State accuses former adoption agency chief of fraud

TAMPA — The former head of a statewide adoption agency has been arrested, accused of defrauding dozens of adoptive parents out of almost $200,000 in bogus medical and living expenses for birth mothers.

Debra W. West, 46, was charged with grand theft Thursday and booked into the Pasco County Jail without bail, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Friday.

The FDLE says West, the director of Adoptions by Choice, or ABC, from 1992 to 2005, overcharged parents for unnecessary living and medical expenses, including those for several birth mothers who were covered by Medicaid.

Investigators believe the fraud began in 2000 and totaled $188,008, of which $58,235 was for medical expenses covered by Medicaid.

The victims came from all across Central Florida — in Hills­borough, Pinellas, Pasco, Citrus, Sarasota, Marion, Brevard and Alachua counties, the FDLE said.

ABC started in 1990 and quickly became the Tampa Bay area's busiest adoption agency, with more than 100 adoptions a year. It touted itself as a not-for-profit Christian agency.

Workers said West frequently asked them to turn to prayer when things went wrong. In the mid 1990s, one adoption went badly wrong.

A young Pinellas woman handed over her infant to ABC, which placed him with an Alabama couple without notifying the biological father, who lived in Palm Harbor.

The father, who wanted to raise the baby, filed a paternity action in Pinellas County to find out what had happened to the boy. West and ABC's lawyer knew about the Pinellas suit, but pushed the adoption through in Tampa anyway 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 through Alabama courts. Baby Sam was 5 before the two sides settled on an arrangement 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.

Also, Thursday's arrest is not the first time ABC's finances have come to the attention of law enforcement.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigated ABC in the mid 1990s after former ABC workers complained that adoptive parents were often charged for bogus birth mother expenses. In one case, a Pinellas judge threw out $30,000 in supposed medical expenses when ABC could not provide documentation.

One former worker told authorities that she discovered several copies of "checks" to mothers in her files that couldn't match up with bills because they were written out of sequence.

The investigation was dropped because the adoptive parents, who were the alleged victims, refused to cooperate.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441. Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at nohlgren@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8442.

State accuses former adoption agency chief of fraud 08/29/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 6, 2008 4:14pm]

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