Adoption scam hits home
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By Sharon Roznik
March 2, 2009 / fdlreporter.com
With only five hours notice, Patti Sawyer and her family faced the cameras of "Good Morning America" last week to tell a story fraught with heartbreak but also hope.
The Fond du Lac mother of three was the focus of a segment on an adoption scam that involved her Samoan daughter, 8-year-old Jayden.
The girl's biological Samoan parents — along with other Samoan parents —were tricked into giving up their children after being told they would be educated in the United States and returned at age 18.
On Feb. 25, a Salt Lake City federal court sentenced four people associated with the adoption agency, Focus on Children, to five years of probation on misdemeanor counts of aiding and abetting the illegal entry of an alien. They were also banned from the adoption business for life, according to the Associated Press.
For now, it's good news for the Sawyer family. So far, the U.S. government is making no attempt to disrupt the adoptions and the Samoan government is stating that the 37 American adoptions involved in the case are legal.
"In all reality, Jayden's parents wanted her here," Sawyer said. "But, in return, they wanted communication, and that's the side we have to work on."
Sawyer adopted Jayden on Feb. 9, 2005, from Western Samoa, a Pacific island with no telephones and little communication with the outside world. Sawyer said she had thoroughly researched Focus on Children and from what she could find, the international agency had a good reputation.
Looking back, she recalls red flags going up as the adoption process became an ordeal and things she was being told didn't seem to jibe.
"Snags came up, delays and excuses. When I finally did get her home, I was glad to be done with the whole thing," Sawyer said.
At first, the agency told Sawyer that Jayden had been found abandoned in a restroom, and there were no siblings or biological parents
Later, the story changed. The agency told Sawyer that Jayden was the youngest child in a family of eight youngsters, and the parents had relinquished her because they couldn't afford to feed her.
"They said to me, 'Oh Patty, don't worry about it. We have to say she has parents over there, otherwise the paperwork moves so slow and we would have to do all these legal postings and searches,'" Sawyer said.
"They put a guilt trip on me about the need to rescue Samoan children from certain poverty. I had doubts about what was happening at the time, but I wanted to believe them — that we were working together to help these children," she said.
Jayden, who turns 9 this week, arrived in Fond du Lac a healthy, happy girl, socially outgoing and energetic. Although she didn't appear to be suffering from poverty, Sawyer put the questions out of her mind as Jayden learned English and thrived in her new home.
About a year after the adoption, Sawyer received a letter from federal government officials, asking her to contact them about her daughter's adoption.
"According to a special agent, the Samoan parents were told that their children were being sent to America to get an education. They believed there would be periodic visits home, with letters and e-mails in between, and that their children would return home permanently when they were age 18," Sawyer said. "The agency told the Samoan parents the same thing they had told us: Just trust us, don't worry about anything."
The scandal was brought to light when an older, adopted child picked up English and told her adoptive parents stories that didn't match what the agency had told the couple.
Sawyer's case was one of 37 Samoan adoptions brought forth during the indictment proceedings, though the agency had been involved in 81 adoptions. News reports indicate that only one American man chose to return his adopted daughter to her Samoan parents.
The ruling from the federal judge requires that the convicted set up a trust fund for adoptive parents to use to communicate with the Samoan families, but Sawyer said she doesn't know what the amount will be.
"I am trying to respect the wishes of Jayden's parents. They wanted her to have opportunities, and they wanted communication. The difficulty is, I don't have the money to travel and take Jayden back there for a visit," Sawyer said.
Bill and Donna Harmer first met Jayden when she showed up one day doing cartwheels on their front lawn. Soon, she had moved in her coloring books and crayons, and become an integral part of their lives.
"We live next door and she just sort of adopted us. She is very close to our hearts and you should hear the sounds of joy that come from this house when she is here," Bill Harmer said.
He believes it would harm the 8-year old if she were forced to return to Samoa.
"She has been here long enough that it wouldn't be to her advantage to be taken away. It's not the right thing to do," he said.
Sawyer points out that Jayden hasn't seen her family in three years, and if the opportunity arose, the child would need counseling to understand what was going on. She sees a bright future for Jayden, when some day she will have two sets of families that will know her and love her.
Still, there are unanswered questions that nag at Sawyer.
"I'd like to ask the agency whether they were doing all this for money, or if they were really thinking that they were bettering the lives of some of the Samoan people. I struggle with the reason because Jayden came here a very happy, well-adjusted, healthy young girl," she said.
The Sawyer family also includes 16-year-old twins, Cameron and Mallory — both sophomores at Fond du Lac High School.