Moms make most of chance to reconnect


Adoption scandal » They hope victims will get same opportunity after sentencing today.

Pamela Manson
The Salt Lake Tribune
Years after she placed her daughter for adoption through the Focus on Children agency, Jennifer Tellam, of Samoa, was finally able to talk to the girl again.

Updates from adoptive mother, Susie Buskirk, on her daughter and photos she receives reassure her she made the right decision.

"She's doing so fine in America," said Tellam in a phone interview from her home in the Pacific Island nation. "She has a good life there."

Yet Tellam and Buskirk know theirs is an exceptional situation -- many parents who adopted through the now-defunct Utah agency say they were deceived into giving up their children when they were told they would be placed temporarily in the United States and return at age 18 after being educated.

Both women and federal prosecutors hope that other Samoan parents will soon have the same opportunity to reconnect after a federal judge sentences agency operators Karen and Scott Banks today.

The Bankses and three employees of the Wellsville agency will be paying into a trust fund to help facilitate communication between birth parents and adoptive parents. The provision is part of a plea deal reached to resolve criminal charges brought against them in 2007. Details of the fund are expected to be released after today's sentencing.

Tellam, a struggling single mother, placed her daughter for adoption when she was 6. The mother, who speaks English, said she understood the adoption was permanent. Still, she is grateful for the contact with Grace, who will turn 13 in April.

The two women have been in touch for the past year and a half, since Buskirk was given Tellam's phone number by the Department of Homeland Security, which helped investigate the FOC case.

Tellam now is caring for three girls who needed a home after the closure of a "nanny house," a facility where FOC placed children waiting for their adoptions to be completed. The closing was prompted by the death of a child there; her parents said they found her in deplorable conditions.

Buskirk said she is glad her daughter has a connection with her Samoan roots and an understanding from her birth mother why she was placed for adoption.

Buskirk said she and her now-ex-husband had some misgivings but couldn't prove anything was wrong with the adoption proceedings. They adopted an unrelated girl and boy through FOC on the same trip to Samoa seven years ago, Grace and Tanielu, now 14.

The couple met Tellam and members of her extended family but were under the impression they weren't allowed to have contact with them after the adoption. Buskirk said she refused to leave the island until she was assured by Tellam that she understood what the adoption meant.

So far, she has not made contact with the birth family of Tanielu, who was one of 17 children, Buskirk said. However, Tellam recently was able to find his mother and might be able to rely information to her.

The children are A students and now assimilated Americans, according to Buskirk. If she had the financial ability, she would take them back to their birth place for a visit. Tellam would welcome seeing them.

"If she wishes to visit, that's good," she said.


Today's sentencing

FOC agency principals Scott and Karen Banks and caseworkers Coleen Bartlet and Karalee Thornock are being sentenced today by U.S. District Judge David Sam on misdemeanor charges involving the adoptions of Samoan children. Dan Wakefield, who located children for adoption for the agency, is slated to be sentenced next month.

A federal grand jury issued a 135-count indictment in February 2007 charging the Focus on Children adoption agency and some of its workers with conspiracy, fraud and immigration violations. The charges targeted 37 of 81 Samoan adoptions by the Wellsville agency between 2002 and mid-2005.

The indictment claimed the Focus on Children workers falsely told Samoan parents that children who they placed for adoption would return to them. 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.

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