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JACKSONVILLE, FL -- Their dream was to have a family of their own, but John and Christine Hale were physically unable to have a child. So, they turned to adoption.
While two adoptions went through, the third one involving a little girl by the name of Emylee has been delayed for more than two years. They say the process has been a nightmare. "At Christmas time and on her birthday, we have gifts. She'll call up and say it's our daughter's birthday. It's hard. I keep a picture of her on my toolbox," says John Hale.
Pictures are all the Hale's have of their little girl. They say they've spent the last two and a half years and tens of thousands of dollars trying to bring Emylee home. Emylee is stuck in Guatemala. Her adoption is at a halt with an agency called Adoption Blessings Worldwide, which is based in Macon, Georgia.
But First Coast News has learned that ABW is now at the center of an investigation in Florida. Last week, the Department of Children and Families sent a cease and desist letter to ABW's executive director, Tedi Hedstrom, who lives in Ponte Vedra. DCF says it is concerned Hedstrom and her Georgia agency are doing work in Florida without a license.
The agency moved from Florida to Georgia and changed its name from Tedi Bear Adoptions to Adoption Blessings Worldwide a couple years ago. The changes came after Florida's DCF sanctioned Tedi Bear Adoptions in 2003. The agency agreed to give up its license for four years. That time is now up. DCF says the agency has not applied for a new license in Florida.
A Florida couple, who agreed to talk to us if we changed their names and concealed their identities, says Florida is where they did some of their adoption business with ABW. We will call them Jennifer and Mike. "That's where we signed the paperwork at her home(Ponte Vedra). She had an office there," says Jennifer.
Jennifer and Mike say they've paid 40 thousand dollars to ABW to get two healthy babies, a boy and a girl, from Russia. "As soon as we signed the paperwork, she said congratulations we're pregnant and welcome to the family," says Jennifer.
The couple says they were told the babies would arrive in a matter of months. They got the babies room ready, but when it was time to go to Russia to finalize the deal, they say they didn't get what they paid for. "The boy was very ill. He had a blood disease. They were not sure if he was going to live for very long," says Mike.
Jennifer says after they declined the boy, "They offered us a 2 year old boy with AIDS and unfortunately we wouldn't be able to adopt him either because the U.S. doesn't permit children with AIDS to come back."
The couple also declined the little girl because they say she had a neurological disorder. Jennifer and Mike asked for their money back, but the contract they signed says the money is not refundable.
"Tedi's response was well you denied the children. We're not responsible," says Jennifer. The couple says Hedstrom then offered them children from Guatemala. "She said there would be additional fees of 17,000 dollars per child to adopt and that we needed to act in the next few days."
Jennifer and Mike said no. Already out 40 thousand dollars, they say they've spent their savings and there is nothing left. "We still have a beautiful home. We still have a beautiful nursery and we'd love to adopt."
Their only dream is to one day be a mom and dad, but they say that dream fades every day. "It's hard to look at the baby room daily, but we still have hope and dreams that it will come true one day."
First Coast News went to Hedstrom's Ponte Vedra home for answers. Her children told us she wasn't home. We left our phone number for her to call, but she never did. We also called her numerous times, but she never called back.
Then, two local attorneys agreed to speak on Hedstrom's behalf. "The agencies in the U.S. don't control what children are presented to the adoptive parents. They can make a request and plead but they don't have any control over that," says Carole Vogel.
First Coast News also tracked down another ABW client. A woman in California, who did not want to be identified. She told us she stopped the adoption of a Guatemalan child because the child's DNA test was allegedly false.
She was too upset to talk to us, her attorney spoke for her. "The claim is the DNA was taken on a date in October with the birth mother and the child being in the office. However, the child was with my client hundreds of miles away on that very date. It didn't happen," says Michigan attorney Joni Fixel.
Hedstrom's representatives say the agency is not always at fault with these kinds of problems. "Making sure (they're) trustworthy and honest people, it's difficult even under the best of circumstances. Because a lot of these countries are third world nations...very poor," says Vogel.
Vogel says international adoptions are risky. But Fixel says she has five different families from across the country with similar stories involving ABW and Tedi Hedstrom. "They are emotional and financial predators," says Fixel.
When asked if Tedi Hedstrom was an emotional predator, Fixel replied, "I believe so. In what I've seen, the emails going back and forth, the threats blaming the parents for not caring enough, blaming the parents for not sending enough money."
Rick Rumrell, an attorney speaking out on behalf of Hedstrom, says it's not true. "If anything, Tedi is a person who has devoted her life to helping families and children do adoptions, something she does not get wealthy on."
Fixel says the families are planning to sue ABW to get their money back. "In our office we call these contracts--I promise to get you a baby, maybe. There's a lot of loose terms in these contracts. It's our position they never intended on completing the adoption in the first place and the contract should be voided as a whole."
Rumrell says," I can tell you that would be categorically not true."
For now, the Hale's hold on to pictures of their little girl, Emylee. But even the pictures raise questions. "She looks nothing like this," says Christine Hale comparing pictures the adoption agency has sent her of her child.
Hale says some of the pictures don't match the child they saw and held in their arms. The Hale's say they are not sure of what Emylee looks like today. "If you asked me if our child could pop up with someone else. It would not surprise me," says Hale.
The couple holds on to the memories of the baby they held in their arms. They also hold on to hope that one day Emylee will be home playing with her brothers and sisters.
The thought of their child without them brings them to tears. "We love her and we haven't given up on her. We have done everything we can to do their job. We've begged and pleaded. We'd do anything to get her home."
Adoption Blessings Worldwide has had several complaints made against it with the Florida DCF over the last two years.
We have also learned that Georgia's Department of Human Resources, which licenses adoption agencies, is currently doing two investigations on the agency.
Georgia officials have confirmed that there are at least five complaints against ABW right now. Information on those complaints are considered private until the investigations are over.
The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office is also working with the Florida DCF and looking into whether any criminal act was done in Florida involving ABW.