Families share adoption woes

Date: 2007-03-13

Salt Lake Tribune, The (UT)
Author: Brooke Adams The Salt Lake Tribune

Joan Sattler and her husband, Amos Worthington, already had opened their home to eight children from around the world when they decided to adopt once again.

At the time, the Pennsylvania couple were in their late 50s, so they looked for countries - and an adoption agency - without age restrictions.

They found Focus on Children, which offered the prospect of adopting a child from Kazakhstan.

In March 2005 they signed on with the Utah agency, beginning what Sattler now describes as a nightmare of delays, denials and unkept promises. They are out nearly $8,000.

And last week, Sattler discovered the agency's troubles ran far deeper than they knew. Sattler and her husband are among nearly a dozen families from across the country who contacted The Salt Lake Tribune to share negative experiences with Focus on Children (FOC), which a federal grand jury indicted last week for allegedly operating a fraudulent adoption scheme in Samoa.

"It just made me sick," Sattler said. "I was dumbfounded."

The indictment names seven people, including principals Scott and Karen Banks of Wellsville; Dan Wakefield of American Fork; Karalee Thornock of Tooele; and Coleen Bartlett of Evanston, Wyo. The charges cover the period between March 2002 and June 2005.

The 135-count indictment specifically involves adoptions of 37 children by U.S. families who were told they were orphans. The children, the indictment alleges, were taken from Samoan families who were coerced into giving them up and believed the placements were temporary.

Last week, a Samoan couple told the Samoa Observer newspaper that they placed three of their children with Utah families in 2004 based on such assurances from Wakefield and another FOC representative. A Samoan attorney who represents FOC and a representative of the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration in Samoa have denounced U.S. allegations, calling them impossible given the country's adoption guidelines (see sidebar).

Because of the charges, the Utah Division of Child and Family Services is looking at either revoking FOC's license or suspending it until court proceedings are completed. DCFS spokeswoman Carol Sisco said in the past the division received a couple of complaints about FOC but could not substantiate them. Spot checks of FOC's records didn't turn up problems, either.

"We got a pattern of poor communication, but that doesn't violate our rules," Sisco said.

Rebecca Hyde, a Salt Lake City attorney who represented FOC prior to the federal charges, said the agency has as many supporters as critics, whose rush to air complaints against the company are to be expected.

"As with any adoption agency, there were those who had negative experiences and those who had a good experience," she said, adding that a mixed perspective is to be expected given the emotional adoption process and vagaries of dealing with foreign countries.

"With foreign adoptions, it is the norm for things to not go smoothly," she said. "It is always going to be fraught with difficulties. It is not unusual for them to fall apart at the last minute."

The indictment focuses on the Utah agency, which split in 2003 from a business Karen Banks and a sister had set up in Wyoming - where some of those who contacted The Tribune say they encountered problems.

Phone calls and e-mails seeking updates on their applications were ignored. Paperwork appeared shoddy. Some were offered unsuitable children; others adopted children they later learned had undisclosed medical problems.

After months working unsuccessfully with FOC to adopt a child in one country, the agency would suggest things might go better in another - a switch that typically involved more time, new paperwork and more money but did not result in a successful adoption.

Those complaints are in line with criticisms of adoption agencies collected by the U.S. State Department in 2001 as it developed the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000 as a signatory to standards enacted by the Hague Convention.

But some parents say their experiences show long-standing problems with Focus on Children.

Mary Ann Brandon of Tyler, Texas, said she spent $7,000 and endured months of anguish with no success in adopting a child from Ukraine.

"They kept telling me it was going to happen and it never did," said Brandon, who worked with the Wyoming-based FOC about six years ago.

Brandon found her concerns were shared by numerous other FOC clients she connected with over the Internet, the same discovery Catherine Toran of Austin, Texas, made. Toran signed up with FOC in 1999 in hopes of adopting a girl from Russia, paying the agency $7,000.

"After 16 months of waiting and false starts all over the place, we couldn't handle their incompetence anymore," Toran said. When FOC refused to refund any of their money, Toran said she complained to the Better Business Bureau but got nowhere.

"Like many of the couples, you give up and try to move on with your life," she said.

Eight weeks after signing on with another agency, the Torans brought home a child. "It was like night and day working with the different organizations," she said.

Hyde said that FOC "always tried to deal fairly with families whose adoptions didn't go through but that didn't entitle them to a full refund of their money."

Susan Stott, who has run the nonprofit adoption agency Families for Children in Utah for the past 22 years, said most agencies will redirect funds from a failed adoption to another placement.

Many also will refund any money left over after subtracting actual expenses. But some have a strict no-refund policy.

As for waiting periods, "When you go with a reputable agency, you know the timeline," Stott said. "A good agency gives you concrete information all along the way."

That includes creating "cluster groups" of clients, where they can share information and lend each other support through the often lengthy wait for a child. Stott's agency even arranges "buddy families" for some couples.

Some families who worked with FOC describe receiving that sort of treatment, describing the agency as "easy to work with" and "an "absolute vision of efficiency, professionalism and kindness."

Others feel they were left hanging.

Ultimately, Brandon and her husband adopted a girl from Ukraine within months, working mostly on their own. "I tried to get my money back but I never heard from them," she said.

The Brandons never pursued legal action after being advised that success was unlikely because they'd signed a contract. Other families reluctantly made the same choice.

Arnette Schultz of Naperville, Ill., also used the Wyoming-based FOC to adopt a child in Russia. After turning in their dossier, they didn't get a referral or any communication for 11 months, she said. Some delays were out of the agency's control, which the Schultzes understood "to some degree, but it was extremely frustrating."

"There was always an excuse why the referrals weren't coming," Schultz said. "Eventually, we did get a referral outside the parameters of what we asked for. We turned it down."

After several months, the Brandons adopted a Russian child who turned out to have an undisclosed medical condition - chronic Hepatitis C, which had been described to them only as a "liver worm."

"Does it matter to me today? No, not one bit," Schultz said, but it has added to their angst about FOC.

After their efforts to adopt in Kazakhstan collapsed, Sattler said, Scott Banks advised them to work with a Canadian man once affiliated with Focus on Children.

But that man asked Sattler for money up front to "reserve" a child and sent her "hundreds of kids" to look at - something she knew is illegal in Ukraine, which prohibits preselection of a child, and should have been a red flag, she said.

Sattler continued to work with both Scott Banks and the Canadian agent. Scott Banks assured her the adoption would be cleared in March and they would be traveling to Ukraine by April.

But in late February, Sattler could no longer reach Scott Banks. On March 3, after news of the indictments broke, the Canadian man contacted her and offered to take over the adoption.

She declined.

"I feel so abused by this agency," said Sattler, who has adopted children from Colombia, Ecuador, Thailand, Nepal, China and the Philippines. "For two years, they dragged me around with all kinds of promises."


The charges

The federal indictment unsealed on March 1 charges Focus on Children and seven individuals with 135 counts:

* Two of conspiracy;

* 37 of bringing in illegal aliens to the United States;

* 37 of encouraging or inducing illegal aliens to come to, enter or reside in the United States;

* 34 of fraud and misuse of visas;

* 19 of laundering of monetary instruments;

* six of monetary transactions in property derived from unlawful activity.


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