RIVERVIEW — From the empty crib in the Winnie-the-Pooh bedroom, to the sound of children playing outside, the reminders are everywhere.
Bruce and Heather Davis tried for four years to have a baby, a yearning so deep they spent about $40,000 on unsuccessful in vitro fertilization.
When adoption seemed to be their last chance, the couple remortgaged their Riverview home and in August paid $12,000 to register with Independent Adoption Center at its Tampa office on Rocky Point Drive.
So they were stunned to get an email Jan. 31 that the agency had gone broke, taking with it their money and their hope.
"I couldn't believe this was happening," Heather Davis said. "We had trusted this company; we put our time, our money and our heart into this."
IAC's abrupt bankruptcy filing left about 1,800 families, including six from the Tampa Bay area, heartbroken and out thousands of dollars.
Their sad plight is hardly new.
One adoption agency after another has gone out of business in the past decade, leaving behind couples who emptied savings accounts, went for years without vacations and took on debt in the hope of one day having a baby.
San Antonio-based Adoption Services Associates closed in 2012 listing more than 900 couples as creditors. Adoption Advocates International closed in 2014. Commonwealth Adoptions International, which had an office in Miami, closed in 2008 with no plans to reimburse clients.
The closures have highlighted the risks for couples and single people whose desire for children leaves them willing to pay five-figure sums to register with agencies. Renewed calls have arisen within adoption circles that agencies should be required to operate like law firms and put upfront payments into escrow accounts, drawing funds only for legitimate expenses.
There are no restrictions on how agencies spend that money, meaning it may end up going toward staff salaries and other day-to-day expenses, said Jeanne Tate, an adoption attorney who runs Tampa agency Heart of Adoption.
IAC owes $650,000 to creditors, mainly couples, but left behind only $57,000 in assets, according to its Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing.
"These people will probably get pennies on the dollar if anything," Tate said.
The bankruptcy was devastating for Tampa couple Yorka and Wilmar Barrameda, who paid the agency $16,000 in 2015.
The two scrimped and saved for several years, even borrowing from family members.
"I was crying for a week, crying and crying," said Yorka Barrameda. "We didn't go shopping; we didn't go on vacations. We don't do anything because we want a baby."
• • •
The websites of adoption agencies are full of success stories picturing smiling parents and their new children, brought together within a year.
The reality is that adoption can be a lengthy and expensive long shot.
Only about 14,000 infants are adopted within the United States each year, way short of the number of couples and single people looking to become parents, said Adam Pertman, president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency.
That shortfall used to be partially filled through international adoptions, with some 23,000 children being united with new parents in the United States in 2004. But a diplomatic spat with Russia and an adoption fraud scandal in Guatemala, two of the most popular sources for child adoption, have seen that number plummet to just 6,000 last year.
The shrinking pool of prospective children has been financially challenging for agencies that are also being bypassed by pregnant women who use websites and social media to find adoptive parents.
"Agencies are having a tough time," Pertman said.
A statement from IAC cited demographic changes and a decline in birth rates as among the factors leading to its financial collapse. Over its 34-year history, the firm has finalized more than 4,000 adoptions and had offices in eight states.
Its sudden demise has raised questions about how well IAC was managed, Pertman said. The agency was still taking payments from couples two weeks before it closed, according to posts on a Facebook group created by stiffed clients.
"We're talking about dealing with babies and vulnerable people," Pertman said. "The human stakes, the emotional stakes here are very high. You would hope people acted in a responsible manner."
But the agency's business practices were being investigated by California's Department of Social Services well before it filed for bankruptcy, according to the Chronicle of Social Change. The investigation was triggered by claims that the firm had a three-year backlog of clients yet only enough operating expenses to cover three months.
Still, preventing other agencies from operating similarly could be a herculean task. States regulate the firms through a patchwork of licensing requirements and laws. That includes different rules about what expenses adoptive parents can pay to a pregnant woman.
Pertman, though, agrees that couples and birth mothers need more protection.
"It certainly needs to be first and foremost about the people they serve otherwise they're not acting as a nonprofit," he said.
• • •
As executive director of the Adoption Consultancy, Nicole Witt often advises couples taking their first steps toward adoption.
Many arrive at the door of her Brandon office because fertility treatments have failed.
"They're burnt out before they start the adoption process, and it can be overwhelming," Witt said.
She advises clients to steer clear of agencies that have high upfront fees and recommends they sign up with more than one agency. That increases their chances of success.
"You're not required to spend five figures to start an adoption process," she said.
But Witt is wary of more regulations. Lawmakers often have a hazy understanding of the adoption process, and pregnant women who put their babies up for adoption are also at risk if agencies go bust, she said.
"On the surface it sounds like there should be protections, but there are a lot of parties involved and it gets very complicated," she said. "Where does that leave the potential birth mom who needs that money to eat and obtain health care?"
Safeguarding upfront fees should be easy, said Ginny Frank, in-house legal counsel for Adoption Choices Inc., a Colorado-based adoption agency.
Agencies know that a portion of the money is earmarked for expenses of the birth mother, attorney fees and court costs. Her firm sets that money aside in escrow until those costs arise, Frank said.
"Most agencies don't have in-house legal counsel and don't have a person set up everything correctly," Frank said. "The states think this is the way it's been done and they don't want to change it."
• • •
Three days before Christmas, Rebecca and Corey LeClair finally learned they were to become parents after they were chosen by a pregnant Florida woman who found them through IAC.
They had been trying to have a baby for five years and had seen fertility doctors without success. They made the exciting announcement to their families on Christmas Day.
The baby, a boy, was due in May. They plan to name him Wyatt.
Then in January they learned IAC was closing.
"I was disgusted and shocked," Rebecca LeClair said. "There was no warning; I was blindsided."
At first, they feared they would lose the chance to adopt Wyatt. But the birth mother was willing to continue and the LeClairs have retained an attorney to finalize the adoption.
Even so, they will now pay extra to hire a social worker to update their home study, and also for post placement visits and counseling for the expectant mother.
Those should have been covered in the $14,000 they already paid. Rebecca LeClair estimates it will cost her and her husband another $8,000.
"If we weren't matched, we would be done," she said. "We wouldn't go through what we went through again."
Back in Riverview, Bruce and Heather Davis plan to find another adoption agency and keep trying.
They have plenty of room in the four-bedroom home they share with Rocky and Rambo, their Yorkshire terriers.
Along with a crib, they already have a diaper changing station donated to them by a friend. Decals of Winnie-the-Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore hang on the wall painted teal so it is suitable for a boy or a girl.
"I want to watch my kid ride his bike; I want to go to birthday parties and actually have a kid to go to it," Heather Davis said. "To know that you can provide love for somebody, biological or adopted, is just an amazing feeling."
Senior news researcher John Martin and news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.