JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (CN) - Five families say a South Carolina adoption agency extorted them for more than $75,000 in a Guatemalan baby scam. They say Adoption Partners Inc. charged them each $12,000 just to begin the process, then extorted them for more, threatened them, and delivered babies that were seriously ill, or did not deliver a baby at all.
The would-be adoptive parents say they had to hire another agency to investigate Adoption Partners and discover its multitude of fraudulent representations.
They also sued the agency's owner-operators Joanne Mitchell and Todd Mitchell, in Federal Court. Adoption Partners is based in Simpsonville, S.C.
The parents say they chose Adoption Partners because it advertised itself as a nonprofit agency and used the phrase, "your Guatemalan Adoption Specialist," on its Web site.
They say Adoption Partners sent them each an initial email titled, "10 Steps to Your Adoption," which estimated the adoptions would be completed in 26 weeks or less.
But the families say they were strung along and extorted for months, in some cases for more than a year, before they finally were able to bring a child home.
One set of parents said the process has taken more than 20 months, cost more than $37,000 and their son is still living in an orphanage in Guatemala.
The parents say they each had to spend $12,000 to begin the process, then had to pay thousands more in bribes along the way. They say Adoption Partners demanded wire payments for "additional unspecified fees" with the threat that "if these fees aren't paid, the adoption will cease."
The parents say they received several emails advising of false complications in the process, which always required several thousand dollars more.
Each family says it was denied the right to visit their prospective child, as promised in the contract, and was chastised for becoming "too involved" in the adoption.
A couple that asked for a medical update on their child says Adoption Partners sent them a 2-month old medical report and a note: "As you can see your child is healthy and thriving."
This couple says Adoption Partners became resentful at their concern, that they had to get a Guatemalan facilitator to complete the adoption, and that Adoption Partners did virtually nothing, though they had been paid $14,000.
Three days after they brought their son home he turned blue and was diagnosed with a heart defect that required open heart surgery, the parents say.
Another adoptive parent says she spent thousands of dollars visiting two children. Though she says Adoption Partners assured her the children were in perfect health, she spent much of her time in Guatemala taking them to the doctor for anemia, chronic intestinal worms and spots under their skin as a result of bugs burrowing into them.
The parents say they spent thousands of dollars to hire Adoption Supervisors Group to monitor their cases. They say the investigation found that the defendants hadn't even begun many of the adoptions though months had passed and thousands of dollars had been exchanged.
Upon finding that they were being investigated, Adoption Partners threatened parents with statements such as "If you send any funds to anyone other than Adoptive Partners, we will NOT be responsible for your case being completed and your child being able to come home," and, "I will not be surprised if the birthmothers suddenly show up and change their minds, and there will not be a damn thing we can do about it. Call Adoption Supervisors and tell them they have officially ended your case," according to the complaint.
One set of parents says that 4 days after they were told that their long-anticipated adoption could not be completed because the birth mother wanted to reclaim her child, the defendants asked them to consider another child. The couple says they responded that they were grieving and would need time to think, and two weeks later told the defendants that they had lost confidence in the process and wanted a refund.
Adoption Partners responded "that there would be no refund and that refunds were not allowed according to the contract," according to the complaint. Then Adoption Partners said the couple had five days to decide or their file would be closed.
The plaintiffs demand punitive damages for conspiracy, conversion, wrongful adoption, emotional distress and fraudulent misrepresentations.
They are represented by Joni Fixel, Marlo Bruch-Barrett and Myra Loughran.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.