Supporters speak: 'They gave me the most amazing gift'

Date: 2009-01-07

Pamela Manson and Kirsten Stewart
The Salt Lake Tribune

This story was first published in June 2007

In her quest to find the child she knew was waiting for her somewhere in the world, Jani Muhlestein, of Santaquin, turned to Focus on Children.

Nine months to the day she submitted an application, Muhlestein received 6-month-old Sara in Russia. The girl, now 9, is her pride and joy.

Muhlestein and other supporters of owners Scott and Karen Banks say the agency and its staff are meticulous in helping create families, while charging less, and offer help to clients whom others may have rejected. Muhlestein is single, a barrier for some agencies; some parents already had children or adopted at an older age.

Scott, 46, and Karen, 45, of Wellsville, patiently answered MuhÂlestein's questions, "saw to it that everything was faxed and dealt with," and along with other workers, offered tips on what to expect in Russia.

"They're just among the kindest people I've ever known," said Muhlestein, a software engineer. "They gave me the most amazing gift in the world."

"Something to help people." Focus on Children was started in Wyoming in 1994 by Karen Banks and her sister, Danalee Thornock, "evolving as a result of their own personal adoption experiences."

Thornock, who is not part of the indictment against Focus on Children, said she has worked in adoption for 16 years. "I have two boys who were adopted from Russia; one just graduated [from high school]," she said. She describes "seeing the plight of orphans first-hand and feeling you need to do something to help people."

The Bankses, whose large family also includes adopted children, began the agency's Samoan adoption program in Wyoming. They left the state in 2001, launching a separate agency in Utah. The couple did not comment on the February indictment accusing them, their agency and five employees - including Karalee Thornock of Tooele, Danalee Thornock's daughter-in-law - of fraud and immigration violations during Samoan adoptions.

"I know they haven't done anything wrong," Danalee Thornock said. "I know what kind of people Karen and Scott are."

A Wyoming woman, Coleen Bartlett, is also named in the indictment. It specifically accuses both of the Bankses of lying to adoptive families in America, such as claiming children were in an agency nanny house when they were instead at home with their parents.

In the wake of the charges, FOC is shutting down. Scott Banks is in training to work in construction.

Affordable adoptions. The indictment does not shake the faith of two grateful Millard County mothers.

Carma Hodges, of Holden, and her husband adopted two children from Kazakhstan - Jaden, now 8, and Kierra, 9. They were allowed to pay FOC's fees over time, she said, easing worries about coming up with a large amount of money at once.

Their costs - including FOC fees, a voluntary donation to an orphanage, travel expenses and other payments - totaled $25,000, she said.

Muhlestein paid $5,000 in FOC fees, significantly less than what other agencies charge, she said.

And Joyce Coats and her husband, also of Holden, paid the agency nothing during their adoption a decade ago of then-8-year-old Marcia from Russia. She joined their family of six children.

"They're wonderful people," Coats said. "They just said, 'We're not going to charge you.'"

Shelley Schadowsky of Phoenix, who adopted two girls through FOC last year, has created www with testimonials from parents who adopted in countries other than Samoa.

The Bankses, Schadowsky wrote, "are the most inspirational caregivers I've had the pleasure of knowing."


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