The Salt Lake Tribune
June 18, 2007
When Walt Webster signed up with Focus on Children last November to adopt two Kazakhstani girls, the Utah adoption agency neglected to mention it was under criminal investigation.
Four months later, the agency's owners were charged with violating immigration laws to bring Samoan children into the country. Webster remained oblivious.
It wasn't until he received an e-mail from a sister agency, Focus on Children of Wyoming, offering to take over his adoption that "alarms went off." He jumped on the Internet, found news of the federal indictment against the Utah agency and realized "there goes my $1,700."
The Florida computer tech isn't a fan of big government, but wishes someone would have alerted clients. Now he wants to know if anyone has investigated ties between the agencies. "Why should I trust this group in Wyoming?"
Industry regulators in Utah and Wyoming give no straight answers and federal officials won't talk. The absence of authoritative information is frustrating for families contemplating international adoption. It also signals larger problems with the enforcement of adoption laws when agencies work overseas.
It's a problem of special concern for Utah, where two adoption agencies have recently come under scrutiny for allegedly tricking birth families into relinquishing their children: Focus on Children in Samoa, and Legacy International in the Marshall Islands.
'No way to verify'
Both agencies were licensed in Utah but did much of their work in other states and countries, creating jurisdictional and communication challenges for regulators.
"We try to inform parents anytime you deal with international adoption, you're taking a risk," said Ken Stettler, director of Utah Human Services Licensing.
Stettler's licensors began fielding complaints about Focus on Children's (FOC) dealings in Samoa two years before the indictment, in the spring of 2005. That summer, an immigration official alerted the office that a child at a FOC nanny home in Samoa had died of malnutrition.
The agent said she suspected FOC was falsifying documents for some of the children it had placed with American families, records obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open records request show. State licensor Janice Knaphus visited FOC's Utah office and cited the agency for minor rule violations. She left questions of immigration compliance for federal officials to sort through - declining their request to do warrantless searches of FOC files and finances.
"It was probably about this time that Jan came into my office and asked [rhetorically], 'How would you like to send me to Samoa?' " said Stettler. "These were legal issues outside our jurisdiction."
Under Utah law, agencies must abide by U.S. and international laws. They must strive to show birth parents are emotionally ready to consent, and they can't guarantee any arrangement for future contact from adoptive families.
Such misconduct is alleged in the federal indictment against FOC employees. But Utah licensors had "no way to verify all that" without traveling to Samoa, said Stettler.
The indictment alleges FOC staffers duped families into surrendering their children, promising they would return at age 18 with an education. In the U.S., staffers falsely described the children as orphans, it charges. The U.S. defendants have pleaded not guilty.
Similar accusations surrounding Marshallese adoptions led Utah to place Legacy International on probation in 2002. Because the agency flew pregnant women to the U.S. to deliver and relinquish their children, the state was freer to act, said Stettler.
Experts say there's no regulatory failsafe. But reputable agencies belong to a professional association, have a state license and accreditation in foreign countries, said Thomas DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services (JCIS).
"Missing any one of those ingredients," DiFilipo said, is "a red flag."
FOC met all those criteria. Webster made sure of it and checked the agency's references, he said.
Had Webster checked with Utah's Better Business Bureau, he would found three complaints from parents seeking refunds. But such complaints are common for adoption agencies, said Utah bureau president Jane Driggs.
"Emotions run high and families often have to wait longer than they're willing," she said.
Also, the bureau has no regulatory powers. The agencies that do have such authority report only confirmed violations, not complaints.
Separate and distinct?
FOC in Utah has essentially shut down. It sent 50 clients to Focus on Children of Wyoming, said director Danalee Thornock. "They just transferred files to us to finish them up. There was no transfer of funds."
Half the clients took Thornock up on her offer to complete their adoptions for an extra $250 for her costs. Such emergency arrangements are common in the industry.
But FOC of Utah's ties to Wyoming don't end there.
Utah Department of Commerce records list FOC as a foreign corporation licensed in Wyoming and doing business in Utah. Karen and Scott Banks, FOC owners named in the indictment, are listed alongside Thornock as principal founders. The two agencies also filed their taxes jointly, grossing $801,990 in 2005.
Thornock and Karen Banks are sisters who founded Focus on Children in Cokeville, Wyo., in 1994. The Bankses started the Samoan program before moving in 2001 to Wellsville, a small Utah town about 80 miles from Cokeville.
FOC of Wyoming has taken pains to distance itself, saying on its Web site that staff, international programs, financing and licensing have been "separate and distinct" since 2003.
But the indictment covers adoptions undertaken between March 2002 and June 2005. U.S. officials won't say if the agency came under investigation in the Samoa probe. Thornock has not been charged and her Wyoming license is current.
The indictment has hurt business, said Thornock. "We used to get four or five sign-ups a month. Now we're lucky to get one."
She stressed that "just because I don't work with [the Bankses,] doesn't mean I think they're guilty. We may have differences on how we work, but not on the moral level."
Thornock's daughter-in-law, Karalee Thornock of Tooele, is named in the indictment, as is Coleen Bartlett of Evanston, Wyo.
No Utah license
Another tie to Wyoming: Its state regulators received two complaints about the Bankses and Samoa in 2004.
One came from a family who adopted two Samoan sisters through FOC in Wyoming. Years later, Scott Banks asked if they wanted to adopt the girls' brother. He said he was living in Utah but his company was headquartered in Wyoming, records show.
"At no time were we ever told that we were dealing with any company other than the one we hired in Wyoming," the family wrote in February 2004 to Wyoming licensors.
The complaint prodded a Wyoming licensor to suggest Thornock change her agency's name. Thornock did, but did not remove the Bankses from her company's organizational chart until after the indictment was announced.
Meanwhile, Utah licensing records show FOC was doing business in Utah for almost 2 1/2 years without a license.
They applied in March 2001, but did not submit all the paperwork. After nudging from regulators, they were licensed on August 1, 2003. Operating without a license is a class A misdemeanor, but only if someone is harmed, said Stettler.
Such particulars don't interest clients caught up in the mess. "This is clearly a family business," said Webster.
Tiffany Towns of Fremont, Ind., lost a year and $8,500 working with FOC. She said the Bankses cashed her last check for $1,500 a day after they were indicted.
"If I had known they were being investigated, I wouldn't have contracted with them. It should be mandatory for them to disclose that to clients," said Towns.
She is searching for a new agency.
"When one agency hears you've been talking to another, they say, 'They're no good, don't work with them,' " said Towns. "There's no place for parents to go for the truth."
* BROOKE ADAMS contributed to this report.