Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals, Disney-themed onesies and plastic toys of every shape wait in the vacant nursery of Matt and Reylynn Imai’s Sacramento home. A paper grocery bag in the corner holds a tower of adoption advice books. On the bed, a pile of custom-printed brochures featuring the couple’s smiling faces advertises their qualifications as parents.
For months, the Imais eagerly prepared to bring a new child into their home, but their dreams of parenthood faded last week when the Bay Area adoption agency they’d been working with, the Independent Adoption Center, abruptly closed its doors, leaving them and hundreds of other California families heartbroken and confused.
“A two-year journey just got shut down by one email,” Matt Imai said. “We were staying really positive. The tone has definitely changed.”
The Concord-based nonprofit agency publicly declared bankruptcy Tuesday and immediately stopped all services, shocking the 400 Northern California clients and 1,400 others nationwide in the process of adopting with the agency. Many of the couples now find themselves short the more than $15,000 they’d paid to the center to help guide them through the long and arduous adoption process.
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Adoption agencies across the country have struggled to stay afloat during the last decade as the list of families waiting to adopt far surpasses the number of available infants. Experts estimate that more than 1 million U.S. households are waiting to adopt for every infant put up for adoption. About 18,000 children under 2 years old are placed into adoptive families each year.
That shortage comes from a combination of forces, such as the recent closure of many popular international adoption channels, more older women wanting to start families and the ease with which pregnant mothers can now find adoptive parents on the Internet.
“The pressure on traditional agencies is really immense, and finding a way to keep it together has been harder and harder,” said Adam Pertman, director of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, a Boston-based nonprofit group that provides information for adopting families. “Agencies have been closing and consolidating. With fewer placements, you need fewer agencies.”
Even in that environment, the sudden closure of the Independent Adoption Center, a 34-year-old agency with a solid business reputation working in eight states, was startling, Pertman said.
“One hopes that many, if not most, of (the agencies) are trying to dot the I’s and cross the T’s so they don’t leave anybody in a lurch before they close their doors,” he said. “It’s rare for a bankruptcy to just drop out of the sky. Generally you know what’s going on and you prepare for that.”
In its bankruptcy announcement Tuesday, the agency pointed to changes in the adoption field, but made no apologies for the last-minute closure. The agency didn’t make any representatives available for comment to The Bee on Friday, but did release a statement promising to cooperate with a bankruptcy trustee to help clients file claims for money owed.
“While we have striven to find financial solutions, we have come to the end of a rope and are declaring bankruptcy,” said board President Greg Kuhl in the announcement. “The IAC has worked tirelessly to adapt to this changing environment, but the many efforts we implemented were ultimately unsuccessful.”
Couples around the country are wondering how the agency could have gone under when it was still recruiting new clients – and charging them upwards of $10,000 just to get the process started. A Facebook group created for families to air their grievances about the agency had drawn upward of 600 members soon after the closure.
Most adoption agencies charge clients $25,000 to $50,000 to complete the adoption process, while private adoption attorneys can charge even more, Pertman said. The money goes toward staff salaries and other overhead as well as to all the lawyers, doctors and social workers who get involved. After a match is made, some adoptive families pay more to provide health and counseling expenses for the birth mother.
Matt Imai, 41, and Reylynn, 39, met online in 2011 and married two years later, with both envisioning raising a child together. After learning they wouldn’t be able to reproduce biologically, the couple researched adoption agencies and settled on the Independent Adoption Center. The fee for the orientation, counseling and other early-stage services came out to $13,000.
Later, the Imais opened up their home for a child-safety inspection, which meant another charge. Most recently, the couple paid the Independent Adoption Center several hundred dollars to print brochures and create an online profile touting their attractiveness as adoptive parents to potential birth mothers across the U.S.
In total, the Imais paid the Concord agency about $16,000 to get on a long list of California parents hoping for a match. About a year and a half into the search, however, the email from the center’s director arrived.
“This whole thing with fertility and not being able to have children, the hardest part is you feel like you have no choice,” Reylynn said. “Then you go into adoption and you accept that a lot of it won’t be my choice, I’m going to be connected with a birth family and I don’t get to choose. But now we don’t get to choose anything, because the choice was ripped from us and there’s not adoption at all.”
She said the idea of joining a wait list with a new agency seems daunting, but so does the idea of clearing out the nursery.
Many prospective parents, like the Imais, will return to square one, said Tara Noone, director of adoptive parent services at Adoption Connection, a San Francisco agency serving some of the families hit by the closure. Some of Independent Adoption Center’s clients were further along in the process, having been matched with a pregnant mother but still awaiting their child. Others are at home with babies but haven’t completed necessary post-placement social worker visits.
“The adoption process, under the best of circumstances, requires a lot of tenacity,” Noone said. “These families really, really want children and they want to expand their families. For a lot of families, this is going to be a moment of assessment. I’m sure a lot of families are asking themselves, ‘Do we even want to continue?’ ”
The number of international children adopted into the U.S. fell from 22,726 in 2005 to 5,647 in 2015, a result of some countries rethinking their stances on international adoptions, said Pertman, of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency.
Still, many families hesitate to work with the foster care system and other public agencies to adopt children, said Chuck Johnson, director of the National Council for Adoption, a Virginia-based advocacy group.
“Research shows that American families are reluctant to work with the public agencies because they find them so dysfunctional and bureaucratic,” Johnson said. “And there’s such competition for infants among families”
The Independent Adoption Center appeared to be just getting by in 2013, when it ran a $151,272 deficit on a nearly $6 million budget. Over the past four years, the state Department of Social Services has investigated four complaints lodged against the center, while the Better Business Bureau received three formal complaints in the last two years that the agency didn’t adequately deliver services to families.
In 2014, a survey conducted by clients and presented to the center showed 90 percent of respondents felt the organization wasn’t meeting their expectations.
“I’ve been getting a lot of calls from prospective adoptive parents in the last year or so with complaints about IAC and how long it was taking for them to get matched,” said Megan Cohen, an adoption attorney based in Lafayette. “These people who are waiting spend tens of thousands while they’re waiting, and they still don’t have a baby. That, to me, is the real problem.”
Caitlin Mueller, an Elk Grove resident who worked at the center from 2008 to 2012, said case workers at the organization did everything they could to help adoptive parents through the process, even when finding infants became more difficult.
Mueller and her husband waited a little more than a year before receiving their twin daughters in July, but they know that some hopeful parents wait even longer.
“There are shady agencies out there that put a time limit on there – they say they’ll work for you for the next two years and hopefully you get a baby,” she said. “IAC had clients who waited five, six, seven years, but as long as they were willing to wait, IAC was willing to work with them.”
Jim and Candy Jensen of Tracy said they had a great experience working with the center when they adopted their son Alex in 2010. The Jensens waited only six months and said they couldn’t have been happier with the service.
But when they tried for a second child in 2012, they said, the center’s staff members checked in less often and seemed less concerned about the time they waited.
Looking back on their experiences, the couple said they wished they’d taken heed sooner of the warning signs.
“Today we’re still in shock,” Jim Jensen said. “You just feel so let down and so disenfranchised, not understanding how an organization that is meant to help people was really just a business.”
Candy Jensen said she’s trying to stay positive, and is looking into adopting an older child from foster care.
“We have a lot of love to give,” she said. “As horrible and devastating as this is, maybe it just means for us this is our calling and this is the path we need to pursue. … I still have faith that our child is somewhere out there for us.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated Feb. 6 to reflect the National Center on Adoption and Permanency’s nonprofit status and note the varying ages of children adopted into the U.S.