Adoption case defendants expected to plead guilty

from: sltrib.com

Focus on Children?» Prosecutors say Samoan parents were duped into giving up their children

December 10, 2008
Pamela Manson
The Salt Lake Tribune

Former operators and employees of a Wellsville agency accused of duping Samoan parents into placing their children for adoption are expected to enter guilty pleas in the case.

In a hearing Tuesday afternoon before U.S. District Judge David Sam in Salt Lake City, a prosecutor and defense attorneys for the Focus on Children defendants say they are working out the final details on plea deals for five of seven defendants.

The judge scheduled hearings for Jan. 6, when plea negotiations are expected to be complete. Four defendants -- Karen Banks, Scott Banks, Coleen Bartlett and Karalee Thornock -- are slated to enter guilty pleas at a morning hearing. The fifth defendant, Dan Wakefield, will appear at an afternoon hearing.

The U.S. government has been unable to extradite the other two defendants, Samoan citizens Tagaloa Ieti and Julie Tuiletufuga, and they are not part of these negotiations.

The lawyers involved in the case declined to give details of the plea agreements.

A federal grand jury in Salt Lake City issued a 135-count indictment in February 2007 charging the defendants with conspiracy, fraud and immigration violations. The charges -- which target 37 of 81 Samoan adoptions by Focus on Children between 2002 and mid-2005 -- stemmed from a federal investigation triggered by suspicious immigration officials.

The indictment claims the Focus on Children workers falsely told Samoan parents that children they placed for adoption would return to them. In the United States, prospective adoptive parents allegedly were told that the youngsters were orphans or abandoned by families who could not care for them, claims that were false.

U.S. immigration laws require adopted children to be orphans, defined as abandoned by both parents or left with one parent who cannot provide care.

However, prosecutors say some parents took children to a Focus on Children "nanny house," but they often visited and took the youngsters home for extended stays. They say other children were cared for at home even after adoption paperwork was done.

Recruiters exploited the faith of the Samoan parents -- many of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- and their dreams for a better life for their children, according to prosecutors.

These recruiters allegedly sold adoption as a "program" that would send youngsters to live with an American Mormon family and get a good education before returning home at 18. The Samoan parents claim they also were promised money, regular letters and photos from the U.S. families.

An LDS church spokesman has said the church has never had any affiliation with the Focus on Children adoption program.

The defendants all pleaded not guilty at their arraignments and have been free pending resolution of the case. Lawyers for the Bankses, who operated Focus on Children, said four of Samoa's most prestigious attorneys had given sworn affidavits describing how Samoan birth parents were repeatedly told they were giving up legal rights to their children and should not expect to see them again.

Focus on Children ceased operations in Utah in the summer of 2007.

pmanson@sltrib.com

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