Couples sue lawyer over adoption try

August 05, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

Two couples who hired a prominent Severna Park lawyer to arrange adoptions of Ukrainian children have filed a $3.5 million suit against her in Anne Arundel Circuit Court, alleging that she exaggerated her expertise and the ease of adopting foreign children.

Thomas and Lynn Meushaw of St. Michaels and Jack and Heidi Adams of Mineral, Va., allege they paid Karen Kiefer a combined $50,000 and ended up with no prospects of adoption, despite several trips to Ukraine this year.

Ms. Kiefer, whose overseas trips to arrange adoptions have been the subject of stories in The Sun and other newspapers, declined to comment yesterday. The plaintiffs were unavailable.

Experts in foreign adoptions say couples trying to adopt children overseas should always be aware that they face the risk of being disappointed, particularly in countries where adoption laws are not well-established.

Natalie H. Rees, a Towson lawyer specializing in family law and adoptions, said it is generally easier to work out adoptions in Korea and most South American countries, where the rules are well-established, than in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, where the governments are new and the rules more fluid.

"The people going into these newer areas are like pioneers who are opening up brand new territory, and like pioneers in any field, they are are going to take some lumps," she said.

Gary Scheaffer, a spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington, D.C., said 7,415 foreign children were adopted by U.S. citizens in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, 1993. A total of 273 were from Ukraine, he said.

"There's problems everywhere, but the countries that are fairly new at this tend to have the most problems, because they don't really have the mechanics in place," he said, adding that Ukraine is one of those countries.

Robert Conrad, assistant bar counsel for the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission, said the commission has received several complaints about lawyers handling foreign adoptions in the past, but he could not provide a number.

"It's because they [adoption cases] are so expensive, and a lot of times they don't work out for the couple," he said.

He said confidentiality rules barred him from discussing complaints against particular lawyers.

The suit alleges that both couples signed contracts in 1993 agreeing to pay Ms. Kiefer up to $15,000 after she told them she had handled "dozens and dozens" of adoptions, always succeeded and knew numerous children were available in Ukraine.

The lawyer's presentation included a videotape she had taken "of healthy and attractive children who were purportedly available for adoption at orphanages in the Ukraine," the suit alleges.

The papers, filed Wednesday, include a copy of the retainer signed by both couples, specifying that Ms. Kiefer was "making no guarantees, express or implied."

But Steven R. Migdal, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said Ms. Kiefer did not inform them of any potential that they might not get a child.

The suit seeks damages on claims of fraud, breach of contract and negligence. It alleges that despite Ms. Kiefer's claims of familiarity with Ukrainian laws, she appeared "unfamiliar with the local law and customs" when the couples traveled with her.

Only after they arrived did they learned the Ukrainian government had placed a moratorium on adoptions, the suit alleges.

Children could be adopted with a waiver from government officials, but they had to be abandoned for six months by their biological parents, "which severely limited the number" available, the suit alleges.

The couples eventually found children to adopt, but the suit alleges that Ms. Kiefer was "unable to obtain permission from local authorities" and that both couples returned home without children after a monthlong search.

The suit also alleges that Ms. Kiefer continued to tell the couples she could get the necessary approvals. The Meushaws went back to Ukraine two more times and paid her $30,000. Heidi Adams returned to Ukraine once more, and the couple spent $20,000.

After six months of "false hopes, failures, and severe disappointments," as well as witnessing Ms. Kiefer's "inept, improper and unethical handling of their Ukrainian adoption efforts," the couples fired her, the suit says.

Mr. Migdal said that one of the couples has a child, but neither couple have been successful in their adoption efforts so far.

"Everything got held up because of this," he said.

If the couples are determined to adopt children from Ukraine, they are probably out of luck, said Mr. Scheaffer. The Ukrainian Parliament voted July 26 to suspend the adoption of all Ukrainian children by foreigners. The ban is expected to remain in effect until the nation passes a comprehensive family law in October, he said.

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