"They took every penny": Couple fights to be parents after adoption agency closes
The door stood shut, harsh and uninviting.
Jessica Garner paused outside, wondering if she could — or even should — summon the courage to turn the handle.
She knew what waited inside: a pink rocking chair in one corner, a silk cherry blossom tree in the other, a white crib, stuffed animals and little outfits washed and folded and ready to wear.
“Just no baby,” Jessica said.
The room should have been cradling a newborn girl, but on July 24 — the baby’s due date — no cries echoed through the house except for those shed by Jessica. In the year since the Gainesville couple decided to adopt a child, they have experienced everything from a birth mother changing her mind to their adoption agency shutting its doors and unexpectedly declaring bankruptcy. With $15,000 lost and no baby in sight, all the couple has to show for its efforts is an empty nursery.
“I bet I walk by that room 50 times a day,” Jessica said. “I try to forget that it exists in my home.”
A choice made
The Garners never doubted that they were meant to be parents.
“It’s just part of who we are,” Jessica said.
Their desire to start a family stemmed from their annual participation in Clark Howard’s Christmas Kids Drive. During their shopping trip to buy Christmas gifts for children in need, the two 30-year-olds started talking about how much fun it would be to shop for their own child.
“We were at that point where we had built up our lives where we had good friends and family around us, and we wanted to experience the joy and happiness and togetherness that a child would bring to our lives,” Jessica said.
Then, one medical appointment changed everything. Doctors diagnosed Jessica with polycystic ovarian syndrome, a condition that makes it difficult to conceive without fertility treatments.
“That hurt,” Steven said. “And I knew it hurt Jessica. There was a three- to four-month period where every time I came home, Jessica would be like, ‘Another friend is pregnant.’ And she’d be happy for them, but then I would look at her, and the tears would well up in her eyes.”
The couple investigated their options.
“We thought about what we wanted, and eventually we said, ‘You know, IVF and adoption are about the same price, but adoption would provide a good home for a child that needs one,’” Jessica said.
With the choice made, they started investigating adoption agencies.
The right fit
Finding an agency proved simple.
The couple interviewed four agencies, but in the end, the decision seemed obvious. They picked One World Adoption Services in Sugar Hill.
“They’d been there a long time and had a good reputation and good reviews,” Jessica said.
They even had a personal connection, as Steven, who works at the post office, used to deliver mail to the facility.
“It all just seemed right,” he said. “It seemed like the best decision.”
The process moved quickly from there. A social worker and a case worker reached out to the Garners, and they filled out paperwork. Once the adoption agency approved their application, the couple prepared their house for the required home study, where investigators inspect the house to make sure it is fit for a child.
Six months after making the decision to adopt, Jessica read an announcement on One World Adoption Services’ Facebook page. The agency needed a homestudy-approved family in Georgia for a Caucasian baby girl due in July.
Jessica immediately responded.
“I knew we weren’t homestudy-approved yet, and I didn’t even know how to begin a family profile (which is a required element in the process), but thought to myself, ‘Why not?’” she said. “I figured the worst they could do was say no.”
The agency replied almost immediately, asking the couple to complete their family profile by the next day. Jessica stayed up until 5 a.m. completing the package that included pictures and written segments stating why they would be good parents and why they wanted to adopt. She sent it in Friday morning. Just after noon that same day, she received a call from the agency, saying the birth mother wanted to meet them.
“My heart stopped,” Jessica said.
A dream come true
On the following Monday, the Garners met with the birth mother, and everything progressed perfectly.
“In fact, it seemed almost too perfect,” Steven said.
They instantly bonded with the younger woman who had given up three previous children for adoption. She said she wasn’t ready yet to become a full-time parent.
“She was so sweet and positive about her adoption plan,” Jessica said. “We clicked really well and ended up talking for almost three hours.”
The next day, the agency called to say the birth mother had selected the Garners.
Jessica took to her blog, garnerpartyof3.blogspot.com, to share her enthusiasm.
“We are in shock,” she wrote. “This is all happening so fast, but we couldn’t be more excited. There is so much to do to finalize our paperwork and raise the remainder of our funds. And we get to start putting together our nursery! This is truly a blessing, a dream come true!”
The Garners gave the agency half of the funds required for the adoption — $15,000 — and rushed out to buy things for the arrival of their new little one.
Little did they know “this is where the spiral started,” Steven said.
A waiting game
The birth mother and Jessica kept in constant contact. Both seemed thrilled about the arrangement.
“We shared so many texts over the course of (those) weeks, getting to know one another and sharing our hopes and dreams for the baby,” Jessica said.
Together, the women agreed they would enjoy seeing a 3D sonogram, and Jessica scheduled the appointment. Then, the Friday before the Tuesday appointment, the texts stopped, and the phone sat silent, despite the Garners’ repeated attempts to contact the birth mother.
“We figured maybe she lost her phone or had gotten busy or something like that,” Steven said. “So, we just took a chance and went to the appointment anyway.”
The couple sat in the waiting room, eagerly turning their heads every time the door opened. Patient after patient entered, but none were the pregnant woman they wanted so desperately to appear.
“So, we waited ... and waited ... and waited...,” Jessica said. “By the time 30 minutes passed, I called our agency. They let me know that they had just heard from (her) and that she was having second thoughts. My heart just sank. The tears just rolled down my face as we made the hour car ride home. My worst fear was coming true.”
Steven still doesn’t understand what changed.
“We clicked so well,” he said. “It’s just like you sit there wondering over and over again, ‘What happened? Did we do something wrong?’”
The adoption agency followed procedure and kept the deposit of $15,000, saying they would roll it over to the next time the Garners were matched to a birth mother.
“So, we (were) back to the waiting game,” Jessica said.
A sinking ship
They didn’t have long to wait until the next blow came.
In June, the couple received an email from their adoption agency that read, “Families, It is with a heavy heart that we write this email with bad news. Effective immediately, One World Adoption Services will be closing its doors.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo alleged that the agency had misconducted adoptions, resulting in the adoption agency losing its license and accreditation.
“We were stunned,” Steven said. “It was just like a big ship sinking.”
The couple waited for word on what would happen next. Three weeks later, they got their answer. The company declared bankruptcy and told the Garners not to expect their $15,000 to be refunded.
“It was literally like this is what would happen if your luck was the worst luck ever,” Steven said. “It’s been the most gigantic speed bump ever.”
A positive attitude
Despite it all, the Garners insist on remaining positive.
“It will all be worth it in the end,” Steven said. “This is going to be a great story for our kid one day.”
Neither has doubts they will, one day, be parents.
“Right now, we’re just regrouping and figuring out how to proceed,” Jessica said.
And they know they won’t be doing so alone. Their parents, Joel and Carol Stephens of Cumming and Steve and Anna Garner of Flowery Branch, have both said they’ve been touched by their children’s optimism.
“At first, I was really upset at everything that happened to them,” Steve Garner said. “I’ve been angry for them, because they’ve been caused both emotional and financial pain. But I’m also optimistic, because they seem so optimistic about it. They tell me that things happen for a reason, and while it’s just heartbreaking for me to see, I believe them.”
So does Jessica’s mother, Carol.
“There’s been heartbreak and disappointment along the way, but I’m really proud of the way that they have handled everything and have leaned on each other and kept their faith throughout,” she said. “They’re just so positive. They’re just like, ‘It’s just another bump in the road, but we’ve got to keep going.”
The would-be grandparents remain hopeful one day they will hold their grandchild.
“Steven and Jessica are so wonderful and deserving,” Carol said. “And one day, there’s a child out there that’s going to be lucky enough to call them Mom and Dad.”
“Everybody loves a happy ending, and I think we’ll have one,” he said.
Hopes and dreams
Jessica thinks so, too, and that gave her the courage to wrap her fingers around the door handle and turn it.
She entered the empty nursery where she and Steven spent hours cleaning, painting and decorating the room intended to house their future.
“I went in, shut the door, sat on the floor and began to pray and reflect,” Jessica said.
Instead of hurting, the moment healed.
“It felt so good, so peaceful, such a relief from the heartache I thought I would find within those four walls,” she said. “I think I have felt every emotion possible, but just being in the nursery made me feel better and excited, even. It reminded me that there is a purpose for our journey, that God knows the plans he has for us and therefore we don’t have to worry.”
All around her stood stark reminders of the lack of results achieved in the past year: stuffed animals, pink and tan bedding still in its packaging, baby books ready to be opened and read. Yet no despair came.
“God has chosen us for adoption,” Jessica said. “There is a reason for all of this. We just have to stand strong in our faith and watch our future unfold. This room is where our hopes and dreams will one day come true.”
With a quick glance at her surroundings, she nodded and said, “This room will not be empty forever.”