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Utah adoption agency hit by fraud allegations


Salt Lake Tribune, The (UT)

Author: Pamela Manson The Salt Lake Tribune

Operators of a private adoption agency in Utah are accused of duping parents in Samoa into giving them their children and then falsely describing the youngsters as orphans to prospective adoptive parents in the United States.

More than 80 children were illegally taken from their families by conspirators working through the Wellsville office of Focus on Children (FOC), according to a federal indictment unsealed Thursday. The agency allegedly charged the adoptive parents a fee of $13,000 to facilitate the adoption and immigration of a Samoan child.

Both sides of the adoption process had acted in good faith, authorities said. The alleged fraud leaves the status of the children and their placement in U.S. homes, including some in Utah and Wyoming, uncertain.

"For the birth parents in Samoa, who believed they were only temporarily releasing their children, the pain in palpable," Thomas Depenbrock, of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, said at a Thursday news conference in Salt Lake City. "For the adoptive parents accepting children they were told were uncared for and in need of good homes, the deceit is shocking."

The indictment alleges the conspiracy began no later than March 2002 and continued through June 2005. The children ranged from infants to 12-year-olds.

U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said authorities are working to put the birth parents and adoptive parents in touch to discuss a resolution. If no agreement is reached, courts in either or both countries might become involved in determining on a case-by-case basis who gets legal custody of the adoptees.

"It is impossible to articulate how deep the pain is," Tolman said.

The indictment charges FOC and seven individuals with a total of 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; and six of monetary transactions in property derived from unlawful activity.

Named as defendants are Scott Banks, 46, of Wellsville; Karen Banks, 45, Wellsville; Dan Wakefield, 70, a U.S. citizen living in Apia, Samoa; Tagaloa Ieti, 44, Samoa; Julie Tuiletufuga, age unknown, Samoa; Coleen Bartlett, 40, Evanston, Wyo.; Karalee Thornock, 34, Tooele; and FOC.

Scott Banks, Karen Banks, Bartlett and Thornock had court appearances Thursday morning before U.S. Magistrate David Nuffer in Salt Lake City. The government did not seek detention pending resolution of the case; the next hearing is scheduled for April 2. None of the defendants could be reached for comment Thursday.

However, Marci Larsen of Wellsville said she has been a friend of the Banks' since they moved in across the street eight years ago. She said the couple has biological and adopted children.

"They are people of the highest character. They always want to help other people," Larsen said. "I know that they are extremely kind, and they are extremely considerate for other people and other people's needs. They have done a lot of good in the world for children everywhere and I think these charges are very unfair."

Defense attorney Rebecca Hyde, who represents FOC and Karen Banks, told The Associated Press that "Focus on Children and Karen Banks have been cooperating with the federal government for many, many months. They have always endeavored to maintain the highest ethical standards they could.''

The United States does not have an extradition treaty with Samoa. It will petition the Samoan government to deliver the other three defendants to the U.S. jurisdiction.

Adoption in Samoa does not involve any legal proceeding or a formal severance of parental rights. Samoan citizens routinely consent to the "adoption" of their children for a variety of reasons to relatives living in other parts of the country or abroad.

After the placement, the birth parents typically communicate and visit with the child, with the expectation that he or she will return to them as an adult to care for them as they age.

The indictment alleges that FOC employed recruiters in Samoa to persuade birth parents to place their children in an international adoption. It says these recruiters targeted Samoan children for adoption by surveilling marketplaces for mothers, approaching pregnant women and even conducting presentations to groups of parents about the FOC "program."

These parents allegedly were persuaded to participate in the program through lies that included:

* The adoption program was created by the U.S. government or by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to assist families in Samoa that were struggling financially or desired that their children be educated abroad. Neither the government nor the church were involved with FOC.

* The children would be "adopted" by a family in the United States and remain there until age 18, then return to Samoa.

* The birth family would receive letters and photos from the adoptive family.

* The birth family might receive money either from FOC or the adoptive family until the children returned and could help take care of them.

* The adoptive family would occasionally bring the children back for visits.

* Siblings placed in the program would be adopted by the same family in the United States.

Some birth families considering placing their child in the program were given what conspirators called "humanitarian assistance," such as nominal amounts of money or bags of rice, the indictment alleges. The assistance allegedly stopped when the child was delivered to the adoptive parents.

After taking custody of the children, the recruiters would place them in a "nanny home" - the Samoan equivalent of a foster home - until the "adoption" proceedings were completed, according to the indictment.

Conditions at the nanny home operated by FOC allegedly were so poor that many children were malnourished and dehydrated. Older children reported being beaten with a broomstick when they asked for more food.

The birth parents of one little girl were so concerned about how her health had deteriorated since moving to the nanny house that they took her to a hospital, where she died two days later, the indictment says.

The defendants allegedly discouraged the adoptive parents from traveling to Samoa to pick up their newly adopted children and the ones who did go overseas were forbidden from seeing the nanny home.

FOC also employed people in Utah and Wyoming to refer children to a new family, even when the youngsters still were living with their parents in Samoa, the indictment claims. It says the defendants frequently fabricated statements about the birth family to convince prospective adoptive parents that the children were living in dire circumstances.

The case is being investigated by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.



* ARRIN NEWTON BRUNSON contributed to this report.

Federal charges

A 135-count federal indictment was unsealed Thursday charging the operators of Focus on Children in Wellsville with lying to parents in Samoa to persuade them to place their children for adoption through the agency.

* The indictment alleges birth parents were falsely told that the placements were temporary and their children would return to Samoa when they reached adulthood. Adoptive parents, who paid $13,000 for each adoption, allegedly were told that the children had been abandoned or were orphans.

* Authorities say the scam involved more than 80 children. Seven people have been charged in the case.

2007 Mar 2