State moves to shut down Hollywood adoption agency

By Megan O’Matz, Sun Sentinel,  June 3, 2011

For more than 30 years, a Hollywood-based adoption agency has found new families for newborns and children whose birth parents were unprepared or unwilling to raise them. Thanks to its services, Adoption by Shepherd Care proudly declares, more than 5,000 boys and girls have found loving homes.

But, in a rare action, the state Department of Children & Families is now trying to shut down the agency, accusing it of a pattern of abuses, including on at least one occasion, pressuring a birth mother into giving up her infant twin sons, and not doing enough to safeguard the interests of two men whose offspring may have been put up for adoption.

“DCF isn’t going to tolerate coercive behavior by these agencies, ever,” said Mark Riordan, department spokesman.

The not-for-profit company, which also has an office in Casselberry near Orlando, is fighting to stay open. It will argue its case later this month before a judge with the state Division of Administrative Hearings.

“This is a great agency,” Shepherd Care’s executive director Joseph Sica, who has run the adoption service with his wife for 10 years, told the Sun Sentinel. “We feel that there is someone that, for whatever reason, wants to bring the agency down, and they’ll stoop to any level to do it.”

Asked who, Sica said: “We don’t know. We don’t know.”

Adoption in the United States can be a very lucrative business, with many prospective parents willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to gain legal custody of a child they can call their own. Shepherd Care, however, has sought to provide lower-cost adoptions, according to state documents. The average price of a domestic adoption with Shepherd Care ranges from $17,000 to $33,000, Sica said. DCF has seen other agencies charge $40,000, and some even exceed that, Riordan said.

Shepherd Care places healthy newborns, but also locates parents for kids who are far less in demand: such as drug-addicted babies and older, sick or developmentally delayed children.

“They filled a niche in the adoption community, for those that can’t afford the $60,000 blue-eyed, blond-haired babies,” said Jeffrey S. Wood, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and former member of Shepherd Care’s board of directors.

Operating out of a neatly landscaped house next to a Toyota dealership off Hollywood’s busy State Road 7 corridor, Adoption by Shepherd Care promises on its website to help expectant mothers place their babies in loving homes, and to pay medical and other costs related to the pregnancy.

Over the years, it has located children for adoption in countries as far afield as China, Guatemala, Russia and Moldova, but now limits its overseas efforts to Colombia.

When it comes to finding parents in the United States for unwanted infants and youngsters, “they really work with families that are willing to open their homes to all kinds of kids,” Wood said.

The U.S. State Department has received no complaints about Shepherd Care’s international efforts in the past three years.

Records obtained by the Sun Sentinel, however, show repeated and growing concerns about Shepherd Care on the part of state regulators, which have culminated in the state’s current attempt to force it to cease operations.

“Allegations involving this agency have continued to escalate over the past three years,” DCF wrote in its complaint, filed March 19 with the state Division of Administrative Hearings. One recurring worry for state officials: Shepherd Care’s alleged missteps in the delicate task of procuring children for adoption from young, sometimes unsophisticated mothers.

The agency is accused by Florida regulators of failing to protect at least one non-English speaking birth mother’s civil rights by not providing her with a translator, a proper counselor and an attorney of her own, and by having her sign adoption-related paperwork at an “incomprehensible” rapid pace.

It is also accused by state regulators of falling short in efforts to locate or fully advise two potential birth fathers of their rights to claim paternity and contest the adoption.

On the advice of his attorney, Sica declined in a brief interview to discuss the specifics of DCF’s charges. In a written response to the state Division of Administrative Hearings, however, Shepherd’s attorney denied the state’s allegations in the case.

In a petition filed April 19 to dismiss the state’s action, the adoption agency’s attorney, Alexander Brown, said, “Shepherd has done nothing wrong.”

A two-day administrative hearing on the merits of the state’s case is scheduled in Fort Lauderdale beginning on June 15. A definite decision on Shepherd Care’s status could be months away. Either side could appeal the ruling of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings to the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeal.

DCF last shuttered an adoption agency in Broward County in 2006. Nearly a decade ago, the state famously forced the closure of a Jacksonville agency, Tedi Bear Adoptions, that had offered the same Vietnamese children to more than one family.

Controversy has touched Adoption by Shepherd Care in the past, too.

Under prior management, it had the unfortunate distinction of placing 20 foster children for adoption in the home of a Gainesville woman, Nellie Johnson, who beat and terrorized them. Johnson was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

In recent years, records show, Shepherd Care has faced other difficult situations, including the case of a 9-year-old boy with behavioral problems whose adoptive family gave him back; a lawsuit involving a birth mother who physically attacked the adoptive parents’ attorney during a deposition; and a bitter dispute over billings to a Seminole County couple who ended up cutting the agency out of the adoption process and dealing directly with the birth mother and her lawyer.

The couple had complained to DCF in 2008 about Shepherd Care’s charges, saying they were billed for rent and utilities for days the birth mother was not living in housing provided by the adoption agency. They disputed other charges, including $500 to apply to Medicaid for the baby, $285 for a new mattress, $300 for an unreimbursed security deposit, and $120 for the birth father to paint the adoption agency’s office.

In court records, Shepherd Care defended the charges, saying the birth parents and an older child had ruined the mattress and left the apartment in poor condition, and the birth father never painted the room but used the money to buy groceries.

DCF reviewed the matter and concluded that the charges were “reasonable” but that the agency’s bookkeeping was “archaic” and employed handwritten ledgers that “were not reader friendly.”

Last year, as a “corrective action,” DCF ordered Shepherd Care to start submitting its bills for state review before presenting them to the courts for approval as part of the legal process of adoption.

“We’ve sent every single one and there have been no comments back,” Joseph Sica told the Sun Sentinel.

Mikal W. Grass, a Coral Gables adoption attorney, said closing Shepherd Care could be hard to accomplish unless the state can prove theft, fraud or the outright threatening and intimidation of birth mothers. In his own dealings with Shepherd Care, to which he has turned to find foster families able to temporarily host children up for adoption, Grass said the agency has been totally above board.

“Every time they give me a bill for foster care it’s fine,” Grass said. “No funky charges. Nothing untoward. Nothing.”

momatz@tribune.com,            954-356-4518     .