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How one adoption agency’s demise gutted American families

A USA TODAY investigation found the Independent Adoption Center’s leadership knew the agency was in danger. So did California state officials.

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For as long as she could remember, Stacey Green had dreamed of becoming a mother.

The Indiana woman could envision it. Cozy nights making s’mores over the fire pit. Playing in the backyard with their Labradors. Cuddling up with a book. Visiting the zoo, where she worked, to pet a dolphin or be kissed by a walrus.

But after more than three years of trying, Green and her husband, Mark, were no closer to building the family they craved. It hadn’t happened naturally. Neither artificial insemination nor in vitro fertilization had worked.

The medical procedures were so expensive that the couple, both in their late 30s, feared pouring more money into a process with no guarantee. They turned to adoption. They knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but they were promised it would happen.

The Greens’ research led them to the Independent Adoption Center. The California-based adoption agency was operating in eight states, with its Indiana office just 11 minutes from their house. It had been around for more than 30 years. And after meeting with other agencies, Mark Green liked that IAC officials talked about family first, and money second.

The couple signed up Jan. 13, 2016.

What the Greens didn’t know is that, by then, the center’s financial foundation was crumbling. Soon its problems would outstrip its ability to remain open – devastating thousands of people across the country. USA TODAY heard from more than 150 people affected by the closure.

Elizabeth Adamik
“They were cheats, and we were conned. I signed on the dotted line. I never got the baby I was hoping for.”
Elizabeth Adamik’s journey to adopt ended when the IAC closed
Elizabeth Adamik’s journey to adopt ended when the IAC closed Elizabeth Adamik

“They were cheats, and we were conned,” said Elizabeth Adamik, a California woman whose journey to adopt as a single parent ended for good when the adoption agency closed. “I signed on the dotted line. I never got the baby I was hoping for.”

Former IAC Board President Gregory Kuhl denied there was any malfeasance. He told USA TODAY the board was heartbroken, and the decision to close wasn’t made lightly.

“We wanted to help other people adopt,” Kuhl said. “Everyone made us out to be such horrible people, and we’re not, you know? We did everything we could.”

A USA TODAY investigation found the Independent Adoption Center’s leadership knew what was coming but continued to enroll new clients like the Greens and ask for more money from existing clients – up to the very week it abruptly closed its doors. As things worsened, employees posted glowing reviews of the agency online, which pushed down negative comments from frustrated clients.

More than a year before the IAC shut down, California state officials had received the same warning about the agency’s problems. But their investigation would languish. In the chaos after the agency’s closure, state officials would try to rewrite the timeline to minimize their own inaction and protect themselves from litigation.

On the day the Greens put their dreams into the Independent Adoption Center’s hands, they had no clue that the agency’s end was coming. The clock was ticking.

When their pregnancy efforts failed they turned to adoption. Then the agency went bankrupt.
Stacey Green says she remembers the phone call from the adoption agency telling her they were bankrupt and going out of business.
Mykal McEldowney, Indianapolis Star

Sept. 28, 2015

Paul Chartrand and Daniel Gagen were among the first to realize the precariousness of the IAC’s financial position.

The California couple had signed up with the agency in November 2013, eager to welcome a child into their close-knit, adventure-loving family.

While some adoption agencies refused to work with same-sex couples, the Independent Adoption Center welcomed them with open arms, describing itself as “the leader in gay adoption.”

It also accepted clients who were older or planned to be single parents, among the roughly 600 prospective parents it reported serving each year. And it charged fees on a sliding scale from about $13,000 to $27,000 to help families who otherwise might not have been able to afford adoption.

Chartrand and Gagen had been together for nearly a decade. They had researched other agencies. But they liked the IAC’s focus on open adoption, encouraging birth and adoptive families to remain in touch. They also liked that the agency provided ongoing counseling to birth mothers.

Daniel Gagen (left) and Paul Chartrand were seeking to adopt through the Independent Adoption Center when they began to see red flags.
Daniel Gagen (left) and Paul Chartrand were seeking to adopt through the Independent Adoption Center when they began to see red flags. Kyle Stansbury for USA TODAY

The couple’s view of the agency quickly soured over a number of issues, including how it marketed and matched families. When Chartrand and Gagen raised concerns, they said Executive Director Ann Wrixon told them: You’re the only ones unhappy.

Wrixon did not respond to USA TODAY’s requests for comment.

Chartrand and Gagen decided to find out if that was true. The two men created their own online survey and emailed it to 120 current IAC clients, using email addresses listed on their adoption profiles. Thirty-four people filled out the survey, and more than half a dozen others responded via email.

On Sept. 28, 2015, the men drove to Burlingame, California, to present their findings to the IAC’s leadership.

Chartrand and Gagen strode into a windowless conference room, settling in on one side of an expansive wooden table. Members of the IAC’s executive staff and board of directors joined them minutes later.

The volley of polite introductions did little to dispel the tension in the room.

“OK, gentlemen,” Board President Kuhl said, according to a recording of the meeting provided by Chartrand and Gagen. “Tell me what you hope you get accomplished today.”

Chartrand and Gagen handed out paper copies of the PowerPoint they had put together. The results of the survey, Chartrand explained, were clear.

About 88% of respondents said the IAC had not met their expectations, according to the presentation. Clients also expressed discontent with the agency’s marketing, outreach and receptiveness to feedback.

About 88% of poll respondents said the IAC had not met their expectations, according to the presentation. A litany of written-in comments explained the reasoning behind those votes. “Little support,” one respondent wrote. “We didn’t know the ‘independent’ meant we do all the foot work,” another said. A third likened working with the IAC to “death by 1,000 paper cuts.”

A litany of written-in comments explained the reasoning behind those votes. “Little support,” one respondent wrote. “We didn’t know the ‘independent’ meant we do all the foot work,” another said. A third likened working with the IAC to “death by 1,000 paper cuts.”

Kuhl, one of few IAC officials who spoke up during the meeting, noted the survey did not include parents who had successfully adopted. The results, he added, must also be viewed through the lens that, with few exceptions, everyone who came to the IAC was already angry or frustrated. Setting same-sex couples aside for a moment, he said, heterosexual couples or single parents had faced trials, failing to conceive on their own or with medical intervention before joining the agency.

In reality, there are some prospective adoptive parents whom birth mothers will never pick, Kuhl said. But they still deserved a chance to try.

“We’re the last stop, OK?” he said. “So any failures that we have are magnified because the anger level’s already at 80%.”

Gagen and Chartrand moved on to their analysis of IAC’s financials, which was based on their review of the nonprofit’s publicly available annual tax returns and financial statements. If major changes weren’t made, they warned, the agency was going to collapse.

Chartrand pointed to a widening gap between the number of families waiting to adopt and the number of adoptive placements each year.

An excerpt of Paul Chartrand and Daniel Gagen's presentation to the IAC leadership.
An excerpt of Paul Chartrand and Daniel Gagen's presentation to the IAC leadership. Submitted

“It’s illegal in the state of California to accept money for services you can’t or do not plan to deliver,” Chartrand said, according to the audio recording reviewed by USA TODAY. “At some point in time, this red line will go high enough. If the trend on the blue line continues, you are not going to be able to deliver services to the full population that is represented by the red line. It’s not sustainable.”

“Not at the costs that we’re charging,” Kuhl agreed. “We know. We know that.”

Kuhl said the IAC wrestled with that question all the time. Either the agency needs to find another source of income, he said, or raise rates so high that most people won’t be able to afford it.

Chartrand and Gagen recommended that the IAC reallocate money and resources to birth mother outreach until the backlog of clients was eliminated. As things stood, they said, if the IAC stopped signing up adoptive families today, it would take more than three years to work through the backlog.

Broken Adoptions illustration

“This isn’t gotcha,” Gagen said, adding that they cared about the agency and wanted to see it improve.

Kuhl promised to review the information they had provided. What, another board member asked, is your desired outcome?

Chartrand said they wanted to see the IAC act on their recommendations, but they also had other options to address their concerns, such as going to the media, Federal Trade Commission or California attorney general’s office.

“It’s all dependent on how seriously you take this,” Chartrand said.

“Are you threatening us, Paul?” Kuhl asked.

“No, no.”

“OK,” Kuhl said. “We done?”

The next day, Chartrand sent a follow-up email to Executive Director Wrixon, asking that she and the board provide a formal response to the survey results and presentation so he and Gagen could share it with other families. He set an Oct. 7 deadline.

On that date, Wrixon sent a mass email to IAC clients unveiling a new strategic plan and list of priorities for the organization.

It was the agency’s response. But for Gagen and Chartrand, it fell short. Wrixon and her associate executive director need to go, they told Kuhl in a follow-up email.

Dec. 10, 2015

In a dusty brick building on Mt. San Antonio College’s campus, Chara Powell plunked a stack of Scantrons from her students’ recent final exam onto her desk and slid into her black swivel chair. Then, as she had dozens – maybe hundreds – of times before, the 32-year-old opened her laptop and hit the refresh button.

It was there.

The adoption profile for Powell and her husband Andrew Rivera was finally live on the IAC’s website as of Dec. 10.

Powell stared for a moment at the photo of the two of them smiling, their faces pressed close together. Birth mothers could find them now, could pick them to be parents.

Part of Andrew Rivera and Chara Powell's adoption brochure.
Part of Andrew Rivera and Chara Powell's adoption brochure. Provided by Andrew Rivera and Chara Powell

Rivera – the logical, methodical one in their marriage – had already counted the number of other prospective parents on the site and figured that if they were really fortunate, someone would pick them in 18 months. But Powell was all heart. With a sort of naive confidence, she was sure it would happen much sooner.

After all, they had already been so lucky. She and Rivera had met at Disneyland in 1999. He was her first boyfriend and first love. They had great jobs and a wonderful home. They had chosen the IAC to adopt because they liked the idea of having a team behind them.

In less than three months, the couple had powered through criminal background checks, health forms and the home study and crafted a heartfelt four-page brochure. Powell couldn’t wait for mothers to see it.

She knew this was the beginning of something special.

Four hours away, in Sonoma County, Chartrand and Gagen were cautiously optimistic about a recent development in their own adoption effort.

After two years with the IAC and fruitless conversations with a dozen birth mothers, they had finally made a connection that felt promising. Their trip to southern Illinois to meet the pregnant woman in late November only solidified that feeling.

In one of their phone conversations, the birth mother had mentioned collecting crystals. So Gagen and Chartrand brought her a crystal bracelet from a local shop where they lived. They hoped she’d appreciate the connection to where they wanted to raise her baby.

That night, a relative of the woman reached out.

“Thank you for a wonderful day – and really being who we were hoping was on the other end of the internet!” the relative wrote in an email dated Nov. 24.

Paul Chartrand and Daniel Gagen found themselves balancing concerns about the IAC with excitement about a potential match.
Paul Chartrand and Daniel Gagen found themselves balancing concerns about the IAC with excitement about a potential match. Kyle Stansbury for USA TODAY

Chartrand and Gagen started building a shopping list of items they’d need for the baby, who was due in late January. They emailed each other ideas for a crib, a stroller.

It was a strange time because, as much as they embraced their connection to the birth mother, they were still challenging the adoption center to make meaningful changes to protect other clients. They continued to be disheartened by the agency’s financials and what they viewed as its lackluster response to their client survey.

Chartrand told USA TODAY that, with their business backgrounds, he and Gagen felt they could compartmentalize their personal journey from their quest for accountability. They felt an obligation to give voice to other clients who were unhappy but scared to speak up for fear they’d lose their opportunity to adopt.

Chartrand filed the first of a series of complaints against the center on Dec. 17, starting with the California attorney general’s office, the Department of Business Oversight and the Department of Social Services. As evidence, he attached his survey results and financial analysis.

An excerpt of a complaint sent via email from Paul Chartrand about the Independent Adoption Center.
An excerpt of a complaint sent via email from Paul Chartrand about the Independent Adoption Center. Submitted

“IAC is preying on families’ desire to create families while mismanaging the agency finances in a way that makes the organization unsustainable over the near term, putting 500+ families at risk of losing their $20,000 commitment to IAC,” Chartrand wrote. “The agency is abusive to clients and threatens to hold back adoption services or to put adoptions at risk if you raise issues.”

When the year closed, federal records show the Independent Adoption Center’s expenses had exceeded its revenue by nearly $900,000.

Jan. 11, 2016

Chartrand’s complaints wound their way through state government, landing on the desk of Licensing Program Analyst Vaishali Singh-Sood on Jan. 11.

A day later, Gagen and Chartrand received devastating news: The Illinois birth mother had decided not to place her child for adoption.

“I urged her to take the weekend to make a decision,” an adoption specialist wrote the men in an email, “but it was not fair to leave you both in the dark. I did not want you traveling here for the delivery, only to learn she would not be moving forward.”

Their IAC adoption counselor checked in on them later that morning. “You both did a great job of building a relationship with her,” she wrote. “I am here if you want to process things, but I have to reiterate that you did nothing wrong.”

Chartrand and Gagen were crushed, but they tried to remain upbeat, telling her “these things happen” and mentioning other birth mothers they’d made contact with on their own.

“This news was not a total surprise to us,” they replied. “We are working with a few other BMs right now, one which we have met with twice and actually had over to our house, so we’ll be shifting our focus there.”

News that a birth mother had decided not to go forward hit Daniel Gagen and Paul Chartrand hard.
News that a birth mother had decided not to go forward hit Daniel Gagen and Paul Chartrand hard. Kyle Stansbury for USA TODAY

On Jan. 20, Singh-Sood completed an initial site inspection at the Independent Adoption Center’s main office in Concord, California, state records show. She told Wrixon, the executive director, that the agency was under investigation for not being able to financially provide the services it offered.

Nine days later, Chartrand and Gagen received a letter from the adoption agency’s attorney. The center was terminating the couple’s adoption contract. There would be no refund of the more than $20,000 they’d paid.

The attorney’s letter claimed the men had violated their contract by communicating with other birth mothers while being matched by the agency, records show. But Chartrand and Gagen believed differently. They felt the agency was retaliating against them for their vocal criticism and complaints to the state. They appealed the center’s decision.

With nothing left to lose, Gagen and Chartrand launched an online campaign against the agency. They bought a bunch of keywords so anyone Googling “Independent Adoption Center,” “IAC adoption” or similar terminology would be directed to a link to their survey results, which showed clients’ dissatisfaction. They also wrote scathing reviews on Yelp and Google.

“We didn’t want to get in the way of them finding more birth mothers,” Gagen said. “But at the same time, we kind of felt that we needed to raise the alarm.”

Feb. 26, 2016

One after another, a flurry of new reviews appeared on the IAC’s Facebook page.

Five stars. Five stars. Five stars.

Chartrand said he noticed more than 20 new five-star reviews show up on the website between Feb. 26 and mid-March, boosting the adoption agency’s dwindling rating. Chartrand recognized many of the names and decided to look closer.

All of the reviews, he and Gagen said, had been posted by IAC employees and board members. And they pushed down other, more negative reviews from the agency’s clients.

Annoyed, Chartrand created an alias account and posted his own one-star review, calling out the IAC for “unethical business practice.”

“This is a perfect illustration of how IAC constantly provides false and misleading information to both adoptive parents and birth moms regarding the quality of their services and the level of client satisfaction,” he wrote.

Chartrand said the five-star reviews disappeared – but not before he snapped screenshots.

IAC employees left five-star reviews on the company's Facebook page, according to screenshots submitted to the state.
IAC employees left five-star reviews on the company's Facebook page, according to screenshots submitted to the state. Submitted

He emailed the screenshots to Singh-Sood as additional evidence for the state’s investigation. He also sent reviews posted on Glassdoor, a website where current and former employees anonymously review companies.

“Employees are coached to mislead clients about adoption success rates, wait times, etc,” one individual claimed in a review dated March 9, according to records provided to the state. The review said employees also were encouraged “to post fake online reviews of Agency performance.”

Meanwhile, the adoption agency was in the midst of a major shift. In early February, the center had announced that longtime Executive Director Wrixon and the associate executive director would be stepping down as part of “long-planned transitions within its leadership team.” Both would continue with the agency as senior advisers, according to the release.

Kuhl told USA TODAY that the women resigned because of how poorly they were treated by some disgruntled clients, including Chartrand and Gagen. He said losing their collective decades of experience was a brutal hit to the agency.

Leadership consultant Marcia Hodges would serve as interim executive director until a permanent replacement could be found.

Becca Chase

April 12, 2016

After months of negotiations, Gagen and Chartrand reached a settlement with the Independent Adoption Center over the termination of their contract.

In return for a $20,000 refund, the men agreed to stop their online campaign, remove public access to the survey results and delete any reviews or statements they had made, according to the settlement signed April 12.

The legal agreement drawn up by the IAC’s attorneys acknowledged that Chartrand and Gagen could not withdraw the complaints they had made to public agencies, but it required them to respond to any inquiry about the complaints – whether the questions came from an individual, organization or government entity – with a one-sentence statement: “The claims against IAC have been resolved in full, without any admission of guilt, liability or wrongdoing.”

Help USA TODAY investigate adoption

Are you an adoptee, parent, community member or public and private employee who can help us learn more about adoption issues? We want to hear from you about disrupted and dissolved adoptions.

They could no longer cooperate with the state’s investigation.

Chartrand dutifully sent the proffered statement to California government officials. He said he told Singh-Sood that he and Gagen couldn’t share a copy of the settlement with her unless they were subpoenaed, an action Chartrand hoped his gentle nudge would encourage her to take.

Singh-Sood did. She subpoenaed the settlement and opened a new complaint against the Independent Adoption Center, citing “Failure to cooperate with CCL’s inspection authority.” The complaint also said the “Agency is making misleading statements regarding the services they provide,” state records show.

The California Department of Social Services denied USA TODAY’s request to interview Singh-Sood about what happened next. Spokesman Jason Montiel would say only that the department prioritizes complaints involving potential risks to health and safety, and the complaints against the IAC did not fit in that category.

From Chartrand and Gagen’s perspective, however, little seemed to be happening with the state’s investigation. They had already provided Singh-Sood with copies of the survey results, their 2015 presentation to the board, email exchanges with the agency, screenshots of the five-star reviews, the “Adopt a Baby Quickly” advertisement on Google, and a list of other IAC clients who were willing to participate in the state’s investigation.

Why, they wondered, wasn’t that enough to act?

A screenshot of a Google "Adopt a Baby Quickly" ad from the Independent Adoption Center.
A screenshot of a Google "Adopt a Baby Quickly" ad from the Independent Adoption Center. Submitted

July 8, 2016

Cary Virtue initially planned to let go of his animosity toward the Independent Adoption Center.

The Northern California man had signed with the agency in late 2013, hoping to adopt as a single parent. More than two years later, he said, he had gotten one hit on his profile: from an adult in Ghana asking to be adopted.

In 2016, days after his 50th birthday, Virtue decided it was time to move on with his life. He canceled his contract with the IAC and asked for a partial refund. The agency denied his request. Virtue filed an appeal and grievance, arguing the agency had misrepresented its services, records provided by Virtue show. The IAC denied that, too.

Tired and heartbroken, Virtue decided he didn’t want to spend thousands more on an attorney to fight the denial. He wrote a negative review on Yelp and closed the door on becoming a father.

Cary Virtue learned of IAC's problems through Yelp.
Cary Virtue learned of IAC's problems through Yelp. Provided by Cary Virtue

Then he received messages from people through Yelp telling him that others were unhappy with the IAC. They told him the agency was under state investigation. They connected him to a group on Facebook and shared other information, including the 2015 survey results from Chartrand and Gagen.

Virtue decided he couldn’t let stand what the adoption agency had done.

“Given this new information, I decided they lied to me,” Virtue wrote in a timeline he created of his interactions with the IAC. “They knew all of this was happening when they responded to my Grievances.”

He filed a complaint with the Contra Costa County district attorney’s office on July 8, alleging fraudulent advertising and lack of services, records show. Several others submitted complaints as well. John Ortiz, a deputy district attorney assigned to the Consumer Fraud Unit, opened an investigation.

As another agency started scrutinizing the Independent Adoption Center, Gagen and Chartrand continued to check in on the status of the state’s investigation into their complaint. Little had changed.

In July, Singh-Sood told them she was getting too many calls about the adoption center because someone had posted her phone number on Yelp.

“I am working on some Other complaints but will work and complete yours next week I think,” she said in an email. When Chartrand checked in again in August, she responded, “Still working on it.”

The Independent Adoption Center’s financial crisis deepened. It had shifted five of its locations into smaller spaces to save money, according to federal court records. In May, it cashed $250,000 in investments – certificates of deposit – to cover expenses. The center also completed its 2015 year-end report in June, showing a nearly $900,000 loss.

Most clients knew none of this. They knew only what the center told them.

In August, the agency announced an aggressive plan to sign up new clients and generate additional revenue from existing ones. In an email to prospective clients, interim executive director Hodges warned the agency’s fees would be “going up significantly” beginning Sept. 1.

“If you are still considering adopting through the Independent Adoption Center, we want to give you an opportunity to do so before the fees increase,” she said.

An email to existing clients struck a grimmer tone. Hodges told them the join fees were rising to respond “to circumstances beyond IAC’s control.”

She said the center would be upgrading its website and had hired a San Francisco-based advertising agency to implement a new online advertising strategy. Both were designed to reach more birth mothers interested in adoption.

The IAC would be dropping ads with questions like “Are You Pregnant?” and “Have You Considered Adoption?” in favor of ads telling birth mothers why the IAC and its clients are “the better choice.”

Hodges said the agency also was launching a new “pay-per-click” program. For a $2,400 fee, the agency would advertise individual families waiting to adopt, with direct links to their profiles.

“While we expect the new approach will benefit all clients, the offer in this letter was specifically crafted to make sure you are given the same opportunity for increased individual exposure to birthmothers, as those who will pay our new higher fees,” she wrote.

Clients were given less than two weeks to decide.

Chara Powell and Andrew Rivera – the California couple who had so eagerly celebrated their adoption profile going live on the IAC’s website in December – had gotten nary a nibble from birth mothers in eight months.

Now the agency was asking for more money.

Chara Powell
“There was this really deep sadness of, like, if we don’t do this, now we’re going to be behind all these other people that are paying this. We felt like we were just at this huge disadvantage.”

“There was this really deep sadness of, like, if we don’t do this, now we’re going to be behind all these other people that are paying this,” Powell said. “We felt like we were just at this huge disadvantage.”

The couple didn’t have $2,400 in savings right then. Distraught, they debated charging the pay-per-click fee to a credit card. Powell’s parents, who lived with them, overheard the conversation and insisted on paying for it. Rivera and Powell reluctantly signed up.

Mark and Stacey Green, the Indiana couple who had joined the agency in January, read Hodges’ email in disbelief. Their adoption profile wasn’t even live on the IAC’s website yet.

Mark Green was also uncomfortable with the email’s tone. For the first time, he noticed the Independent Adoption Center talking about how much something cost before explaining what it was. He wondered if the adoption agency was hurting for money.

“Something’s off here,” he said. “Something’s not right.”

The Greens opted out of the additional fee.

Oct. 20, 2016

Powell and Rivera’s concerns with the Independent Adoption Center were growing.

More than a month in, the pay-per-click program seemed to be making no difference. No one from the agency could explain how many additional clicks they were getting on their profile. Then Powell learned that the IAC hadn’t been sending out the glossy brochures they’d so carefully crafted – that the agency had required them to create and pay for – as their letter to birth mothers. Instead, the adoption coordinator told her officials often emailed birth mothers links to prospective parents’ online profiles.

“I was enraged,” Powell said. “I was just like, ‘This is not OK.’”

She felt she and Rivera had been lied to. The couple demanded answers from their adoption coordinator, who scheduled an Oct. 20 conference call with Hodges, the interim executive director. Hodges did not respond to USA TODAY’s requests for comment.

The conversation did not inspire confidence. They said Hodges told them that she was “drinking from the firehose” and that the IAC was her first experience with adoption. She had few answers to their questions.

“It basically went nowhere,” Rivera said. “She was trying to placate us, and nothing happened.”

Powell said she became so incensed that she left the call early. She checked the agency’s refund policy and found that none were available after one year. It was too late to get their money back. When she searched online, she found others with similar frustrations. We’re screwed, Powell thought.

“We’re too deep in this now to get out of it,” she remembers thinking.

And more expenses were coming. The couple were nearing their one-year anniversary and would soon need to renew their home study.

Powell and Rivera felt as if they were in quicksand, with no way out.

Dec. 5, 2016

The Independent Adoption Center had weathered many storms in the past 30 years, but Board President Kuhl wasn’t sure it could survive this one.

Kuhl had adopted a daughter through the IAC when the agency was still in its early days, he told USA TODAY. He’d served multiple terms on the board over the past three decades and had helped navigate the nonprofit agency through past financial challenges.

This time, he wasn’t sure the cuts, the layoffs would be enough.

Kuhl said the center had been losing business to the internet, as birth mothers and families increasingly connected on their own. The departure of Wrixon and the associate executive director – and their collective decades of experience – dealt another blow. He said negative public comments from former clients further damaged their revenue stream.

The agency could survive one or two of those challenges, Kuhl said. But all three?

“We’re fighting clients, we’ve lost our director and we’ve lost so much to the internet,” he said. “It’s just that perfect storm.”

Later, a bankruptcy trustee would offer a different perspective, arguing the board of directors had failed in its duty to understand and act on the organization’s precarious financial position.

In November, for the first time, Kuhl and the rest of the board discussed the possibility of bankruptcy. The adoption agency’s lawyer referred them to a bankruptcy attorney.

By that time, the agency had pulled a total of nearly $360,000 from certificates of deposit since May to cover expenses, according to federal court records. On Dec. 2, the board authorized Hodges to liquidate another $100,000 CD. And its American Express bill totaled more than $140,000 in December.

The agency continued to recruit new clients, but Kuhl said the board decided not to cash those clients’ checks while it figured out what to do.

“I didn’t want to take a person’s check in November and December when we were talking about what might befall us,” he said. “So we held those back.”

But that wasn’t true. The agency continued to take money from families, including cashing $14,619 in checks in November from James and Courtney Coleman, according to emails and statements provided by the family.

After 14 years of struggling with infertility and now in their mid-30s, the Colemans had decided to build their family another way. The Independent Adoption Center drew in the Alabama couple with heartwarming success stories, even showing them an episode of a TLC show featuring the agency.

An excerpt from James and Courtney Coleman's adoption brochure.
An excerpt from James and Courtney Coleman's adoption brochure. Provided by James and Courtney Coleman

“They make you really feel good,” James Coleman told USA TODAY. “You feel, ‘Wow, we’re going to be a family in a year, once we’re paying this money.’”

Courtney Coleman’s parents refinanced their house to help cover the cost. In late November, the Colemans handed the money and their trust to the IAC.

Interviews and records obtained by USA TODAY show that the agency also continued to invoice current clients and automatically withdraw money from their bank accounts in November, December and January.

On Dec. 5, Chara Powell noticed she’d missed a call and cued up her voicemail.

“This is Laura at the Independent Adoption Center,” a woman’s voice said. “Hope you and Andrew are well. I was just calling because I have a birth mom I’ve been working with for a couple months who let me know this morning she’s really interested in speaking with you guys.”

Powell was ecstatic. It was almost a year to the day that their profile had gone live on the IAC website – far sooner than they’d been told to expect a match. Maybe this process would work after all. The luck that seemed to follow Powell and Rivera’s relationship had come through again.

The birth mother, who was due in January, chose Powell and Rivera as her child’s parents. The birth father supported the match, too.

An IAC official congratulated the couple, then let them know the adoption agency’s staff would be going on vacation during the holidays and to call a 24-hour hotline if they needed anything. Powell and Rivera did hear from the IAC again in December, though. It emailed them another invoice, for a $2,500 birth parent services fee.

Every text between Powell and the birth mother felt high-stakes.

“What if she thinks I’m a weirdo?” Powell worried. “What if I send her a gift, and she’s like, ‘Dude, that’s weird?’”

But their relationship only got stronger. When the birth mother couldn’t afford toilet paper, Powell and Rivera sent her rolls of it. They fed her cravings for Domino’s Pizza.

Her due date was less than a month away.

Jan. 5, 2017

MARCIA Hodges, the Independent Adoption Center’s interim director, began the new year with an acknowledgement, and a plea.

“We sincerely regret that it has become tougher to achieve placements since many of you originally signed up with IAC,” she wrote in an email Jan. 5, citing increased competition and a drop in unplanned births. “I can though, assure you that we are doing everything in our power to deal with this new reality.”

Hodges reminded clients of the fee increase the agency had implemented in the fall. Now, she said, the center would shift some of its marketing resources to advertise to new families interested in adoption, an effort it had stopped in early 2016. Doing so would ensure the agency’s sustainability, Hodges said.

And once again, Hodges pushed clients to consider paying an additional $2,400 for the individual pay-per-click program. She claimed participants in the program were seeing a 40% higher placement rate.

“Increased competition increases the need for outreach resources,” Hodges wrote, “and we, therefore, strongly suggest you consider the IPPC program as a means to achieve placement sooner.”

Quietly, other employees were more skeptical of the program’s success.

An IAC adoption coordinator warned one couple that the data was “still fairly new.”

“I have been provided with no evidence that any of these matches were the direct result of the iPPC ads,” she told the couple in a Jan. 9 email obtained by USA TODAY. “Two of the clients are mine and 2 are with another adoption coordinator that I’ve spoken with. We do not believe ours are the result of the iPPC ads.”

Hodges left for a two-week vacation to Tanzania, according to federal court records. While she was out, other IAC employees ran the agency.

Clinical Director Jennifer Bliss, who had been with the agency for more than 12 years, was one of the employees who stepped in. She told USA TODAY she doesn’t remember making any significant financial decisions while Hodges was gone.

Bliss knew the IAC “was going through a tough time” in 2016, but assumed the agency would recover, as it had before.

On Jan. 21, Powell and Rivera’s dream came true. Their son, Joshua, was born. The couple joined the birth parents at the hospital, and Powell remained there overnight, feeding her son and changing his diapers.

She calls it “the most sacred, special time.”

Chara Powell and Andrew Rivera's son Joshua was born shortly before the Independent Adoption Center closed its doors. His adoption was not yet final.
Chara Powell and Andrew Rivera's son Joshua was born shortly before the Independent Adoption Center closed its doors. His adoption was not yet final. Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY

On Jan. 25, the morning after the family was discharged from the hospital, they met at the Independent Adoption Center’s Los Angeles office to sign the relinquishment paperwork.

Powell said she noticed Bliss acting strangely.

When Bliss came out to greet them, she shared little stories of the Christmas cards still decorating the lobby. This family adopted from us. This couple had a miracle baby. Powell said Bliss’ voice cracked when she pointed to a card from a couple who had adopted their first child through the agency and were waiting to adopt their second.

“Oh my God, how sweet,” Powell initially thought. “She just loves this family so much.”

But then Bliss walked away and shut herself in her office. Powell said she wondered if Bliss was upset with them for some reason. Powell shook it off. She and Rivera left with their son.

Hodges returned from Tanzania on Jan. 25.

The next day, according to federal court records, she met with the board of directors and walked them through the bankruptcy process, including terminating employees, dissolving the board, working with a bankruptcy trustee and notifying potential adoptive parents and birth parents. The board passed a resolution to file for bankruptcy.

After 34 years in business, the adoption agency would permanently close.

It used another $151,000 certificate of deposit to cover payroll one last time.

“We were out of money,” Kuhl explained later, according to federal court records. “We couldn’t make another payroll after we cashed in the last CD.”

One day later, on Jan. 27, the center pulled the $2,500 birth fee out of Powell and Rivera’s bank account. And records obtained by USA TODAY show that it continued to sign up new clients.

Jan. 31, 2017

Hodges dropped the news on employees in a conference call Jan. 31, the federal records show. The center’s closure was effective immediately, and it would be filing for bankruptcy. She told employees to leave $250 on their desks if they wanted to keep their computers.

The agency had listed about 50 employees on its website as of late 2016. Now they were all out of jobs.

Rebecca Koppenhaver, a part-time outreach coordinator in the agency’s Los Angeles office, wasn’t on the conference call. She told USA TODAY she learned of the closure via a text from Bliss. She said the text felt impersonal, as though it had been sent to everyone all at once.

Map

Thinking back, Koppenhaver said she had noticed the number of families signing up with the agency seemed lopsided compared with the number of birth parents willing to place their children. But she worked for the agency only for about a year and had seen a small slice of its entire operation.

“It felt strange to me,” she said, “but at the same time, I don’t feel like I was there long enough to really be able to weigh all that out.”

More than losing her job, Koppenhaver grieved the loss of what the agency represented. As an adoptee herself, Koppenhaver said she understood firsthand the shame and hurt that could come from a closed adoption. She believed in the IAC’s philosophy on continued contact between birth and adoptive families. She said her colleagues believed in it, too, and did their best to help families.

“I think their work was very important,” she said. “It’s just sad.”

Stacey Green was pulling into her garage, the car still running, when her cellphone rang.

It was Kathy Wilkerson, director of the IAC’s Indiana office, calling to say the agency was permanently closed. She said all clients’ files – which contained personal information, including Social Security numbers, tax returns, account numbers and health information – would be locked up.

Green sat in disbelief. It had been less than a year since she and her husband, Mark, had taken a cash advance on their credit card to pay their adoption fees. They’d just refinanced their house and used some of the money to pay off their credit card. In fact, the check had cleared that day.

“I just paid all that money off, and now we have nothing,” she said.

Nothing. No child. None of the money they’d paid. Green couldn’t process it.

“The adoption was supposed to be a for-sure thing,” she said.

Stacey and Mark Green couldn't believe their quest to adopt a child had ended seemingly overnight.
Stacey and Mark Green couldn't believe their quest to adopt a child had ended seemingly overnight. Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar

When she called her husband, he was equally stunned. And furious.

How, Mark Green wondered, could the adoption agency’s leaders sleep at night knowing what they’d done to thousands of people? Not only prospective adoptive parents, but also the birth mothers and adoptive families who had been promised ongoing support?

“I call them blackhearted people,” he said. “How do you think of something so, so wrong but not even think about the people and the effects it’s going to do on people?”

Stacey Green spent the rest of the night scouring Facebook. Somebody’s got to know something, she thought. But everyone seemed as lost as they were.

In a 2017 interview, a spokesman for the adoption agency said there were 1,886 adoptions in progress at the time of closure. They ranged from families just beginning their home studies to those on hold to those with children placed in their homes.

Courtney Coleman, the Alabama woman who had initiated her adoption journey in November 2016, had barely gotten home from work when the news hit.

James and Courtney Coleman used this photo in their adoption brochure to share they had recently celebrated their 15th anniversary.
James and Courtney Coleman used this photo in their adoption brochure to share they had recently celebrated their 15th anniversary. Provided by James and Courtney Coleman

She saw it on Facebook first. Immediately, the 35-year-old opened her email, searching for the IAC message that everyone on social media seemed to be referencing. She had nothing. So Coleman called one of the center’s contractors, who confirmed it was true. Later, someone posted a copy of the email so Coleman and others could read it.

“It is with deep sadness that we write to inform you that the Independent Adoption Center (IAC) is declaring Chapter 7 bankruptcy and will be closing permanently effective immediately,” the message from the center said. “This was an extremely difficult decision to make, but after much discussion, we have come to the conclusion that immediate closure is our only option.”

The agency placed the blame on adoption’s “changing environment.”

Coleman was devastated. All she could think about were her parents, middle-class government workers who had pulled together nearly $15,000 to help her and her husband adopt. Now their hope – and her parents’ money – was gone.

Her husband was working a night shift, so Coleman called a friend and cousin. She cried all night long.

Sleep-deprived, blissfully settling into life as new parents, Rivera and Powell were trying to add their son to the health insurance plan, and they needed some additional documentation. Rivera called the Independent Adoption Center for help.

He listened in horror to a recorded message telling him the adoption agency was permanently closed. Rivera hung up and turned to Powell. She said he looked as if someone had died.

“You aren’t gonna like this,” he whispered.

Powell immediately called the number and listened to the recording herself.

“There was no direction for waiting families, no reassurance for families like ours,” she said.

Their adoption was not yet final. Would they be able to keep their son? Was their adoption secure? Would Social Services knock on the door one day and demand they turn over their baby?

The couple called everyone they could think of. No one knew what to do.

That night, they received an email from IAC Clinical Director Bliss. The subject line was “so sorry.”

Powell laughed incredulously. “So sorry,” she repeated. “Like she stepped on my foot.”

Bliss told the couple that their adoption was safe and that they could either wait to hear from the state Department of Social Services or could contact another adoption agency.

“We are heartbroken and can’t imagine working in another field,” Bliss wrote. “I am thinking of starting a private practice focused on adoption, and hope that will be able to continue helping families. We will see what the future holds.”

Her email offered Powell and Rivera little comfort.

For the next few months, the couple lived in fear. There were many tears. In late-night conversations, they talked about fleeing with their son to Canada.

“I’m supposed to be home bonding with my newborn,” Powell said. “And every single day I’m thinking somebody’s going to knock on the door and they’re going to take Josh.”

Feb. 2, 2017

Officials in the California Department of Social Services were scrambling.

The Independent Adoption Center’s clients bombarded the government agency with emails and phone calls. Government entities in other states and adoption agencies sought guidance, too.

A California licensing program manager, Saxton Turner, copy-pasted an initial response to inquiring families: “We received the information from IAC just moments before you, the clients, were notified. We are working with our Adoptions Policy Unit to determine what the next steps are and will share whatever information we can with you once the steps are determined. I do apologize that I do not have more information at this time.”

What Turner didn’t say is that the state had known about the center’s financial challenges for more than a year. Yet the investigation was still open; no final action had been taken.

Behind the scenes, officials inside the department tried to understand why the state’s investigation was taking so long.

“I need more details and dates to justify its delay,” Jean Chen, an assistant program administrator for the department’s Statewide Children’s Residential Program, wrote in a Feb. 2 email obtained by USA TODAY through a public records request. Chen asked Singh-Sood, the analyst handling the investigation, to draft a timeline of actions she had taken since receiving the initial complaint.

On Feb. 10, Regional Manager Angela Carmack told Turner, who was Singh-Sood’s boss, that another administrator wanted Singh-Sood to modify the timeline to delete references to vacations and a training academy because it “mostly looks like she is CYAing.”

After two weeks of questions from state officials and tweaking the official timeline, Singh-Sood lost her temper. “Which thing do u want first?” she asked Turner in a Feb. 16 email before rattling off a list of tasks on her plate. She said she was overloaded by the demands of work and home.

“It was never smart to give a new analyst everything and some of the busiest facilities,” Singh-Sood wrote. “To top it off, I was given all these special projects.”

Turner replied, expressing appreciation for her work but adding, “I know your caseload is slammed and have offered to assign some of your tasks to other LPAs who are not as slammed as you are, but you told me you did not want me to do that.”

Singh-Sood later told her boss she felt state officials were going overboard with the barrage of questions and efforts to document what had happened.

Saxton Turner, a licensing program manager with California Department of Social Services, sent this email to Vaishali Singh-Sood, the analyst handling the investigation into the Independent Adoption Center.
Saxton Turner, a licensing program manager with California Department of Social Services, sent this email to Vaishali Singh-Sood, the analyst handling the investigation into the Independent Adoption Center. Submitted

“The bottom line is that the state is sure we will be sued over the investigations,” Turner told Singh-Sood in a Feb. 24 email, “so they are trying to show the amount of work done in hopes of protecting ourselves.”

In the days after closure, families’ concerns weren’t with the state. Many didn’t know it had been investigating the agency. They just wanted help.

Audrey DeGraaf, executive director of The Family Network – another California-based adoption agency – was home with her newborn son when her telephone began to trill nonstop with calls from desperate families seeking assistance.

Breanne Paquin

DeGraaf thought about her adopted siblings. She looked at her baby in the little bouncer beside her. He was three days out of the hospital, his adoption not yet final. She imagined how she would have felt if she had been an IAC client. And she got to work.

“These are people’s lives,” she said. “These are people’s children.”

DeGraaf reached out to the state, seeking permission to use work the IAC had done for home studies so families wouldn’t need to start from scratch.

If they had to charge families for something, DeGraaf said they cut costs to the bone. She said the state was quick to support her efforts. If she asked for a file for one of the families she was working with, the state sent it the next day. There was a sense of goodwill, of camaraderie, of “let’s take care of these families.” Everyone tried to help.

DeGraaf spent a lot of time trying to build trust. But it wasn’t easy. Families wanted concrete answers, and neither she nor anyone else had them.

“They have no reason to trust me. I’m some random stranger,” she said. “Everything just got screwed by people they trusted, right? So, like, who are they to trust me?”

DeGraaf could understand it. She also felt her own anger. The IAC had betrayed families, but it also wounded the entire adoption community.

The Independent Adoption Center officials knew what was coming and had a responsibility to create a transition plan for those families, she said. In fact, she said, every state should require adoption agencies to have one. Such plans are required of international adoption agencies by the U.S. government.

Instead of owning up to the situation, instead of communicating and handing off families to other entities, DeGraaf said the IAC left its mess for everyone else to clean up.

Audrey DeGraaf, executive director of The Family Network
“Shutting your doors and turning off your phones and filing for bankruptcy, that’s not a plan. It’s a very cowardly decision and the opposite of what I would think their values were as a company. How do you get that far off from your values?”

“Shutting your doors and turning off your phones and filing for bankruptcy, that’s not a plan,” she said. “It’s a very cowardly decision and the opposite of what I would think their values were as a company. How do you get that far off from your values?”

On Feb. 3, three days after closing, the Independent Adoption Center filed for bankruptcy in federal court in Northern California. In court filings, the agency reiterated claims that it had “worked tirelessly” to adapt to a changing adoption landscape but was ultimately unsuccessful.

Bankruptcy trustee Marlene Weinstein had a decidedly different view.

She filed a complaint against the IAC’s board of directors, accusing members of negligence and of breaching their fiduciary duty in 28 ways, including by failing to monitor and account for their liabilities; budget for future operations; quantify, acknowledge and address the financial crisis that threatened the organization’s existence; cut overhead expenses; and provide refunds or access to other services when it became clear they couldn’t fulfill their obligations, federal court records show.

Weinstein leveled similar allegations against Hodges, Wrixon and the agency’s certified public accountant.

She said the IAC “was essentially operated as a Ponzi scheme” because the upfront fees paid by new clients were used to pay the agency’s current expenses, with no reasonable expectation that the center could provide services to those new clients.

Hundreds of adoptive parents filed claims totaling roughly $8 million against the agency.

Today

The bankruptcy case dragged on for more than five years.

During that time, Weinstein reached settlements with former IAC officials for about $3.2 million: $1.35 million relating to her complaints against Wrixon and Kuhl, $1.1 million relating to Hodges and six other board members and $754,816.55 relating to the agency’s accountant, federal court records show. Those settlements were paid into the bankruptcy estate by insurance companies.

When the case closed this May, the trustee had paid out about $1.8 million in legal fees and administrative expenses for managing the bankruptcy, federal court records show. That left about $2 million for creditors, many of them adoptive families who received only a fraction of what they’d paid the center.

In hindsight, Kuhl said the board could have handled the situation better, particularly as it relates to the agency’s hurried closure.

He said he tried to do his best in the immediate aftermath. Kuhl said he returned every phone call from clients, putting his own real estate business on hold for months to help people access their files or answer their questions.

Nearly everyone on the board was an adoptive parent, he said. No one wanted to close.

“It broke our hearts to do that,” Kuhl said.

Bliss, the IAC’s former clinical director, said she received online attacks and threats in the wake of the agency’s closure. She called it a “really traumatic time, emotionally and financially.”

The California woman said she approached HelpUsAdopt.org, a national nonprofit that provides grants to families pursuing adoption, to see if they would be willing to collect donations to help clients affected by the IAC’s closure. The nonprofit agreed, and Bliss helped plan and execute a fundraiser in June 2017 that raised nearly $30,000.

Today, Bliss is the director of adoptions and foster care for Vista Del Mar, an organization that provides services to children and families in southern California.

For some of the 150 families who shared their experiences with USA TODAY, the grief and anger is still raw.

Powell and Rivera’s fear their son would be taken lasted for months after the IAC’s closure, until they learned the California Department of Social Services was assigning a caseworker to handle their post-placement visits. They finalized Joshua’s adoption on Nov. 4, 2017. He is 5 now, and a bundle of energy.

Joshua Rivera, 5, at a park with his mom Chara Powell, dad Andrew Rivera and sister And, 19 months. Powell and Rivera adopted Joshua through the Independent Adoption Center in fall 2015 days before it closed its door. Their adoptive son was born Jan. 21, 2017, just 10 days before IAC closed. However 1,886 other clients were left without children and without the money they’d paid to adopt.
Joshua Rivera, 5, kicks a soccer ball with his mom Chara Powell at a neighborhood park. Powell and husband Andrew Rivera adopted Joshua through the Independent Adoption Center in fall 2015 days before it closed its door. Their adoptive son was born Jan. 21, 2017, just 10 days before IAC closed. However 1,886 other clients were left without children and without the money they’d paid to adopt.
Joshua Rivera, 5, plays with his sister Andie Rivera, 19 months. Chara Powell and Andrew Rivera adopted Joshua through the Independent Adoption Center in fall 2015 days before it closed its door. Their adoptive son was born Jan. 21, 2017, just 10 days before IAC closed. However 1,886 other clients were left without children and without the money they’d paid to adopt.
Joshua Rivera, now 5, had been born just 10 days before the IAC closed. His mom and dad managed to find ways to keep a connection with his birth parents. Now he has a little sister. Joshua Rivera, now 5, had been born just 10 days before the IAC closed. His mom and dad managed to find ways to keep a connection with his birth parents. Now he has a little sister. Joshua Rivera, now 5, had been born just 10 days before the IAC closed. His mom and dad managed to find ways to keep a connection with his birth parents. Now he has a little sister. ROBERT HANASHIRO, USA TODAY

Powell and Rivera have continued their relationship with Joshua’s birth parents. They text and visit and recently took a trip to Disneyland together.

Now, Powell and Rivera are finalizing the adoption of their second child, a daughter born last year.

Powell said she worries about the birth and adoptive families who relied on the IAC as a conduit of communication. And she continues to mourn one of the Independent Adoption Center’s other broken promises: free counseling for Joshua until he turned 18 – and for his birth parents.

“It’s honestly one of the most despicable things that I’ve ever encountered personally,” Powell said. “It’s dishonorable to me. You didn’t hold up your end of the bargain. We came to you with an expectation of including you in our family and including you in the formation of our family. You were supposed to be a lifelong entity in our house.”

Chara Powell
“It’s honestly one of the most despicable things that I’ve ever encountered personally. It’s dishonorable to me. You didn’t hold up your end of the bargain.”

In the aftermath of the IAC’s closure, Courtney Coleman felt guilty. She had done the research into adoption agencies. She had picked the Independent Adoption Center.

Coleman tried to work the next day, but she didn’t make it past the reception area before sobbing uncontrollably.

Her biggest worry at the time was how her parents would react, since they’d loaned the money to adopt. Coleman’s colleagues persuaded her to call her father, and he immediately drove to the office to comfort her. When her father crossed the foyer, Coleman’s knees gave out.

Her husband, James, was hurting, too.

“Fourteen, fifteen years of being married and wanting a family,” he told USA TODAY. “It felt like your one chance. Your only chance. And then they just, you know, took our money and two months later they were gone. And it was a big blow.”

But it wasn’t the end.

The Colemans’ friends and colleagues rallied around them. One friend linked the couple to a graphic artist who helped them finish a brochure to introduce themselves to birth parents. Another friend started a GoFundMe campaign. The police chief in their small city donated the proceeds from his annual fish fry to them. And a colleague introduced them to an attorney who eventually introduced them to a birth mother.

Their daughter, Lily Katherine Coleman, was born Sept. 18, 2017.

Friends and colleagues stepped up to fundraise to help James and Courtney Coleman continue their adoption journey.
Friends and colleagues stepped up to fundraise to help James and Courtney Coleman continue their adoption journey. Courtesy of the Coleman family

Other families weren’t so fortunate. About a third of the people who talked to USA TODAY said they were never able to grow their families after the Independent Adoption Center closed.

Chartrand and Gagen became disillusioned with the entire industry after their clash with the IAC. They chose to take their lives in another direction. They’ve lived in multiple states since the agency’s closure, now living in Montana with their two dogs.

They still wish California state officials would have done more to help them and – more importantly – to protect other families affected by IAC’s actions.

“This is a tragedy,” Chartrand said. “We were clients. We were then whistleblowers. We had our contract canceled, and the state of California had all of that information. They saw the entire process, and they did not do a thing to come to our assistance.”

Department of Social Services officials denied USA TODAY’s interview requests and declined to answer detailed questions posed to them in writing about the length of the investigation and why no action was taken.

“The Department determined that an immediate administrative action was not warranted,” Montiel, the spokesman, wrote in an Oct. 27 email. “This investigation was also still ongoing when IAC filed for bankruptcy protection and surrendered its license.”

Within 24 hours of learning of the closure, Montiel said the department opened yet another complaint against the Independent Adoption Center. It, too, went nowhere.

The department was never sued.

The Contra Costa County district attorney’s office’s investigation closed without action, too. Ortiz, the deputy district attorney handling the case, has retired. Deputy District Attorney Sophea Nop reviewed the files. She told USA TODAY that the adoption agency had closed by the time the office deepened its investigation. Many of the agency’s records were gone.

“The reason why we couldn’t even proceed on it is there just wasn’t enough evidence,” she said.

Cary Virtue told USA TODAY he remains disappointed and angry at the lack of action by state and county officials.

He had already tried to adopt through the foster care system – caring for 4½ months for an infant who was later placed with biological relatives – when he signed up with the Independent Adoption Center.

It took him years to recover from those losses, and they remain some of the biggest sorrows of his life.

For years afterward, Virtue said he battled depression over his unfulfilled wish to become a parent.

“My heart couldn’t go through it again,” he said.

Mark and Stacey Green fought for their dream for nearly a decade.

Stacey Green
“Shame on you for hurting so many people. You didn’t even care. We’re just another number, another person, a dollar sign. And you’ve affected many people’s lives.”

After the Independent Adoption Center closed, the Indiana couple hired adoption consultants to help them build their family. That, too, was unsuccessful. They lost more money.

After years of redoing their home study, of having glimmers of hope turn to heartbreak, Mark Green wanted to stop. He had been ready to be done after the IAC closed, but had agreed to try again because he knew how much his wife wanted children. This couldn’t continue.

Stacey Green pushed for one last try – adopting through the foster care system. In 2021, the Department of Child Services placed a 10-year-old boy with them whose needs, they learned, were much more extensive than they had been led to believe. After about three months, they asked that he be placed elsewhere.

After the adoption process failed them, Stacey and Mark Green turned their focus elsewhere, including volunteering at an animal shelter.
After the adoption process failed them, Stacey and Mark Green turned their focus elsewhere, including volunteering at an animal shelter. Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar

“I was finally done,” Stacey Green said. “I felt like I had to exhaust all options first, because I’m that person that just has to see something through to the end, which is not always a good thing. But … that’s what I needed for closure at the time.”

The Greens began to redefine their future. Today, they are focusing on their love for each other and their shared love of animals. They volunteer at an animal shelter and recently adopted a dog named Seabiscuit.

But their pain over the Independent Adoption Center’s actions remains.

“Shame on you for hurting so many people,” Stacey Green said. “You didn’t even care. We’re just another number, another person, a dollar sign. And you’ve affected many people’s lives.”

Contributing: USA TODAY senior data reporter Aleszu Bajak

Marisa Kwiatkowski is a reporter on the USA TODAY investigations team, focusing primarily on children and social services. Contact her at mkwiatko@usatoday.com, @byMarisaK or by phone, Signal or WhatsApp at (317) 207-2855.

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‘A broken system’ leaves tens of thousands of adoptees without families, homes

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