Utah adoption probe widens
Salt Lake Tribune, The (UT)
Author: Kirsten Stewart The Salt Lake Tribune
They promised a better life for her and her children: money, schooling, work and American comforts.
But the clincher for Asako Ralpho - the reason she agreed to travel from the Marshall Islands to Utah to place her four children for adoption, lying to immigration officials about the trip - was the assurance she would remain close to her kids.
Five years later, Ralpho says she can count on one hand the number of times she has spoken to her "babies." Free housing and other enticements also never materialized, said Ralpho, who asserts she was tricked into permanently surrendering her children by Utah agency Legacy International Adoptions.
Her story, and the attempted illegal adoption of about eight other children from the tiny Republic of the Marshall Islands, led Utah regulators to place Legacy's license on probation in July 2002. The action escaped public attention in the United States, even as the practices of Legacy and two other Utah adoption agencies were creating a stir in the impoverished islands, spawning reform of the country's adoption laws.
Legacy is now under investigation by U.S. federal officials, state officials confirm. Janice Knaphus, who licenses adoption agencies for the Utah Department of Human Services, said an indictment is pending.
In April, a Marshallese newspaper reported U.S. agents were in Majuro, the country's capital, investigating Legacy. Michael Jenkins, director of the authority overseeing adoptions, told the Marshall Islands Journal that Legacy is the No. 1 violator of a 2002 law that made soliciting birth mothers and offshore adoptions illegal.
Jenkins alleged Legacy operated an "adoption sweatshop," continuing to plunder the nation of its children after being informed its presence was no longer welcome or legal. Legacy was suspended from operating there in February 2002.
Federal authorities in Utah would not comment on any investigation involving Legacy. The agency's owner, Teresa Snow of Salt Lake City, did not respond to repeated calls. She has denied misleading Ralpho, licensing records show.
Utah licensors also have been unable to reach Snow, who let her license lapse in January.
An easy target
Legacy is the second Utah adoption agency to recently draw fire for work in the Pacific Islands. In March, owners and managers of Focus on Children were indicted on charges of running a baby-smuggling operation in Samoa.
In both countries, adoption is casual and common. Children don't lose ties with birth parents, instead creating a link between families. Children are usually adopted by relatives who have more resources to support them.
But international adoptions skyrocketed in the late '90s. And evidence of fraud and coercion by adoption agencies spurred the nation's high court to issue statements in 2000 decrying the export of their youth.
Prior to 2002, birth mothers could easily acquire passports to travel to America. The absence of red tape, and no requirements for an adoptive parent's marital status, age or family size, made the Marshall Islands a cheap and easy target for adoption agencies.
Now all adoptions must be completed inside the country and approved by its courts.
But Ralpho and Susan Graser, director of Noah's Ark Adoptions in Ogden, said Marshallese women have been coming to Utah early in their pregnancies.
Ralpho said she has befriended other pregnant Marshallese women who have come to Utah to surrender children. Some of them disappeared late last year, she said, after federal raids of apartments where birth mothers were living.
Graser also heard of the raids, in Tremonton and Brigham City, from former Legacy clients who came to her saying their adoptions had fallen through because their birth mothers had vanished.
Among the clients Graser snagged from Legacy were Travis and Lindsey Wells, of Willard.
'We heard nothing'
The Wellses said they signed on with Legacy about a year ago, in July. In November, Lindsey Wells said, the agency charged her $3,000 to fly a pregnant Marshallese birth mother to Utah.
"They said, 'We have a mom who is ready to come over and be matched,' " said Wells, adding she was also told she would pay $300 a month toward the mother's living expenses.
The check cleared the bank Nov. 8.
"After that, we heard nothing. I tried calling, but their phones were shut off. Then I heard from other adoptive families there had been a raid," said Wells.
On May 10, the young couple adopted a Marshallese baby girl through Noah's Ark. On the same day, the Wellses settled a civil claim against Legacy, for a refund of $1,000 of the $4,100 they had paid.
Graser's "one-woman" agency had been doing brisk business in the Marshall Islands. During the reforms, it underwent lesser scrutiny and was required to get a Utah license. Now she only works with Marshallese women who get pregnant in America, she said.
Graser, who says she still makes humanitarian trips to the islands, feels some agencies may have acted unethically but the country has done a disservice by limiting adoptions.
Marshallese people live in extreme poverty, said Graser. "Every time I travel there, I get moms begging me to take their kids to the U.S. I don't think moms here would like the government telling them they can't adopt."
'I cried so hard'
Ralpho, who goes by "Lucy," said she was introduced to Legacy by a Marshallese woman, its in-country facilitator. The woman knew Ralpho's mother and came to her in August 2001, she said, asking if she had any babies.
Ralpho said the woman convinced her to surrender her baby boy to Legacy, rather than another agency that had come knocking.
She relinquished custody of her kids - then ages 6, 4, 2 and 6 months - on Sept. 4, 2001, at a public park just hours after traveling to Salt Lake City by plane. Ralpho said she did not read the relinquishment papers but was told by a translator to sign them "so she could work and see her kids."
When Ralpho said goodbye, she said, "I cried so hard. It felt like my heart stopped pumping."
She said she was told she could see the children on their birthdays and other important dates and call or write them at will. When that didn't happen, she said, she sought help, and a state investigation began in January 2002.
The next month, Marshallese High Court Chief Justice Charles Henry issued a restraining order, barring the travel of eight children to the U.S. The children were slated for adoption by Legacy.
'Look for me'
Legacy employees deny making false promises to Ralpho, according to affidavits and transcripts of telephone calls with Utah licensors, obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through a records request.
Snow claimed Ralpho's three oldest children were being raised by grandparents, not their mother. She also insisted the papers Ralpho signed made it clear she may never see her kids again. Licensors never received copies Snow promised to send them.
In July 2002, Utah placed Legacy on probation for attempting to remove children from the islands prior to their being freed for adoption, stopping short of revoking its license. Another birth mother in Utah had also complained about the agency.
"This was the first [set of complaints] we had on them," said Carol Sisco, Utah Department of Human Services spokeswoman. "We generally give people a chance to correct problems."
Ralpho, now 37, lives on the west side of Salt Lake City with two children she conceived here and her boyfriend. She struggles financially but doesn't want to leave for fear of forever losing touch with her four older children, adopted by three Utah families. One allows contact with the two middle children.
She harbors no ill will toward the families who "love and care" for her children.
"Legacy lied to them, too," she said. "They told them my children were orphans."
If she could, she would tell her children: "Look for me when you turn 18. Come back to me. I love you very much and I'm sorry, because I didn't know this would happen."
This was the first [set of complaints] we had on them. . . . We generally give people a chance to correct problems.
On Legacy: - Carol Sisco, Utah Department of Human Services spokeswoman
Marshall Islands native Asako "Lucy" Ralpho wipes tears as she talks about giving up four of her children to a Utah adoption agency in 2001 as her daughter stands nearby.