Bewildered and frustrated: the couple faced with unexpected adoption bills

A Donegal couple are dismayed by the bill they’ve received for a process they have withdrawn from

Shocking prices?: part of the bill that Arc sent the Donegal-based couple who withdrew from the adoption process; they believe its fees are unreasonable

Shocking prices?: part of the bill that Arc sent the Donegal-based couple who withdrew from the adoption process; they believe its fees are unreasonable

Sat, May 3, 2014, 01:00

They were asked to pay €56.59 for a phone call. More than €18 for an email. And €165.45 for a meeting with a social worker in a hotel bedroom.

These are among the items on a bill that Arc Adoption, an Irish nonprofit organisation with 62 clients, sent to a Donegal-based couple whose application it was handling.

The couple, who wish to remain anonymous, are now former clients. They have given The Irish Times a copy of Arc’s Case Closure Memo statement, which they received in September last year, following their withdrawal from the process. After three years, the couple say, they no longer wanted to put their life on hold.

The final statement contained several unpleasant surprises. For the time it spent reading emails from or writing emails to the couple, Arc was billing them €122.91 an hour, or sometimes €188.62 an hour. Some unspecified items on the invoice baffled them, such as the one billed simply as “T/c from [client’s name]” at €118.18 per hour.

They were also charged a number of times in relation to their withdrawal, including the phone call from Shane Downer, Arc’s chief executive, about “question re: withdrawing from the process” – the one that cost €56.59.

Asked about its bills for client phone calls and emails, Arc responds,“It is not true to state that Arc bills for every single phonecall, email, etc. Some issues require less than a minute to resolve and therefore do not trigger any billing, whereas other items form part of a general communication or circular and are not billed.”

The couple say they had no idea they were being charged in the way they were, as until they closed their case they had received no invoices detailing how their upfront fee of €9,500 was being spent.

Although the couple’s final statement lists nine invoices sent to them over 16 months, the woman says: “The only invoice we got was at the end. I didn’t think they had spent our money on anything apart from some administration, so I didn’t think there was anything to ask about.”

Companies that hold client fees, as Arc does, usually issue statements every three or six months about the current state of those funds. “Clients are issued with a detailed, itemised annual statement, or a statement on request,” says Arc. But the couple are adamant that they received no such statements. “If we had seen what we were being charged for we would have responded right away to Arc. That’s why the closing bill came as such a shock.”

There were other fees that surprised the couple. When they registered with Arc, the agency asked the couple if they wanted to meet its social worker. “We thought it was a waste of time, because all our paperwork was already lodged in Bulgaria, and no further reports were needed from social workers. Arc said it was to put faces to our names. We asked was it going to cost anything, because it was of absolutely no benefit to our case, and we were told no.”

The family, who had already adopted three children from abroad, and so were thoroughly familiar with the process, travelled to Donegal town to meet Arc’s social worker. The agency had told her that she was meeting several families, so her visit to Donegal was not solely on their behalf.

The meeting took place at the Mill Park Hotel. “She met us in reception and said the meeting was going to be in her bedroom. Our three children were with us. They were sitting on her bed and on the floor. Myself and my husband sat on chairs. She sat on the bed. She was lovely, but the situation itself was clearly so glaringly unprofessional and inappropriate.”

The meeting lasted about 40 minutes. Apart from a social chat, interrupted by the young children rifling through the room’s fridge, the couple were handed a photocopy of an article about attachment disorder. They later received a letter from the social worker simply saying how nice it had been to meet them.

It was only when they told Arc that they were leaving the process that they discovered they had been billed €869.75 for the social worker’s input. Despite Arc’s assurance that they would not be charged for what they considered a courtesy meeting, the couple had been billed €531.81 for the social worker to read a copy of their home study, which was already complete and lodged in Bulgaria; €165.45 for the meeting in the hotel bedroom; €154.63 for a report about the meeting that they never saw; and €18.86 for a conversation she subsequently had about them with Shane Downer.

Why did the meeting take place in a hotel bedroom, and why were the couple not told there would be a fee for it? Downer says, “Arc does not discuss individual cases with the media. Ever.” He says the agency explains its fee structure to clients when they register.

Arc’s website does not go into detail about this structure; instead it outlines them in six stages. The couple never got to the referral, adoption or postadoption stages, so all their fees are for the early stages of the adoption process, “application registration” and “prereferral liaison”.

Costs in these two categories are listed as “translation fees, state fees, overheads, professional fees, direct costs”. No translation fees are itemised anywhere on the couple’s statement. The fee summary at the end of the document describes all their deductions, apart from the registration fee, simply as “professional fees”.

“Arc’s social worker time is billed at €118.18 per hour,” says Shane Downer. “Arc’s chief executive time is billed at €188.62 per hour. All our billing rates are loaded with a charge of 86 per cent for overheads. Arc uses a legal case management system. Billing is applied in six-minute units – ie 10 units per hour. There are comparable billing systems in operation in the vast majority of legal practices in Ireland.”

The Donegal couple who withdrew will not receive their “refundable registration fee” of €2,750 until December this year, although they closed their case with Arc last September. In all the couple have so far received back €4,931.85 of the €9,500 they had paid Arc.

They have complained to the Adoption Authority of Ireland, which approved Arc’s fees, and have taken their case to the Ombudsman, where it is still under review.

“We went to the Ombudsman because we were so frustrated at the closing invoice,” they say. “There was so little clarity about how our money was being spent while we were in the process. We don’t consider that the cost structure of the fees were transparent.”

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