Judge has mercy on Samoan adoption scam defendants; no prison time
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By Pamela Mason and Steve Gehrke
25 February 2009 / The Salt Lake Tribune
A judge on Wednesday rejected pleas from adoptive parents to order jail time for four people prosecutors say helped trick Samoan parents into giving up their children through the now-defunct Focus on Children agency.
U.S. District Judge David Sam instead sentenced the four to five years of probation and ordered them to contribute to a trust fund to help adopted children stay in touch with their birth families. He also ordered the defendants to never engage in the adoption business again.
In handing down the sentences, Sam said the case "cries out for a sentence that's restorative rather than punitive."
"We don't want to put these people in prison and have them kept from doing anything," the judge said. "They can address the interests of the children to restore the damage that has been done."
But adoptive parent Mike Nyberg said in court the penalty "should be far greater than a slap on the hands."
Nyberg recounted for Sam the day he and his then-wife picked up their new daughter from a plane that landed in New Zealand. The devastated 4-year-old had messy hair and scabies, and was clutching a small basketball, he said.
The couple were told the basketball was a small going-away gift given by her Samoan parents, but Nyberg said he later learned his daughter was taken from her birth parents under false pretenses. The parents had taken her to a home to be cared for a while, but thought they could go back to pick the girl up, Nyberg said.
Elizabeth and Gary Muenzler, who adopted a Samoan girl through FOC, told Sam both the adoptive and birth families involved had been put in their own "personal prison."
Turning to face the defendants as she read a prepared statement, Elizabeth Muenzler said her daughter has lost years of her childhood due to post-traumatic stress disorder. She called the defendants liars and criminals and said she was unsure she could ever forgive them.
"The betrayal is unfathomable," Muenzler said. "Lord knows, if anyone deserves jail time, it's you."
She added that she prays that someday the defendants will have to answer to all of the Samoan children in person.
However, many adoptive parents wrote letters in support of the defendants. And Rod Young, a Pleasant Grove man who adopted a son through FOC, told the judge at the sentencing hearing that his experience with the agency was wonderful.
He said that parents who adopted older children have to expect attachment disorder problems and that overall, the adoptees are better off.
Sentenced were Scott Banks, 47, who held a management position at the agency, on five counts; Karen Banks, 46, who also held a management position, five counts; Coleen Bartlett, 52, who, among other duties, facilitated the adoption of Samoan children, two counts; and Karalee Thornock, 36, who served as a Pacific Islands case worker, one count.
Focus on Children itself, which entered a guilty plea to a felony count of conspiracy through its court-appointed defense attorney, was ordered to pay $400 in special assessment fees.
A fifth defendant, Dan Wakefield, who helped locate children in Samoa to be placed for adoption, has pleaded guilty to five counts of the misdemeanor and will be sentenced next month.
Prosecutors accused the five of conspiring to arrange adoptions that violated U.S. immigration laws, and alleged the scheme included lying to Samoan birth parents and American adoptive parents. As part of a plea bargain with the U.S. Attorney's Office, all five pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the illegal entry of an alien, a misdemeanor.
Dozens of felony charges against them were dropped, and prosecutors recommended probation. Wakefield is expected to get the same sentence as the others.
In addition to contributing to the trust fund, the plea deal calls for Scott and Karen Banks to:
» Participate through their attorneys in a news conference where they will talk about the case to educate the public and others who might be engaged in similar conduct.
» Meet with prosecutors and the State Department to provide information on FOC's adoption practices in Samoa, Guatemala and other countries to see if adjustments need to be made in U.S. laws.
» Relinquish all rights in adoption documents, photographs and other papers related to Samoan adoptions.
A federal grand jury issued an indictment in early 2007 accusing the defendants of a total of 135 counts of conspiracy, fraud and immigration violations. The charges covered the period between March 2002 and June 2005 and specifically involved the adoptions of 37 children by U.S. families.
Samoan parents said relatives or friends pushed a program -- often described as affiliated with the LDS Church -- that would educate children in the United States and return them at age 18. The agency allegedly charged the adoptive parents a fee of $13,000 to facilitate the adoption and immigration of a Samoan child.
U.S. immigration laws required the children to be orphans, defined as abandoned by both parents or left with one parent who cannot provide care.
Charges are still pending against two defendants, Samoan citizens Tagaloa Ieti and Julie Tuiletufuga, whom the United States has been unable to extradite.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has said it has no connection to FOC. But the alleged claim was a selling point for FOC in Samoa, where about 30 percent of the population is Mormon.
The case has led to a call for reform involving international adoptions. To stem abuses, experts are pushing for national adoption laws to replace a patchwork of state laws; limiting the amount of money involved in the adoption of foreign children to prevent human trafficking; and making U.S. agencies responsible for the actions of their overseas contractors.