Friday, October 3, 2014

Guest Post: Sharing our experiences with AAS



Personal note from the author of this blog (Holly):  this post was written by a third party, which I am offering for educational purposes as well as to give these families a voice.  I welcome any response from AAS.


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The following story is a compilation of stories from multiple families who are currently adopting or have adopted children through the adoption agency AAS, written in the first person.  Due to the delicate matters discussed, names of the families are being withheld to protect the privacy and safety of the families involved, and so that ongoing investigations are not jeopardized. The information contained in this post has been shared by AAS clients.  The author of this post has taken reasonable steps to verify the truth of these statements, but as always, readers should do their own investigations of the information presented in this post. 

When we decided to adopt from the Democratic Republic of Congo last year, we were thrilled to find what we thought was an ethical adoption agency who really cared about both the children and their adoptive families.  The agency then called DRCAS, now known as Africa Adoption Services, or AAS had rave reviews from former clients, and its founder, Danielle Anderson, had worked at the US Embassy in Kinshasa.  DRCAS website led us to believe that Danielle created the adoptions unit at the Embassy, but given that adoptions were being processed there since at least 2001, this appears to be an exaggerated claim (Ms. Andersons employment status can be verified by contacting the American Embassy in Kinshasa at AEKinshasaConsular@state.gov or by telephone at 081-880-5847).   AAS is also run by an adoptive parent named Amy True.

As we moved deeper into our adoption process, we began to question some of the things that we initially thought were positive about AAS.  The agency was really adamant about only referring children who were true orphans kids who had been abandoned and who had no known birth family.  They also said that they did not work with orphanages, and instead got their referrals through social services.  We thought that was really great wed be adopting children who really needed to be adopted.  But the more we dug into this, we realized that these abandonment cases werent actually situations where the kids were true orphans  that many of these kids had known birth families, many of whom were found by the Embassy when doing investigations for visas or when families performed their own independent investigations (clients could pay AAS between $350 and $500 to perform an investigation which never seemed to reveal the existence of birth families or paperwork errors).  It seems to us that abandonment cases were only preferred because there was a higher chance of getting a visa (without birth parents to interview and to obtain consent from). Many of the cases had fraudulent or erroneous paperwork, which AAS charged adoptive parents to correct so that APs had to pay for their agencys mistakes (for example, charging $100 for fixing mistakes in the kids abandonment documents). Many AAS cases do actually involve known birth families; AAS recently informed their clients via email that many biological parents are revoking their consent and taking their children back because of negative news stories about American adoptive parents.  We also learned later that AAS claim that they did not work with orphanages to be false, as AAS received referrals from several orphanages including One Destiny, an orphanage that AAS later told us had been raided by the Congolese authorities.

The fees raised another huge concern for us.  Having done a fair amount of research into international adoption, we knew that paying lawyers or facilitators large fees to find children can be viewed as child buying.  The AAS fee schedule included a $1,500 fee to search for child which seemed a lot like a child finder fee to us.  AAS assured us that this wasnt a child finder fee, but a fee that includes the abandonment documents and commune approval.  They also claimed that the attorney only gets a $5,000 fee, and all of the other foreign service fees (totaling $15,180 at the time) went to third parties.  The foreign service fees were set out as follows:

FOREIGN SERVICE FEE                                  $15,180.00                 
            I.  LOCATION OF CHILD       
            Search Child: $1500                                                   
            Gift to the orphanage: $500                                       
            Preparation of Documents: $1000                             

            II. JUDICIAL PROCEDURE
            Judgment of adoption: $300                                       
            Supplemental Birth Certificate Judgment: $250                      
            Act of adoption: $100                                                            
            Birth Certificate: $100
            Costs and expenses: $1000

            III. FOSTER AND GUARDING
            Salary for foster mom: $1600
            Living expenses of the child (Pampers, milk, food, and medical):  $2400

            IV. OBTAINING PASSPORT AND OUT PERMISSION.
            Legalization documents at City Hall: $100
            Obtaining a passport to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: $450
            Slip obtained from the Ministry of Gender and Family: $450
            Child Visa:  $230
            Obtaining permission to leave the DGM: $200

            Attorney receives $5,000 for services.

According to this document, $10,180 went to various people other than our attorney (including $4,000 for foster care fees).  But where?  We knew from the US Embassy that an exit letter from DGM did not cost any money.  Why was AAS charging us $200 for it?  Where was all of this money going?  To bribes/expediting fees/wheel greasing?  We simply did not know, and our questions were never really answered other than with things like, Thats just the culture and Things are different in Congo.  When we asked for receipts, we were told that nobody in Congo gives receipts something we knew to be untrue from other families receipts from other agencies and some of our own experiences in Congo. We did learn that the search fees went to the attorneys who were supposedly only getting $5,000 for their services.  It turns out that ALL of our money was funneled through the attorneys, including foster care fees.  We dont know how much they kept on top of their $5,000 fee.  When we have questioned the amounts paid to the lawyers, we were told that the attorneys need to feed their children and support their families.  In a recent conference call, AAS informed clients that the attorneys are not responsible for verifying that the children are adoptable or that their stories are true which leads to the question of what exactly these fees were for, if not for the attorneys to do these things.

Once the suspension started in September 2013, we learned that we would be charged $500/month per child for foster care expenses, on top of the $4,000 that we had already paid per our contract (which was for 8 months of foster care per child).  We knew from this blog that the average monthly salary in DRC was only $50/month, but we believed AAS when they said that the money was necessary to take good care of our children.  Later, we found out from postings on online adoption groups that our childrens foster mothers were only getting $160 out of $500 to care for our children, and that the money was being paid directly to our attorneys who apparently did not provide an accounting of the remaining $340/month fee.  When families questioned this arrangement, the attorneys moved their children out of the foster homes where they had been living for over a year and refused to tell the adoptive families where the children were living.  We were told that we could not be in contact with foster families, and that communicating with them was not permitted.  AAS admitted that all of this was happening, and gave families permission to move their children to private foster care.

But when families tried to move their kids to private foster care, they ran into a problem the lawyers wanted more money to release the kids and the documents.  They claimed that they werent paid for certain months of foster care and although the families could provide proof of payment through cancelled checks and paypal transactions, the families were sometimes required to pay again for foster care.  The lawyers also demanded more and more money to release documents above and beyond what had already been paid or what was already due.  It felt like blackmail from these lawyers, and like AAS was playing a role in it although AAS insisted that it couldnt control the lawyers, and that they couldnt do anything about any of these demands.

Throughout the suspension, there were strong rumors of many AAS families getting out of the country through supposedly legal means despite the fact that the official position of the Congolese government was that no one could take their kids out of the country legally.  We were told that there was a loophole and that they could exit legally through Goma.  When waiting families would talk about who had reportedly gone through Goma (including members of AAS board), they were harassed and bullied by AAS told that the rumors would only hurt the families and the process.  Harassment and bullying is a common AAS tactic, with various methods Whatsapp, Facebook messenger, email, text message and phone calls used to intimidate clients into giving them information or answering questions. One example is when clients talked about their negative experiences with AAS, either privately or in small online forums, they would receive emails about how they are jeopardizing their adoptions and/or could face legal action.  If clients discussed with each other AAS families who had brought their adopted children home during the suspension, Danielle and Amy would call, text and message them repeatedly, demanding to know where they got this information.  These communications were particularly ironic, given that many clients had trouble getting timely reply emails or phone calls from AAS but when Amy or Danielle wanted to talk to you, they would contact you through every means available, repeatedly, until you answered. We all have multiple screenshots of these communications from Amy and Danielle.  AAS seemed to be particularly concerned with social media postings and rumors, apparently encouraging clients to take screenshots of other adoptive parents private adoption pages or postings on adoption ethics groups, and emailing clients directly to confront them about these postings.  These tactics fostered an atmosphere of fear and distrust among adoptive parents, and did little to contribute to actually moving cases forward. 

Case progress remains a major concern for us.  All of us have been in process for over a year, but many of us are nowhere near bringing our kids home even without the suspension. Many of us have found significant mistakes and errors in our court documents, requiring us to essentially start the process over again.  Others have seen absolutely no progress in their cases in months, and cannot get straight answers from AAS about what exactly is happening.  When clients complain about these items or even just ask for help, we are told that we are free to leave AAS and find another agency if we dont think that they are ethical or that they are doing a good job. They claim that complaints (including Hague complaints) and asking questions just distract them from doing work on cases. We were also told by a board member that Amy and Danielle were not being paid, and that they work harder than anyone else for us as though they were innocent victims in all that has happened, rather than the creators of this mess.

Over the course of the suspension, many of us have learned through independent investigations that our kids stories were false, and that they do have living birth families.  AAS has now announced that families who contact agency attorneys, orphanages or facilitators, or who engage third party providers (like independent investigators) without prior written permission will be in breach of contract and will have their contract cancelled with no refunds given.   It seems like AAS goal is to end as many contracts as possible, given that they have announced that when their contractual obligations are finished in DRC, they will close the program.  They have created a gigantic mess in DRC, and appear to be very eager to get out of it even if it comes at the expense of their clients and their adopted children.  AAS is apparently starting new adoption programs in other countries in Africa, including Niger and Uganda.

We are disappointed that we have been so badly betrayed by AAS, and we hope that by writing this, others will be made aware of their actions in DRC.  We have seen fraud, incompetence, bullying, harassment, corruption, and negligence in our dealings with this agency.  We are all too far into our adoption processes to simply walk away we are the legal parents of our children, these children rely on us for support, and we do not have enough money to pay another agency.  Our hope is that by raising these issues publicly, we can shed some light on the issues that may arise in the course of an adoption and perhaps save some families considering international adoption some heartache.