolina adoption agency in 1994, Christian World Adoption. After less than a year, relations soured. In a complaint to South Carolina authorities, Christian World Adoptions said Mai-Ly and her mother collected donations for an orphanage in Vietnam, but the orphanage never received the items. The items were found in a storage locker Mai-Ly rented.
Mai-Ly was ordered to do 40 hours of community service and receive counseling. She told the Times that the incident was a mixup and that her ex-husband had "set me up" amid a child custody battle. She said the adoption agency had asked her to store the items because they were crowding the office.
Lori Jones, director of A New Arrival Adoption agency in Montana, closed her Vietnam adoption program this month because two clients went to Vietnam and said they were presented with babies that looked different from the ones they were promised. She worked through Tedi Bear adoptions and Mai-Ly.
"Situations like this should not happen in international adoptions," Jones said. "It's highly unusual for a parent to go to a country and all of a sudden find out that the child they have been referred is not available."
Lori Croll ran Tedi Bear's Vietnam program in 1998 and 1999. She said that when adoptions were arranged through the LaTraces, problems followed.
Dierdre Dudley, who ran Tedi Bear's Vietnam program from 1999 to 2002, said she quit when she found out that Hedstrom, the agency's owner, was working with Mai-Ly to build the "Home for Thuy," the orphanage named for a child who had already been adopted.
"I had no idea," Dudley said. "I was shocked that it could be so blatant and no one would do anything about it."
Dudley said most of the other directors for Tedi Bear's international adoptions programs quit in January because of what Dudley says were continuing problems. The directors started their own adoption agency. Hedstrom says they are trying to ruin Tedi Bear's reputation so that they can get business for themselves, a charge Dudley denies.
"There were problems, I mean big problems," Dudley said. "A good facilitator would not be making mistakes like offering the same child to different families.
"They offer the child to more than one family, then say: There's a paperwork problem, give us another $3,500. It's always $3,500. The family that pays that extra $3,500 gets the child. These are people that are basically brokering babies."
Emiko Hanano of Anaheim, Calif., went to Vietnam this year and said the baby she was given looked nothing like the baby she had been promised. She was a client of A New Arrival, which worked through Tedi Bear on Vietnamese adoptions.
"I did accept a different baby, and I went home," Hanano said. "I was terribly uncomfortable about the whole thing. I ended up paying another $3,500."
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