Claims about 'orphans' key in shady adoptions
Brooke Adams and Pamela Manson
The Salt Lake Tribune
One little word could have clued adoptive families working with Focus on Children that something might be amiss with the adoption agency.
That word: Orphan.
In Samoa, where extended family is the "most important facet" of society, there is no such term.
"Everything in Samoa relates to family," said Paul Cox, director of the Institute for Ethnomedicine in Provo and, after decades working in the country, an expert on Samoan culture. "The thought that we have orphanages is appalling to Samoans."
A 135-count federal indictment unsealed Thursday accuses the Wellsville-based Focus on Children (FOC) and seven of its operators of duping parents in Samoa into giving their children to the agency. The indictment alleges the defendants lied to prospective adoptive parents in the United States by saying the youngsters were orphans and needed homes.
On Friday, the Utah Department of Human Services began proceedings to revoke FOC's license, first issued in 2003, said spokeswoman Carol Sisco.
Federal authorities say the FOC scam involved more than 80 children - eight to 10 of whom were placed in Utah - and began no later than March 2002 and operated until June 2005. The birth parents believed the youngsters were being temporarily placed in U.S. homes and would return when they reached adulthood, according to the indictment. Instead, FOC placed the children permanently with U.S. parents, the indictment says.
Facing federal charges are Scott and Karen Banks, of Wellsville; Dan Wakefield, of Utah; Tagaloa Ieti, of Samoa; Julie Tuiletufuga, of Samoa; Coleen Bartlett of Evanston, Wyo.; and Karalee Thornock, of Tooele.
The defendants are charged with conspiracy, immigration violations - including visa fraud - and money laundering. The maximum prison terms for the offenses range from five years to 20 years. Wakefield, who for years lived in Samoa, will have an initial appearance Monday at 9:30 a.m. in U.S. Magistrate Judge Sam Alba's courtroom.
FOC charged adoption fees of $13,000 for one child and $20,000 for two. In addition, adoptive parents had to pay other expenses, including the cost of traveling to New Zealand to file immigration forms at the U.S. consulate there.
The agency reportedly persuaded Samoan parents to turn over their children to FOC, offering money, food and other "humanitarian assistance" and promises the children would be educated abroad and later returned home.
The agency also allegedly claimed to be affiliated with the U.S. government or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the indictment said.
The LDS Church on Friday said in a statement that it has no affiliation with FOC. Spokesman Scott Trotter said the church is affiliated only with LDS Family Services, which does adoptions.
But the claim was a selling point for FOC in Samoa, where about 30 percent of the population is Mormon.
FOC allegedly placed some Samoan children in a "nanny home" where they waited for the adoptions to be completed. FOC told some adoptive parents that children were at the nanny home when in fact they were with their birth parents, the indictment said.
Conditions were so poor at the "nanny home" that one malnourished toddler died two days after her birth parents took her to a hospital, the indictment alleges.
To keep adoptive parents from learning of the conditions or of any objections by the birth parents, the FOC operators allegedly discouraged travel to Samoa by falsely claiming there was an outbreak of German measles or that a hurricane had hit the South Pacific island.
Sisco said her department was getting complaints about FOC by 2004 and had become concerned in general about adoptions from Samoa.
Some of the complaints involved lack of communication to prospective adoptive families, she said. The department did spot checks on FOC paperwork but had no way of knowing whether any of the signatures by parents agreeing to adoptions of their children were coerced, Sisco said.
The girl's death in 2005 prompted Samoan authorities to toughen the nation's adoption laws, according to the Samoa Observer. In the case of a foreign adoption, the Samoan attorney general must certify there are no suitable family members in Samoa who are willing and able to care for the child and there is no other suitable arrangement available in the country.
But Utah officials continued to get complaints about FOC, Sisco said, and state agencies coordinated with federal authorities on their investigation.
At least one of those charged has ties to another troubled venture. Wakefield was a partner in New Hope Academy, a residential treatment facility set up in Apia, Samoa, in mid-1998. It closed just months later, stranding five teens.
Wakefield blamed the failure of New Hope Academy on a consultant it hired, Steve Cartisano, who left Utah after a teen died in a wilderness therapy program he founded.
The indictment alleges Wakefield lied to Samoans and adoptive parents about the circumstances surrounding the adoptions, the conditions in which the children lived and why their birth parents would relinquish them. Allegedly, he and other recruiters also actively solicited and pressured Samoan parents to give their children up for adoption.
Wakefield's involvement in FOC came as a "shock" to some who know him.
"My understanding was he was helping the government of Samoa with treating sick animals," said Fotu Aiono, a Samoan native and retired accountant who has lived in Utah since 1963. "As far as orphanages in Samoa, I don't think they have any."
Gaugau Tavana, of Hawaii, a native Samoan and Brigham Young University graduate who has worked with Cox, said calling the children orphans was "absolutely absurd."
"We don't abandon children in Samoa," he said. "There is a place for everyone."
Cox said children in Samoa move freely within the extended family, commonly being raised by other relatives.
"It would be very easy for Western people and Polynesian people to have misunderstandings concerning adoption," he said. "In our culture, adoption is considered a one-way street, and that would not be clear or obvious to a Polynesian."
In the Samoan culture, there is an expectation that someone sent abroad to be educated or to work will send money home to support family, Cox said. Such remittances are the largest source of foreign income in the Samoan economy, he said.
"In the Samoan worldview, one of the worst things that can happen to you is to be banished from your extended family and not have any more contact," Cox said.
* Location: Two islands and seven small islets about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand.
* Territory: Slightly smaller than Rhode Island.
* Population: 177,714 est.
* Government: Mix of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy.
* Economy: Dependent on development aid and family remittances from overseas. Vulnerable to devastating storms. Agriculture employs two-thirds of labor force.
'No interest' in taking kids from adoptive parents
* On Friday, U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman tried to reassure parents - both here and in Samoa - about the situation.
"We recognize that learning of this alleged conspiracy has created anxiety for both birth and adoptive parents of the children in this case," he said, adding that his office "has no interest in taking children away from adoptive parents. We are interested, where appropriate, in encouraging a dialogue between birth and adoptive parents."
* The Salt Lake Tribune would like to hear from families who have adopted children from Samoa or worked with Focus on Children. Please call 801-257-8742 or e-mail Assistant Managing Editor Peg McEntee at firstname.lastname@example.org.