For months they have gazed at photos, studied up on Ethiopia and dreamed of the day their adopted child would fly home with them to Canada.
But hundreds of families had those dreams dashed when news broke this week that an Ontario-based international adoption agency had gone bankrupt.
Parents and adoption experts say Imagine Adoption is not simply the case of one rogue agency - its sudden implosion highlights the increasing perils of adopting abroad.
You trust that these people know what they're doing Robyn Bertucci
"We've been told from the beginning that adoption wasn't for the faint of heart," one prospective parent from Burlington, Ont., said Tuesday. "But never in our worst nightmares did we imagine something like this."
As China winds down its adoption program, agencies have fanned out across the globe seeking new sources of children. Africa has become the new China in recent years, but some experts say the stampede for adoption licences has opened the door to programs that aren't necessarily ethical, experienced or reliable.
Imagine Adoption in Cambridge, Ont., began facilitating adoptions in Ethiopia and Ghana about two years ago, and has left heartache in its wake.
After years of failed fertility treatments and a miscarriage of twins, Robyn Bertucci and her husband turned to adoption. Staff at Imagine Adoption - one of two Ontario agencies licensed to do Ethiopian adoptions - told them in October that after a year-long wait, strict approval procedures and $25,000 in fees, their baby would be home.
"We're mourning," Ms. Bertucci said Tuesday. Looking back, she admits she could have investigated the agency more thoroughly before handing over $15,000 in fees, but she had been comforted by the Ontario government-issued licence. "You trust that these people know what they're doing."
She, like many other frustrated would-be parents, said that no one - not the Ontario government, nor Imagine Adoption, which has shuttered its doors - is answering their many questions: Who has our birth certificates and other documents? What happens to the thousands of dollars we've invested? Why are Imagine Adoption founder Susan Hayhow and her partner, Andrew Morrow, in Africa (they arrived there Monday)? Didn't the Ontario government see this coming?
And most importantly: Who is taking care of the children? (Imagine Adoption runs two transition homes in Addis Ababa, which house children who have been matched with Canadian parents).
Tuesday night, a spokeswomen for the Ontario Ministry for Children and Youth said the government was working with bankruptcy trustees and the federal government to see how affected families, and children overseas, could be helped.
As to how this could have happened at an agency whose license was renewed only last October? "We're still gathering details," said Kevin Spafford, spokesman for the provincial minister, Deb Matthews.
Many people were blindsided by the collapse of Imagine Adoption, which also operated as Kids Link. But even Ethiopia, which has one of the longest-running and most streamlined adoption programs in Africa, isn't immune to problems.
Cheryl Carter-Shotts, who runs who directs Americans for African Adoptions, which in 1996 was the first North American adoption agency licensed in Ethiopia, became so dismayed by the numerous foreign agencies that have invaded the country in recent years (there are now more than 60, including three licensed Canadian agencies), that she pulled her program out of the country in December.The deep desire by Westerners to become parents, combined with poverty and corruption in Africa, can be dangerous cocktail that fosters unethical practices both abroad and at home, she said.
A Toronto-area doctor, who spoke on the condition she not be identified, turned to Imagine Adoption to facilitate the adoption of a girl in Africa who was being cared for by her dying father. The experience quickly soured.
"It was clear they were about money," she said. Her repeated requests for an itemized list of costs were denied, she said. She terminated her relationship with the agency, but feared that if she rocked the boat, the agency might hinder her adoption process.
David Cotter, who adopted two sisters from Ethiopia in 2007, had similar fears.
"It was very clear that she had no idea what she was doing," Mr. Cotter, who lives near Waterloo, Ont., said of Ms. Hayhow, who heads the agency. "The reason we stayed with her … is once you get the pictures of two little girls, you're not going to change."
Matthew Garside, who was in the process of adopting the little brother of his twin Ethiopian sons through Imagine Adoption, said the lack of answers has been extremely frustrating. His sons, who have their brother's picture on their bedroom wall, had expected to join him this fall.
"Him coming home this year? I can't see it," Mr. Garside said. But, "I'm determined that this is not going to finish here."