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Barry Penner on Highway 1 near Popkum, B.C., June 29, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Barry Penner on Highway 1 near Popkum, B.C., June 29, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Hope Adoption Services

Adoption agency's closing a blow to prospective parents Add to ...

When Barry Penner heard Abbotsford-based Hope Adoption Services was closing its doors, he heard it with the sinking feeling of someone who has their hopes pinned on adopting a child.

Since early 2009, Mr. Penner, the former four-term Liberal MLA and attorney-general, and his wife have been trying to adopt a child from Thailand, first through Hope Adoption and then, after the agency’s connections in Thailand appeared to founder in late 2009, through the provincial Ministry of Children and Family Development, with support from the agency.

Provincial governments regulate adoption but private agencies often co-ordinate approvals and paperwork, as well as deal with officials and agencies abroad.

“Although our file was officially sent on by MCFD, the ministry keeps looking to the agency for advice,” Mr. Penner said late Monday, his last day of work as a MLA. “Now that they are gone, we don’t have them as an advocate any more.”

Hope Adoption announced its closing early this month, saying in a Jan. 5 letter to clients that it was “unable to meet our financial obligations” and was working with the province to ensure files would be transferred in an orderly fashion.

That provides limited reassurance to people such as Claire Apostolopoulos, an Abbotsford teacher who, with her husband, has been trying to adopt a child from Ethiopia since 2008.

“I just felt my heart sink,” Ms. Apostolopoulos said.

In 2009, Ms. Apostolopoulos was among dozens of clients affected when Ontario-based Imagine Adoption declared bankruptcy. She and her husband had been pursuing an adoption from Ethiopia through the Ontario firm, with B.C.-based Hope providing a home study and other services as part of the process. After Imagine filed for bankruptcy, the founder and manager of the company were charged with fraud for using money paid for adoption services for personal expenses. Another Ontario agency has since taken on Imagine’s files.

Ms. Apostolopoulos is encouraged that Hope Adoption has promised an orderly transition, but worries she may run into delays and additional fees. International adoptions can cost $30,000 or more, depending on the country involved.

Developments abroad, including poor countries clamping down on what can be problematic adoptions, can affect the cost and time for would-be adoptive parents. Such developments can also affect the finances of adoption agencies, which typically run as non-profits and rely on client fees to break even.

In a Jan. 9 letter to clients, Manitoba-based CAFAC, which got its start co-ordinating adoptions from Ethiopia, said is facing “significant financial challenges” and would be introducing a $1,000 annual file maintenance fee to help offset a drop in referrals – children to match with prospective parents.

Client fees are in a designated trust account, the agency said.

B.C. Child Minister Mary McNeil was not available to comment on Hope Adoption. In an e-mailed statement, her office said the provincial director of adoption is working with the agency to ensure that all active files are transferred to other agencies in an orderly fashion.

“We want to stress that Hope is not in this situation due to bad management. B.C.’s licensed adoption agencies can be negatively affected by occurrences in foreign countries and decisions by other jurisdictional authorities,” the statement said.

Mr. Penner, meanwhile, hopes his file will make its way through the system. Since starting the process, he and his wife have had a child of their own, a daughter who is now 10 months old. He first visited Thailand as a student and has returned several times since, including shortly after 2004’s devastating tsunami, when he visited an orphanage.

“That experience underscored to me the importance of finding a good home for these children,” Mr. Penner said. He’d announced plans to step down in August and will join a law firm in Vancouver.

“What I expected was that the children would cry when a stranger picked them up. It was the opposite – they cried when you tried to put them down. I wasn’t ready for that.”

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