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." 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 of families on both sides. 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. 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 United States. The indictment alleges that FOC employed recruiters in Samoa to persuade birth parents to place their children in an international adoption. These parents allegedly were induced to participate in the "program" through lies, including: - 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 ever 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 relatives 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 all be adopted by the same family in the United States. Some birth family 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. FOC also employed people in Utah and Wyoming to refer children to a new family, even when the youngsters were still 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 indictment alleges the conspiracy began no later than March 2002 and continued through June 2005. The children ranged in age from infants to 12 years old. 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. The investigation is ongoing.