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Waterloo couple stays hopeful after adoption scams left them bereft

WATERLOO — Sara and Brandon Kelsey are preparing for a new baby, a baby they feel will make their family complete.

The couple, who married last year, have three boys, ages 7, 9 and 16, in their blended family. They have no children together. Sara is no longer able to have children following a medically necessary hysterectomy, so the couple is looking to adopt.

“We aren’t done raising kids,” Brandon said.

They have gone through background checks and home visits and are now approved to adopt a child.

“We’ve been buying everything we need,” Sara said. “We’re ready. And all the boys are on board.”

The Kelseys have decided to pursue a private adoption, mostly because of the high cost of going through an agency.

“Private adoption will cost us about $15,000 for the lawyers,” Brandon said.

“Going through an agency would cost at least $30,000 and up to $50,000,” Sara said.

Though the Kelseys have not signed with an adoption agency, they are talking with one.

“The agency said we need to market ourselves,” Sara said.

To that end, the couple took to the internet. They created accounts on social media platforms, such as Instagram, and Sara is chronicling their adoption journey on her blog, “Love Made Our Family.”

So far, that journey has been a difficult one.

The first woman to contact them — and tell the Kelseys she was pretty sure she was going to pick their family to place her child with — turned out to be insincere, giving the Kelseys a fake phone number and deleting her account.

The Kelseys were heartbroken.

But their ordeal was just beginning.

Soon, they were contacted by a woman from Georgia who said she was expecting a baby in May, and she and her husband were not in a financial position to keep the child.

Sara communicated with her through texts and phone calls for hours.

The next evening, Sara got a call from the woman’s husband saying his wife’s water broke and she was having an emergency C-section. (The mother later explained she got her dates wrong and she was actually due in March.) The baby, a girl, was 11 weeks premature, the birth parents said.

The Kelseys received updates and photos of the new baby, and the birth parents continued to act like they wanted the Kelseys to adopt their child. They even asked the Kelseys what they were going to name her and referred to the baby by that name in posts on the internet. The birth mother even sent Sara a picture of her incision from the C-section.

Since they were first contacted by the woman, the Kelseys had been trying to verify what she was telling them. They Googled names and phone numbers and did reverse searches on photos they received from her. They found no red flags until they searched for the incision photo. It came up as part of an article published in 2014.

The Kelseys were devastated.

“It was all a lie,” Sara said.

Several subsequent contacts also led nowhere. One woman said she could not send proof of birth because her boyfriend’s parents had been murdered by gang members. Internet searches found no evidence of such a crime.

The Kelseys went online with their adoption hopes about a month ago and they have already received at least five different contacts. All seemingly fraudulent.

“I think it’s the same person contacting us every time,” Brandon said.

Though none of the women have asked for money, the emotional toll the encounters have taken on the Kelsey family has been significant.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” Sara said. “From going from being so happy to really, really hurt. And then angry. Why would anyone do this? I feel like this is a sad, sad person who needs some kind of help.

“It’s been really confusing for our youngest son,” she said. “The whole concept of adoption confuses him anyway, but he doesn’t understand why people are doing this.”

Sue Gauger is the program manager at Adoption Connection, which is located in Clive but serves the entire state. She has been in the adoption field for 36 years and has seen this type of scam — and worse — many times.

“Oh, it’s out there all right,” she said. “I’ve had people travel all over the state and still come back with no baby. It’s very, very tragic.”

While Gauger recommends adoptive parents work with an agency, she said for those pursuing private adoption it is important to have good advice and not to hand over money.

“Know the laws,” she said. “They are different in different states. Take precautions. People do get scammed. A birth parent will say ‘Hey, I need money for rent’ or ‘Hey, I need money for medical expenses.’ It’s hey this and hey that. People with no guidance will send money.

“You can get into some awful situations. It’s very risky to not involve professionals.

“There are a lot of desperate people. We don’t always know their circumstances. People will do pretty desperate things to provide for their family or provide for their drug addiction. You just don’t know.

“I’ve had someone pay more than $10,000 to a birth mother out of state and get scammed. We’ve had a birth mother promise her baby to multiple agencies with no intention of giving the baby up. I’ve literally had people go to the hospital to get their baby and the mother had checked out against doctors’ orders and disappeared. And there’s no recourse.”

Gauger brought up the case of Tracy Leann Bess-Thacker, an Ankeny woman who scammed adoptive parents for years.

According to a March 2015 Des Moines Register article, Bess-Thacker was arrested after taking money from a couple trying to adopt. Bess-Thacker faked the pregnancy and used photos and sonograms from a previous pregnancy to fool the adoptive parents.

Also, according the article, in 2011, Bess-Thacker used multiple aliases to connect with adoptive parents across the country.

The experience the Kelseys have been through has made them more guarded, but they aren’t ready to give up.

“I’ve talked with people who went through the same kind of thing, but ended up with a baby eventually,” Sara said. “You just have to have hope.

“I’ve learned I have to be more direct, and I can’t be afraid to ask for proof.

“I would tell people to be careful and hopeful at the same time, if that’s possible. You can’t discredit every situation. I know our baby is out there somewhere.”


Govt-and-politics
New deal rekindles infill housing plan

WATERLOO — A stalled plan to build houses on Baltimore and Williston fields appears to be moving again.

The Waterloo City Council has amended a contract first approved in June 2012 to restart infill housing projects on a number of vacant city lots.

“They are back on track,” said John Rooff, who has taken the lead in moving the deal forward. “I was just waiting for the city to redraft the development agreements.”

Rooff and engineer Jim Ellis had formed Residential Development Partners LLC nearly seven years ago with plans jointly to develop houses on land donated by the city at Baltimore Field, Williston Field and the former Van Eaton and Lafayette school sites.

“Within 30 days of signing the agreement we legally separated,” Rooff said.

Ellis took the south half of Baltimore Field and Williston Field, while Rooff’s Black Hawk Contracting and Development took the north lots of Baltimore Field and the other sites.

Baltimore Field is a six-acre park at the intersection of Vermont Street and Hawthorne Avenue. Williston Field is a single acre of open space at West Seventh Street and Williston Avenue.

But Lincoln Savings Bank foreclosed on the Ellis properties. Then the Iowa Economic Development Authority pulled back the affordable housing investment tax credits it had authorized in communities statewide.

“The only way to do this is with incentive programs,” Rooff said. “What it does is it helps us get the (sale) price low enough so we can get people qualified (for mortgages) to move into them.”

Most of the lots remained undeveloped and prompted questions from the public and council members about whether the land should be recovered by the city.

Things changed last year when IEDA restored Rooff’s tax credits. Lincoln Savings Bank engaged Rooff to install the infrastructure on the five Williston Field lots and to finish a home Ellis had started at Baltimore Field.

The amendments approved recently by the city reset the original agreement, replacing Ellis with the bank, and call for up to 14 new houses to begin construction this year. It also adds a $5,000 incentive payment for each home.

Rooff has already built and sold houses on two of his four lots at Baltimore Field. That leaves five lots there to be developed by Rooff and the bank.

“As of (this week) we could have four of them sold,” Rooff said. “There’s interest, and we’re happy about that.”

Rooff is also planning to move ahead with new homes at the former Grout school on Idaho and Monroe streets and several lots on Indiana Street, which was near the old Lafayette school.

A former Waterloo mayor, Rooff has built $8 million in new affordable homes in Waterloo over the past 12 years with most of them located on the city’s east side.

“I’m doing it because when I sat in (the mayor’s) seat I realized there wasn’t a lot of affordable housing being addressed in this city,” he said. “You can go all around our city and see $200,000, $300,000, $400,000 homes. But that isn’t the makeup of a lot of our citizens.”

Current Mayor Quentin Hart said he was grateful for the effort.

“This is about community building, putting people in homes, giving them an opportunity to be home owners for the city,” Hart said. “We’ve seen neighborhoods that haven’t seen new housing in over 80 years start to see some forms of life and revitalization.”


Govt-and-politics
Public pays growing tab for sex harassment deals

DES MOINES — State Auditor Rob Sand and other Democrats are suggesting Iowa seek reimbursement from former state employees implicated in high-dollar sexual harassment and discrimination settlements, but lawyers are stymied about how that would happen and whether it would be worth it.

The State Appeal Board last week approved $4.15 million in settlements for Beth Mahaffey and Ashley Jared, who alleged they were sexually harassed and assaulted by their former boss, David Jamison, who led the Iowa Finance Authority from 2011 until he was fired in 2018. An independent investigation concluded Jamison did harass the women.

Sand, who serves on the State Appeal Board, said Tuesday the state should consider its options for collecting from Jamison, who Gov. Kim Reynold fired almost a year ago after hearing sexual harassment allegations against him.

Reynolds said she understands Iowans’ frustration over the public picking up the tab.

“It is not unreasonable, I think, that we should hold those bad actors accountable,” she said Friday during a taping of the “Iowa Press” public affairs program. “But sometimes it’s just not that simple. There are reasons you can or shouldn’t or can’t, and that’s why we have representation and we’ll defer to what they recommend.”

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office is talking with Reynolds’ staff about ways this could be done — but it’s not a clear or common path.

“We are analyzing this question, so at this point I am reluctant to speculate on what mechanisms we have or what fixes we’d recommend,” said Lynn Hicks, spokesman for the office. “You may be aware of (Iowa Code Section) 669.21 and .22, which allows restitution from an employee in tort claims and actions in federal court. But the IFA-related settlement is neither.”

Public money

The tally of recent legal settlements involving alleged sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation by state employees is more than $14 million.

Iowa Finance Authority Director Debi Durham said Thursday the $4.15 million in settlements to Mahaffey and Jared will be paid not from the tax-supported state general fund but rather from a “reserve and revolving loan fund established over the last 40 years through the Authority’s earnings on loan investments paid by private entities.” The state authority assists affordable housing programs.

At a time when agencies are competing for Iowa’s limited budget to pay for schools, roads, mental health services and other needs, leaders say it’s hard to see public money going to settle legal cases against state employees who misbehave on the job.

Iowa Senate Democrats made this point in 2017 when the state agreed to pay $1.75 million to former Republican Senate caucus employee Kirsten Anderson, who said she was fired in 2013 after complaining about sexual harassment. Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen of Des Moines said at the time her party was looking at possible legislation to shield taxpayers from having to pay for others’ bad behavior.

But that proposal didn’t go anywhere, perhaps because Democrats were in the minority in the Legislature and perhaps, according to attorneys, because it’s a bad idea.

“I understand why you would want to hold individuals accountable. Why should the entire state be penalized because one person is acting badly?” said Jill Zwagerman, a Des Moines civil rights and employment lawyer. “On the flip side, it becomes very challenging for the person being discriminated against if the state can pass it off on employees for recovery. We need to make sure the victim is made whole.”

Zwagerman and law partner Tom Newkirk represented Jane Meyer and Tracey Griesbaum, former University of Iowa athletics employees who won a combined $6.5 million gender discrimination settlement from the school in 2017.

Worth it?

Phil Klinger, a lawyer with Klinger, Robinson & Ford in Cedar Rapids, said the state theoretically could sue Jamison in an attempt to recover all or part of the settlement cost.

“The first question is, ‘Does the guy have any money?’ Is it worth it?” asked Klinger, who has practiced law since 1968.

An administrative law judge ruled in June that Jamison was not entitled to unemployment insurance payments because he was fired for “job-related misconduct.”

He did get $3,185 in payments between April 8 and June 2, before the state opposed his eligibility. His gross state salary in fiscal 2017 was $131,391.

Suing a former employee to recover the state’s settlement costs could take years, run up legal fees and raise the question of whether Mahaffey and Jared would be willing to testify at the trial, Klinger said.

“If the state goes after him, they have to prove their case. You can’t just say ‘Hey, you owe me money,’” he said.

Zwagerman said it’s appropriate for the state to pay settlements because it ensures the alleged victims will get full compensation and pressures state agencies to be vigilant of employees who break the rules.

“The state is a huge employer and there will always be a couple of bad apples,” she said. “The idea is you have the policies and procedures in place, and people training on them.”

Procedures

Iowa’s State Employee Handbook and anti-discrimination policy both have sections on sexual harassment. They advise state employees who believe they’ve faced workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment, to tell their immediate supervisor, unless that person is the alleged perpetrator.

In that case, the employees can go up the chain of command in their own department or contact the director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services.

Mahaffey and Jared took their complaints directly to Reynolds because they feared retaliation if they reported to Administrative Services.

The Weinhardt law firm, which was hired to investigate Mahaffey’s and Jared’s allegations, said one of the witnesses, later identified as Jared, told investigators Jamison grabbed her breasts while they were on a work trip in the Okoboji area in December 2016. She also described another work-related road trip in which she was driving and Jamison was in the passenger seat. He asked her questions about sex and used his cellphone to watch a pornographic video, the report stated.

The other witness told investigators Jamison complained to her about his sex life and said he liked to go to massage parlors to get sexual favors, the report states.

James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed to this report.


Kelly Wenzel / KELLY WENZEL, COURIER STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER 

Waverly-Shell Rock's Bailey Roybal holds on to Cedar Falls' Jacob Penrith during their title bout at last Saturday's Class 3A district tournament in Waverly.


Politics
AP
Gun-seizure laws grow in popularity since Parkland shooting

In the year since the deadly mass shooting at a Florida high school, more and more states have passed laws making it easier to take guns away from people who may be suicidal or bent on violence against others, and courts are issuing an unprecedented number of seizure orders across the country.

Supporters say these “red flag” laws are among the most promising tools to reduce the nearly 40,000 suicides and homicides by firearm each year in the U.S. Gun advocates, though, say such measures undermine their constitutional rights and can result in people being stripped of their weapons on false or vindictive accusations.

Nine states have passed laws over the past year allowing police or household members to seek court orders requiring people deemed threatening to temporarily surrender their guns, bringing the total to 14. Several more are likely to follow in the months ahead.

More than 1,700 orders allowing guns to be seized for weeks, months or up to a year were issued in 2018 by the courts after they determined the individuals were a threat to themselves or others, according to data from several states obtained by The Associated Press. The actual number is probably much higher since the data was incomplete and didn’t include California.

The laws gained momentum after it was learned that the young man accused in the Florida attack, Nikolas Cruz, was widely known to be mentally troubled yet had access to weapons, including the assault-style rifle used to kill 17 students and staff members last Valentine’s Day at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“Parkland would never have happened if Florida had a red flag law,” Linda Beigel Schulman said during a recent news conference with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is expected to sign his state’s new law any day. Her son, Scott Beigel, was a teacher and coach killed during the Parkland attack.

Florida passed a red flag law as part of a gun-control package in the wake of the shooting. Aside from New York, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont also have adopted variations since then. California, Connecticut, Indiana, Oregon and Washington already had similar laws.

Several states are debating them this year, including New Mexico, where two students were killed in a school shooting in December 2017.

Mike Heal, police chief in the town of Aztec, responded to the shooting at the local high school and testified in support of the red flag proposal, saying, “I know I cannot keep everyone safe, but give me the tools to try.”

The laws are being invoked frequently in many of the states that have them.

Authorities in Maryland granted more than 300 petitions to temporarily disarm individuals in the three months after the state’s law went into effect Oct. 1. Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin said the cases included four “significant” threats of school shootings, and that a majority of the people who were subjects of the orders were suffering from mental health crises.

“These orders are not only being issued appropriately, they are saving lives,” Popkin told lawmakers last month.

In Vermont, a prosecutor obtained an order to strip gun rights from a teenager released from jail after being accused of plotting a school shooting.

Florida courts granted more than 1,000 orders in the first nine months of its new law. Broward County, which includes Parkland, has been at the forefront, accounting for roughly 15 percent of cases statewide.

Among the first people subjected to the law was Cruz’s younger brother, who authorities said was showing signs of violence after allegedly trespassing at the high school after the shooting. In another case, Florida authorities took dozens of firearms from a bailiff accused of threatening other courthouse employees.

Connecticut has the nation’s longest-standing red flag law, which went into effect in 1999 after a mass shooting at the state lottery office. Authorities there say new awareness of the law contributed to a spike in 2018 in warrants issued to take away weapons — 268, the highest total on record, according to court data.

The rise reflects the more aggressive posture police have adopted since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and other attacks.

One study found that the Connecticut law reduced gun suicides by more than 10 percent in recent years and that a similar law in Indiana led to a 7.5 percent drop.

“It really gives us a unique opportunity as prosecutors to come in before the violence has occurred. Often we are tackling it on the other side,” said Kimberly Wyatt, a prosecutor in King County, Washington, who has been seeking one or two such orders per week in and around Seattle.

Gun-rights advocates argue that the laws can be used unfairly based on unproven accusations.

“In today’s society, the police are going to err on the side of caution. The threshold for issuing these types of warrants has been lowered,” lamented Scott Wilson Sr., president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League.