A community in shock
Herald Journal, The (Logan, UT)
Lawyers, neighbors, Wellsville officials react to indictment of Focus on Children
Author: Charles Geraci
WELLSVILLE — The community is in shock after a couple here was accused Thursday of participating in an intricate adoption scheme allegedly consisting of convincing poor Samoan families to relinquish their children for adoption in the United States.
Scott and Karen Banks, principal shareholders of Focus on Children, are accused of profiting from an adoption scam, which authorities say victimized both the adoptive and birth families.
A 135-count federal indictment unsealed Thursday alleges the Banks and five other individuals, including three in Samoa, participated in illicit activities involving the adoption of more than 80 Samoan children.
According to the indictment, parents in Samoa were tricked into giving up their children under the premise that they would receive an American education, return to the country at age 18 and remain in contact with their birth parents.
Adoptive parents in the United States reportedly were told they were adopting orphans living in dire conditions with parents unable to adequately care for them.
"It's very painful to see that the victims are on all sides of the adoption transaction," U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman told The Herald Journal, noting the majority of the children are still in the United States.
The indictment also alleges that the accused prepared affidavits — written in English — for signature by the Samoan parents in relinquishing their children.
Authorities contend that Focus on Children also set up a "nanny home" where some Samoan children stayed in the interim prior to the conclusion of the adoption process.
In recounting the adoptions of two Samoan children, the indictment says the birth parents occasionally visited them at the facility, which was also housing some older siblings.
"During such visits, the birth parents became concerned for the welfare of their children and observed that they were not eating as much, had sores on their bodies, and had clearly deteriorated since entering into FOC's care," the indictment reads. "Further, the older children reported to the birth parents that children at the nanny home were spanked and beaten with a broomstick when they asked for more food."
The authorities claim adoptive parents paid $13,000 per child, or $20,000 for two of them, and that birth parents were told the program was affiliated with the U.S. government or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In a statement released to The Herald Journal on Friday, the LDS Church flatly denied being involved with the adoption agency.
"The Focus on Children adoption program has no affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," the statement reads. "Representations otherwise are false. LDS Family Services, the official adoption agency of the church, coordinates adoptions only in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand."
Wellsville City Councilman Ron Case said it is unfortunate the LDS Church is alleged to have been used by the agency.
"The church does so many good things that people try to take advantage of that good reputation and run these scams," he said.
Charges in the indictment include conspiracy, bringing illegal aliens to the United States, fraud and money laundering. The indictment contains charges against the following: Scott Banks, 46, of Wellsville; Karen Banks, 45, of Wellsville; Dan Wakefield, 70, a U.S. citizen living in Apia, Samoa; Tagaloa Ieti, 44, of Samoa; Julie Tuiletufuga, age unknown, of Samoa; Coleen Bartlett, 40, of Evanston, Wyo.; Karalee Thornock, 34, of Tooele, Utah; and Focus on Children.
If convicted, the defendants could face several years in federal prison.
Rebecca Hyde, attorney for Karen Banks and the adoption agency, said her clients are not guilty of all charges.
"I would say that having spent a lot of time with these folks, that these people are very caring and very conscientious," she said. "They employed and used attorneys in Samoa who participated in the adoption process, and I believe that those attorneys acted in good faith."
She added that the Banks have been involved in worldwide adoptions — ranging from South America to Eastern Europe — for many years and have never had problems.
In addition, Hyde said that facts in the indictment pertaining to the adoption process were omitted.
"We don't see eye to eye with the U.S. Attorney's office both with respect to what the Banks and Focus on Children's legal obligations were with ... the Samoan adoptions or the underlying factual allegations," she said.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Virginia Kice, confirmed to The Herald Journal that the agency raided the Banks' home in February 2006 in a search for evidence after obtaining a warrant.
There was no response Friday when The Herald Journal knocked on the door of the Banks' home, located at 65 E. 600 North, and the adoption agency's Web site was taken offline Thursday.
The couple's neighbor, Marci Larsen, who lives across the street, believes the Banks have done nothing wrong.
"I know that it is untrue, and the charges are unfair," Larsen said. "They are honest people, and they are good people."
Though Larsen said the Banks have been advised by their attorney not to speak with the media, she noted they have been in contact with friends and neighbors since the indictment. Larsen spoke with Scott Banks at her home Thursday.
"They are exhausted, and they're frustrated," she said. "They don't understand why this is happening because they have done nothing wrong."
Officials in Wellsville have found the charges against the Banks difficult to digest.
"I'm dumbfounded," said City Manager Don Hartle. "I feel very bad for the innocent victims."
Councilman Case, who has two adopted children of his own through a different agency, was also surprised to hear the news.
"I'm a little astonished that something like this would be going on anywhere, especially here in Wellsville," he said.
Mayor Ruth Maughan called the matter "a complete shock."
"We are a peaceful, quiet community so whenever we're in the headlines, it makes you stop and wonder," Maughan said. "When you hear of something like this transpiring in your community, you have concern."
An ongoing investigation is being conducted by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security, ICE and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Tolman said it is possible additional charges will be forthcoming.
The defendants have not been detained by the government. Scott and Karen Banks, Bartlett and Thornock appeared in court Thursday morning in Salt Lake City, and a status conference has been set for April 2.
Kice said the agencies in charge of the investigation are also focused on serving the best interests of the Samoan children.
"Everybody involved wants to do what's best for the children," she said, adding custody will be determined on a case-by-case basis. "The critical thing is making sure that the lines of communication are opened up between the adoptive families and the birth families. We need to be sure that everybody ... is thinking first and foremost about the welfare of these kids."