TAMPA — The former director of a Tampa Bay area adoption agency pleaded guilty Monday to bilking adoptive parents out of more than $178,000.
Debra W. West, 58, of New Port Richey must repay the money she stole to avoid prison.
Her plea to a charge of grand theft calls for $100,000 in restitution to be paid by Jan. 25 and the remaining balance to be paid by March 22. If West completes the payments, Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente will sentence her to 15 years of probation.
If West fails to pay, she faces between 21 months and 30 years in prison. She has no criminal record, prosecutors said.
West, former executive director for Adoptions by Choice, embezzled money from clients that was supposed to be used to cover expenses for birth mothers, said Dan Weisman, a prosecutor with the Florida Attorney General's Office.
According to Weisman, West and her agency kept some of the money for themselves, then created fake documents and lied to adoptive parents about how their money was spent. The scheme lasted from about August 2002 through May 2005, Weisman said in court.
The names of the 20 couples listed as victims, as well as the adopted children and birth mothers, have been sealed by court order. Some of them may wish to speak during one of the court hearings next year, Weisman told the judge.
Prosecutors said many of the fraudulent claims by West were for hospital-related expenses for the birth mother's pregnancy when in fact the birth mothers were covered by Medicaid or private insurance.
The Florida Department of Children and Families revoked West's license in 2005, but she continued working in adoptions for another year through another child care organization, which eventually revoked her authority, the state said.
Authorities said victims of West's ABC agency came from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Citrus, Sarasota, Marion, Brevard and Alachua counties.
ABC started in 1990 and soon became one of the area's busiest adoption agencies, with more than 100 adoptions a year. It touted itself as a nonprofit Christian agency.
One adoption went wrong in the mid 1990s when a Pinellas woman handed over her infant to ABC, which placed the boy with an Alabama couple. The biological father, who lived in Palm Harbor, wasn't notified.
The father filed a paternity action in Pinellas County to find out what happened to the boy. West and her agency knew about the suit, but pushed the adoption through in Tampa without telling Hillsborough authorities.
By the time Florida courts sorted it out and gave the father custody, "Baby Sam" was almost 2. The adoptive parents then fought for custody through Alabama courts. Baby Sam was 5 before the two sides settled on an arrangement in 2001 that gave the biological father visitation rights.
State authorities documented 11 cases in which adoptions went awry and ABC took back babies after placing them.
West's husband, Jim West, former news director at WTVT-Ch. 13, spoke on his wife's behalf after Monday's court hearing.
"We believe that today's agreement represents the best interest of Debbie and the victims in the case," Jim West said.
He said Debra West's career in adoptions, which spanned more than 30 years, brought children to many homes and her services left many people happy and satisfied.
"I think her record will speak for itself," he said.
Kevin Graham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.