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Samoan lawyer defends adoptions


Deseret News, The (Salt Lake City, UT)

Author: Angie Welling Deseret Morning News

Samoan birth parents who placed their children for adoption through an embattled Utah-based agency were well aware the placement was not temporary, said an attorney on that South Pacific island who represented Focus on Children in a majority of the cases.

"What we basically explain to them is that once they sign off on these things, we keep telling them this is not like an education scholarship or anything these kids are going on, your rights are severed ... you're not going to see your kids again," Patrick Fepuleai said Friday from his law office in Samoa.

Fepuleai has little sympathy for natural parents who now claim they were duped into relinquishing their children to the Focus on Children program, run by Scott and Karen Banks. The couple and five of their employees face a 135-count federal indictment essentially accusing them of running a profitable baby-smuggling operation out of Samoa.

"In those cases where we told them what the reality was, and then they decided to take the kids away from the program, that's why the legal process is there to protect everybody," he said. "And that's the whole thing that's missing from the indictment."

Federal prosecutors have accused agency officials with targeting vulnerable birth parents and misleading them into signing away their parental rights by promising their children would return to Samoa after they turned 18 or by giving them nominal amounts of money or bags of rice.

Fepuleai did not dispute that some natural parents may have started the adoption process with the wrong idea, but he said each had plenty of chances along the way to put a stop to the proceedings.

"That may have happened, but what we're saying is the legal process would have taken care of it," he said, noting the process includes a series of sworn affidavits by all parties, as well as an interview between the natural parents and a judge -- a requirement under Samoan law since April 2004.

For the parents who represented their beliefs that their children would one day be returned to them, Fepuleai said: "We tell them to pull their kids out straightaway."

Criminal charges against the agency and its officials include conspiracy to commit alien smuggling, visa fraud and money laundering. They focus on the adoptions of 37 Samoan children between March 2002 and June 2005, though in total, the agency is believed to have placed 81 children from some 40 birth families with adoptive parents in the United States. Eight to 10 of those children now live in Utah homes, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Overwhelmingly, the children came from poor homes whose parents were unable to take care of them, Fepuleai said.

"You have a little couple in a little shack with about 10 kids, and they all sleep in this one shack," he said. "Most of these people live off the land; they can't really afford schooling. ... They were all kids that their families had problems maintaining and trying to feed.

"For some of these people, it's an opportunity for their children to get a better life."

Prosecutors maintain that Focus on Children misrepresented the children's status to adoptive U.S. parents, who were then told to declare the children as abandoned or orphaned on their visa applications. But in Samoa, according to Fepuleai, the definition of an orphan is a broad one and includes "parents that can't really support their kids and are willing to give them up for adoption."

To satisfy U.S. requirements, Fepuleai said the children were placed in a "nanny house" while their adoptions were pending. The U.S. State Department has reported the Focus on Children facility was in deplorable condition with children suffering from dehydration, malnutrition and sores -- allegations that Fepuleai disputed on Friday.

"Kids are not suffering from malnutrition and all these things as alleged," he said. "They were well fed. There was a lot of misinformation, incorrect information."

One child, a 17-month-old girl, did die in the agency's nanny house in June 2005, apparently from malnutrition. Karen Banks and Focus employee Coleen Bartlett, who is named in the current indictment, were prohibited from leaving Samoa immediately following the child's death. Fepuleai represented Banks and Bartlett in that situation, which is still under investigation.

The case led the Samoan government to pass legislation essentially banning all international adoptions. E-mail: awelling@desnews.com

2007 Mar 17