The abrupt closure of a private adoption agency left six Tampa Bay families heartbroken and many questions lingering about why existing regulations left them so vulnerable. Independent Adoption Center filed for bankruptcy last month, an unforeseen but not especially uncommon occurrence in the adoption industry. Florida legislators should respond to this sad episode with stronger financial protections for people who have made great sacrifices in hopes of having a family.
The Times' Christopher O'Donnell reported that IAC, which operated an office in Tampa, emailed families Jan. 31 that it was out of business — and broke. Some clients said on Facebook that IAC was still accepting their payments just two weeks before, yet now the money is gone. With $650,000 in debts but just $57,000 in assets reported in the bankruptcy filing, most of the 1,800 families left in the lurch will never be made whole. And IAC was not a short-lived shop. It had been in business 34 years and finalized more than 4,000 adoptions.
Still, it joined at least three other firms around the country that have closed in the last few years, leaving similar stories of despair. Couples often turn to adoption after expensive fertility treatments have failed. They take out second mortgages, forgo vacations and drain savings accounts. Local couples reported payments of $12,000, $14,000 and $16,000 to IAC they believed would lead to a baby. Now, there's no money and no baby.
Even given the uncertainty of an adoption, there has to be a way to better safeguard hopeful couples' money. Some costs are known, such as the birth mother's health care expenses, evaluations by social workers and court fees. Agencies should automatically put that money in escrow, not use it to cover overhead and salaries. That's how law firms and trustees are required to operate, and lawmakers could use that model to craft sensible protections without overregulating what is a personal and often fluid process. Just as important, couples should take precautions themselves. Adoption attorneys recommend signing up only with agencies that have low up-front fees, and using more than one agency to increase the chance of a successful match. Check with the state Department of Children and Families for complaints against the agency, and hire a lawyer to protect your interests throughout the process.
For generations, adoption has been a salvation for children and a godsend for eager would-be parents. But it's also a process with more demand than supply. For that reason, people who entrust their money and hopes with private adoption agencies should have some assurance that their money is safe, and that they can recover a portion of it even when things go wrong. The failure of IAC is evidence that would-be parents need more safeguards.