Adoption scam defendants cut no-jail-time plea deal

Date: 2009-01-06

Salt Lake Tribune, The (UT)
Author: Pamela Manson And Lisa Rosetta The Salt Lake Tribune

Almost two years after they were charged with defrauding Samoan parents through a Wellsville adoption agency that placed children in Utah and across the country, four defendants connected to Focus on Children pleaded guilty to misdemeanors that will likely net them no jail time.

During a hearing before U.S. District Judge David Sam on Tuesday morning, the four -- Karen Banks; her husband, Scott Banks; Coleen Bartlett; and Karalee Thornock -- all admitted to aiding and abetting the improper entry of an alien and agreed to cease participation in any domestic or international adoption business.

In return, prosecutors have agreed to dismiss dozens of charges and seek five-year probation terms when the defendants are sentenced Feb. 25. The aiding and abetting charge carries a maximum sentence of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.

All four are required to make monthly contributions during their probationary periods to a trust established for the benefit of Samoan children adopted through their agency. Karen and Scott Banks, who operated Focus on Children (FOC), must also:

» Participate in a news conference after their sentencing, where they will make "forthright admission" about the conduct that led to the charges against them. The purpose is to educate the public and others who might be engaged in similar conduct, according to the Bankses' plea agreements. Their statements at that conference must be approved beforehand by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

» Meet with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the State Department to provide information concerning FOC's adoption practices in Samoa, Guatemala and other countries. The information will be used to see if adjustments need to be made in U.S. laws to ensure children are protected in the future.

» Relinquish all rights in adoption documents, photographs and other papers related to Samoan adoptions.

Sam noted Tuesday morning he issued the order to protect the adopted children, and then read a statement drafted by prosecutors and approved by defense attorneys that described the case as a unique matter that "required a creative, forward-looking approach to ensure that justice is served."

The statement said the trust will help "empower birth parents and adoptive parents to do what they believe is in the best interest of their children" and a trustee will administer it.

"Further details of the trust and other reasons for the decisions made in the case will be discussed following sentencing in the case," the written statement said.

A federal grand jury in Salt Lake City issued a 135-count indictment in February 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.

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.

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.

Prosecutors allege some parents took children to an FOC "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.

The defendants have been free pending resolution of the case. Lawyers for the Bankses have said four of Samoa's most prestigious attorneys gave 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.

In the United States, one Southwestern adoptive mother, who learned her daughter's birth father did not abandon her and instead tried to halt the adoption, said Tuesday that she is pleased the defendants are accepting responsibility for their actions.

However, she added, "We would have wished the defendants would have received jail time for their actions, and the plea does not address the adoptions and permanency of the adoptions in the U.S. -- now or in the future."

The mother, who plans to make a victim impact statement at the defendants' sentencing hearing, also said, "No plea bargain can compensate for the anguish and cost -- both emotionally and financially -- to the real victims in this case: our children. However, it is a relief to have this part of the process behind us."

In Samoa, meanwhile, no charges have been filed in the case. Samoa Attorney General Ming C. Leung Wai said Monday that police there have yet to complete their investigations, including one involving the death of a 1-year-old infant girl who was staying at a FOC nanny house in Ululoloa.

The Samoan coroner found that Heta Nua died in June 2005 at Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital of malnutrition caused by gastroenteritis and severe dehydration, sparking Samoan police's investigation into the agency.

The girl's parents, Sioka and Avea Nua, said when Dan Wakefield was there, Heta and three siblings sent with her were treated well. But in his absence, the Nuas said, children would go days without bathing and were sometimes beaten with brooms for asking for food. The Nuas went to the nanny house in 2005 to check on Heta after not seeing her for several weeks. They found the toddler with turkey bones in her mouth and realized she was sick. After treating her with home remedies, the couple took her to a hospital in Apia, where she died days later.

Assistant Police Commissioner Li'o Papalii Taeu Masipau had not responded to a request for information at press time.

Wakefield pleaded guilty to five counts of aiding and abetting the improper entry of an alien Tuesday and must also contribute to the trust fund. Prosecutors will also recommend probation for Wakefield.

Also on Tuesday, an attorney entered a guilty plea to a felony charge of conspiracy on behalf of the Focus on Children agency, which ceased operations in Utah in the summer of 2007. Under its plea deal, the business must dissolve and could be ordered to pay a fine of up to $250,000.

The U.S. government so far has been unable to extradite the other two defendants, Samoan citizens Tagaloa Ieti and Julie Tuiletufuga.


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