Feds uncover adoption scheme that targeted Samoan children

Date: 
2007-02-03

Fili Sagapolutele
Samoa News Correspondent

Seven people including two Samoans still living in Apia have been charged with operating an adoption scam for a Salt Lake City, Utah organization that allegedly tricked poor Samoan families into giving up their children for adoption to couples in the U.S.

The 45-page federal indictment handed down Wednesday and unsealed yesterday at the federal court in Salt Lake City accused non-profit group, Focus on Children (FOC) and seven defendants, Scott Banks, Karen Banks, Dan Wakefield, Tagaloa Ieti, Coleen Bartlett, Julie Tuiletufuga, and Karalee Thornock of operating the adoption scheme.

Scott and Karen Banks along with Thornock appeared in court yesterday for a hearing and entered not guilty pleas, according to federal court records.

Wakefield, a U.S. citizen along with Ieti and Tuiletufuga are currently residing in Samoa, and American authorities will petition the Samoa government to turn over the trio to be officially charged. Samoa does not have extradition treaty with the U.S.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Salt Lake City said in a statement yesterday that the scheme beginning in March 2002 and running through June 2005, involved 81 children from as many as 45 families.

"We have victims on both sides of this adoption scheme, all of whom acted in good faith," U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman said in a statement. He said Samoan families were told their children would get an American education and return to Samoa when they turned 18.

Children were treated "as little more than a commodity," said Kurt Fitz-Randolph, an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, The Associated Press reported yesterday.

Tolman told reporters during a news conference in Salt Lake City yesterday that U.S. authorities are working to put the birth parents and adoptive parents in touch to discuss a resolution.

If no agreement is reached, courts in either or both countries might become involved in determining on a case-by-case basis who gets legal custody of the adoptees.

The defendants face 135 counts, including conspiracy to commit alien smuggling and Visa fraud, money laundering, bringing illegal aliens to the U.S., fraud and aiding and abetting, said court documents.

According to the indictment it was the object of the conspiracy for the defendants "to make money by taking Samoan children away from birth parents [by] using false promises and deceit, to falsely claim to prospective adoptive parents in the United States that such children had no one to take care of them and had been abandoned, and to fraudulently cause unsuspecting adoptive parents to assert" to U.S. government officials "that such children were legitimate orphans when in truth and fact they were not".

After targeting specific children, the conspirators in Samoa told birth parents, as well as their extended family, to participate in the "program" created by the U.S. government or the Mormon Church to assist families in Samoa that were struggling financially or desired that their children be educated abroad.

The indictment cited several incidents going back to 2002 as to how the conspirators persuaded parents to give up their children. In one case, Tuiletufuga focused on a pregnant woman, who later gave birth to twins.

It says that FOC charged a fee of several thousands of dollars to facilitate the adoption and immigration of foreign-born Samoan children by and through U.S. citizens.

It also notes that FOC sent Wakefield more than $93,000 between 2002 and 2004, but did not say if this was payment for services. However, the U.S. government is seeking forfeiture of this full amount and/or personal property.

Reach the reporter at fili@samoanews.com

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