By JULIE PACE firstname.lastname@example.org
Published: Aug 21, 2005
TAMPA - They went to Vietnam for the same reason - two women trying to find homes for abandoned children.
Mai-Ly Latrace, 32, of St. Petersburg, arranges international adoptions and says working with orphans is a calling from God. Her heart breaks when she sees a child in need, she says, and she has worked tirelessly to place children with loving parents overseas.
Parents such as Carrie West of Roswell, Ga. But West says her attempts to adopt in Vietnam were marred by lies and fraud. She places the blame on Latrace, who West says isn't building families but instead is trafficking children.
Latrace and West have been locked in battle for more than three years. Insults and accusations of lies and sold children have flown across the Internet. West and another adoptive mother used the Internet to set up a sting, trying to catch Latrace making false promises. Latrace has responded with a libel lawsuit filed in Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court.
Their battle all began with the picture of a little girl.
Carrie West fell in love with the first photo she saw of Tran Thi Thuy, a 3-year-old with dark eyes and a bright smile. The Ohio-based adoption agency West used, A Child's Story, sent her a picture of Tran Thi Thuy in 2000 and told her the child was put in foster care after her mother died and her father abandoned her.
In July that year, West made her first trip to Vietnam to meet Tran Thi Thuy.
West never met Tran Thi Thuy. Instead, she met Latrace's mother, Marie.
West said Marie Latrace gave her conflicting information about Tran Thi Thuy's whereabouts and told her the little girl had developed tuberculosis and could not be adopted. Devastated, West left but sent money for the child's medical care.
Still hoping to adopt, West returned to Vietnam in February 2001. She met Mai-Ly Latrace, who helped West adopt an unrelated girl named Pham Thi Thuy, 2.
During that trip, West heard more about Tran Thi Thuy. West said Latrace told her that she and her mother were caring for the ill child. West believed her and promised to send more money for medical expenses. Latrace also posted a request on her Web site for donations to build an orphanage where Tran Thi Thuy could live until she could be adopted.
Internet Connects Families
West didn't suspect anything was wrong with her adoption efforts until September 2001, when she wrote an Internet post about Tran Thi Thuy. The story caught the eye of Judi Mosley, a mother living on the Pacific island of Saipan, because the child West wrote about sounded so similar to the girl Mosley adopted earlier that year through a Vietnamese attorney.
The women traded e-mail and referral papers that had the same birth date, location and birth parent names. The paperwork showed that the little girl West thought was sick in Vietnam was the same healthy child Mosley had adopted three months earlier.
Angry and confused, West and Mosley concocted a sting, trying to catch Latrace offering Tran Thi Thuy again. Mosley e-mailed Latrace under a false name, asking about adopting a Vietnamese child. Latrace e-mailed back a picture of Tran Thi Thuy and a sister.
Appalled to see the child offered a third time, but motivated to trap Latrace, Mosley wrote more e-mail using the alias. She told Latrace she wanted to adopt Tran Thi Thuy. Latrace responded in an e-mail, ``I will do everything possible to help you and will e-mail you again tomorrow about how we need to go about doing the adoptions.''
The e-mail was written in December 2001, six months after Tran Thi Thuy left Vietnam to live with the Mosleys in the Northern Mariana Islands, which is a U.S. commonwealth.
West and Mosley reported the sting to U.S. and Vietnamese officials. They wrote their story on Internet message boards for adoptive parents.
The situation became even more complicated for West.
A Vietnamese friend had told her that Pham Thi Thuy, the daughter she adopted through Latrace, was illegally taken from her birth family. That suspicion was confirmed in 2003 when the U.S. Department of State gave West a letter from the birth mother stating she was promised $500 to give up her daughter.
Latrace told The Tampa Tribune her words and actions have been misinterpreted. She said the e-mail she sent while Mosley was writing under an alias does not mean she was referring Tran Thi Thuy for adoption.
She and her mother blame a Vietnamese social worker for giving them wrong information about the girl. They say they believed she was ill and living in Vietnam. Latrace also said the social worker told her a child she talked to on the phone was Tran Thi Thuy, which is why she wrote about speaking to the girl in other e-mail obtained by the Tribune.
Latrace also denies paying Pham Thi Thuy's birth mother to give up her daughter. Latrace said her contacts in Vietnam who have talked to the birth mother say West coerced the birth mother to make those statements.
Latrace filed a libel lawsuit last year in Pinellas County against West and Mosley accusing them of spreading lies on Internet message boards. The case is in the discovery phase, with each party collecting information and documents from the other side.
Latrace is represented by Tampa lawyer Malka Isaak of Feinberg, Isaak and Smith. Isaak's law partner Ric Feinberg is Latrace's current employer at Little Pearls Adoption Agency in Tampa.
Jim McGuire, attorney for the defendants, is a partner at Holland & Knight, the law firm that represents the Tribune.
A Long History
Although West and Mosley have been Latrace's most vocal critics, there are others who have had problems with her, including U.S. government officials in Vietnam, who have been investigating Latrace's adoption practices for at least six years.
Public records of Latrace's problems date to 1995, while she was working for Christian World Adoption in Mount Pleasant, S.C. Latrace was criminally charged with a breach of trust after she was caught stockpiling agency clothing and medication in a personal storage locker; Latrace was supposed to deliver the items to orphans in Vietnam. Calvin Gribble, the man Latrace was living with at the time, said Latrace planned to sell the items, according to police reports.
Christian World Adoption dropped the complaint after Latrace agreed to complete 100 hours of counseling and 40 hours of community service, which was overseen by the court. The charge was dismissed, and Latrace has no other record.
In 1997, Latrace and her mother met California adoption agency owner Georgia Leonard and offered to set up her agency's Vietnam program. Leonard said the Latraces asked for $35,000 to open an orphanage in Vietnam.
Leonard said she took out a loan and wired the money to an account in Vietnam. The orphanage was never built, and Leonard said the Latraces never told her where the money went.
``We're still paying on the debt,'' Leonard said.
The Latraces say they never asked Leonard for money for an orphanage, and any money Leonard sent to Vietnam was for adoptions Marie Latrace arranged for her agency.
Although Leonard claims she lost thousands of dollars, she said she stopped working with the Latraces in time to save her agency.
Another agency owner, Tedi Hedstrom, blames Mai-Ly Latrace for the downfall of her business in Jacksonville, Tedi Bear Adoptions.
Hedstrom hired Latrace as a facilitator in 1998 and used her intermittently for four years.
Clients quickly began telling Hedstrom that Latrace was referring children to them who weren't available, Hedstrom said. She said she continued to work with her because Latrace's claims that she had been misled by Vietnamese social workers were ``incredibly believable.''
The complaints were the impetus for a Department of Children & Families investigation of Tedi Bear Adoptions in 2002, department spokesman Andy Ritter said.
The adoption agency was cited for licensing and record- keeping violations uncovered from personnel files.
The final complaint letter that DCF sent to Hedstrom included five complaints about referrals from clients who tried to adopt through Tedi Bear's Vietnam program. Hedstrom voluntarily gave up her agency license in 2003.
Latrace told the Tribune she is not responsible for the closing of Tedi Bear Adoptions and said Hedstrom is trying to take the focus off the agency's record-keeping problems.
But some adoptive parents say Latrace is the one trying to deflect blame. Those parents include Kim and Chad Kennedy of Hawaii, who met Latrace in Vietnam in June 2002 when they arrived to adopt a girl Latrace had referred to them.
The Kennedys said they were uneasy because five different birth dates had appeared on the child's adoption documents. The date settled on meant the girl should have been about 3 months old. They were brought a newborn, the Kennedys said, but Latrace insisted it was the child that had been referred to them.
Concerned that the baby might not be an orphan, the Kennedys stopped the adoption and complained to DCF and the Florida attorney general's office. Their claims were included in DCF's complaint against Tedi Bear Adoptions.
In October 2002, about the same time Tedi Bear Adoptions was being investigated, Latrace was told to leave Vietnam.
A letter issued in 2005 by the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington said Latrace was deported for child trafficking for money. Chien Bach, press attache for the embassy, confirmed the deportation and the charges, which indicate Latrace illegally paid Vietnamese parents or other people to give up children for adoption.
Latrace disputes that and said she is trying to get documentation from Vietnam to prove she was not deported. She says Vietnamese officials asked her to leave because she didn't have a work visa. Latrace says she returned with the proper visa a few months later, but Vietnamese officials told her to leave again, this time at the request of the U.S. government.
Bringing Children Home
Latrace has support from other families she has worked with, including Bruce and Debbie Hofman of Riverview. The Hofmans hoped to adopt three children through Tedi Bear Adoptions in 2002 when the state started investigating the agency.
Debbie Hofman said Tedi Hedstrom stopped helping the couple once they got to Vietnam. They turned to Latrace, who was working with Tedi Bear in Vietnam. Latrace took charge of the Hofmans' adoptions, helping them with transportation, translation and documentation.
``She worked until she got our children home,'' Hofman said. ``What more can I ask for?''
Latrace never asked for any money other than what the couple had already paid the agency, Hofman said, and her efforts exceeded the family's expectations.
``We were only going to adopt three, but we picked up a fourth,'' Hofman said.
Hofman said West contacted her several times during her adoption process to warn her about using Latrace as a facilitator. Hofman said she felt uncomfortable about how West tried to discredit Latrace and went ahead with the adoptions.
The Hofmans were far enough along in the process to get their children.
But Vietnam closed adoptions to Americans in 2002 while the country revamped its adoption industry to stamp out corruption and trafficking. An agreement signed by the United States and Vietnam this year has started the process of reopening international adoptions.
The Hofmans want to go back to Vietnam to adopt another child and want Latrace to arrange the adoption.
Latrace said she will have no problems returning to Vietnam. She maintains her deportation is fake and that she has returned to Vietnam since being asked to leave in 2002, most recently last year.
An official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Ho Chi Minh City said Latrace did try to enter Vietnam in February 2004 but was stopped by immigration officers.
Latrace said she was stopped but allowed to enter a few days later. The passport that would have entry and exit stamps that would prove the visit has been lost, she said.
`Like Mother Teresa'
Latrace continues to work in international adoptions, now with Little Pearls Adoption Agency.
Little Pearls' owner, Feinberg, said her work with families such as the Hofmans is truly representative of her adoption practices.
``She's like Mother Teresa,'' Feinberg said.
Feinberg started working with Latrace about two years ago, first with Loving Adoptions Worldwide, an international adoption law firm. Latrace was listed as a director on the business's January 2004 incorporation papers.
Feinberg dissolved Loving Adoptions in June that year when he incorporated Little Pearls. He hired Latrace as an international adoption consultant to work on program development. She also works with the agency's Guatemala adoption program and has traveled to Guatemala on Little Pearls business several times.
Because she was hired as a consultant, Latrace was not required to have the DCF background checks required of full- time adoption agency employees. Feinberg said he conducted his own background check in the United States and Vietnam and did not uncover any criminal history.
After receiving calls and letters from parents who had used Latrace in the past, DCF made an unannounced visit May 5 to Little Pearls to check Latrace's employment status. Department licensing agents found Latrace may have been working in a greater capacity than as a consultant, as Feinberg had said.
``There was ongoing dialogue where she appeared to be the point person for Little Pearls in Guatemala,'' spokesman Ritter said.
Ritter cited cell phone bills Little Pearls paid for Latrace and e-mail contacts with agency clients that were included in the personnel and adoption files the agency reviewed.
In one e-mail, Latrace wrote, ``I am in charge of the Guatemala program. I also do all the matching.'' She also told the prospective adoption client that payments could be wired to HQ Online, an international business consulting firm Latrace owns.
DCF ordered Latrace to have Florida Department of Law Enforcement and FBI background checks, which she did.
The state agency does not release the results of background checks, but Feinberg said they came back clean.
Ritter said there have been no complaints involving Little Pearls since DCF's visit in May and the department is no longer investigating Latrace or the agency.
Florida, Ritter pointed out, does not regulate international adoption consultants or require them to have licenses.
The checks are run only on the state and national levels, Ritter said, so DCF has no way of knowing whether there were problems in other countries.
``This is a very difficult thing to regulate,'' Ritter said.
Ana Maria Corea de Monteagudo, consul general at Guatemala's Miami consulate, said the consulate and officials in Guatemala are aware of Latrace's deportation from Vietnam and her work with Little Pearls.
The consul general said she is contacting adoption lawyers Latrace has worked with in Guatemala to check on the legality of her adoption work in the country.
Spreading The Story
Feinberg said Latrace is the victim of a conspiracy concocted by West and Mosley. He said the women wanted to work as facilitators in Vietnam and saw the mixed-up adoption of Tran Thi Thuy as ``an opportunity to bring her [Latrace] down.''
West and Mosley, both stay- at-home moms, said they never tried to compete with Latrace.
Mosley said she used a private Vietnamese lawyer to facilitate her adoption of Tran Thi Thuy and has put other parents in contact with the lawyer. She posted information about Vietnam adoptions and photos of children on a Web site but said she never referred any children or worked with agencies.
West, too, said, ``the only adoptions I've ever been involved in were of my own children.'' She and her husband, Paul, have seven children, including two who were adopted: Pham Thi Thuy, now 6, and a 9-year-old boy from Africa.
Latrace is adamant that West and Mosley carried the story so far because they wanted to compete with her for work in Vietnam. She filed her lawsuit not so much for money, she said, but to keep the women from spreading their story any further.
West said the lawsuit won't stop her from telling her side of the story.
``If we've done nothing more than educate the industry to the name and the person, then maybe it's been worth it,'' West said.
Reporter Julie Pace can be reached at (813) 865-1505.