Corruption in international adoptions

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NOTE: This page from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism website offers documentation of and background about serious irregularities in international adoption. For the systemic analysis of corruption in international adoption, please read “The Lie We Love,” Foreign Policy magazine, Nov./Dec. 2008, and visit our webpages dedicated to international adoption. For ideas about fairer policy solutions, please read “The Baby Business,” Democracy Journal, Summer 2010.

News Reports of Adoption
 Irregularities in Samoa

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"'48 Hours' Investigation: Families are Torn Apart in One of the Largest Foreign Adoption Scams in U.S. History," December 10, 2009, CBS 48 Hours.

"The Lost Children" is the result of a two-year investigation by "48 Hours" into one of the largest foreign adoption scams in U.S. history. Anchored by "48 Hours" correspondent Maureen Maher, who herself was adopted, "The Lost Children" profiles three families - Patti Sawyer, Mike and Kari Nyberg, and Elizabeth and Gary Muenzler - who adopted children from the South Pacific island of Samoa through the now condemned Utah-based Focus On Children adoption agency.

"Family reunited following adoption scam," Jessie Gurunathan, August 2, 2009, 3News.Co.NZ.

A tearful reunion in Samoa has brought together two families unwittingly caught up in an adoption scam. Nine-year-old Jayden Sawyer was adopted by American Patti Sawyer, who paid $20,000 to the adoption agency Focus On Children after being told that she was an abandoned orphan.Jayden is one of dozens of Samoans adopted out to American families through the agency, whose bosses were prosecuted in the US two years ago for deceiving parents in both Samoa and American.

The two governments have now cut a deal which allows the children can stay with their adoptive parents, but could use money from a trust fund allowing them to keep in touch with their birth parents.

"Defendants in Samoan adoption case must pay $100,000 to trust fund," Pamela Manson, July 17, 2009, The Salt Lake Tribune.

A federal judge in Utah has ordered five operators and employees of the now-defunct Focus on Children adoption agency to contribute $100,000 to a trust fund that would allow Samoan children adopted by U.S. parents to connect with their birth families.

"A Dad's Adoption Nightmare," Nina Burleigh, June 22, 2009, People magazine. 

Standing with his video camera at the Auckland, New Zealand, airport in February 2004, Mike Nyberg watched the adoption agency worker lead in a saucer-eyed 4-year-old wearing a dirty blue dress and clutching a rubber ball. She was crying... and repeated a single word: "Tupu," he later learned referred to the girl's mother.  

"Victims of scam will visit Western Samoa in summer," Sharon Roznik, Fond du Lac Reporter, Pound Pup Legacy, April 6, 2009.

The biological father of a Samoan girl adopted by Fond du Lac's Patti Sawyer heard his daughter's voice recently for the first time in almost five years. The telephone call was arranged by Samoa Victim Support Group, according to the Samoan Observer, the newspaper that covered the story. Melei Isaia, Jayden's biological mother, was unable to be present during the phone call due to illness.

Jayden is the youngest of the Isaias' eight children and was adopted by Sawyer in 2004. The young girl's story made national news and was featured on "Good Morning America" when, earlier this year, a federal judge convicted members of the adoption agency, Focus on Children, of crimes involving an adoption scam.

"Voices of the victims of the Focus on Children Utah's Samoa scam," Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform, March 16, 2009.

PEAR gives voice to victims of FOC Utah: No other child or family on either side of the ocean deserves what they got in this case.” -- Elizabeth Muenzler, adoptive mother through Focus on Children

"ABC will chronicle Fond du Lac family's trip to Samoa amid adoption probe," Sharon Roznik, Fond du Lac Reporter March 6, 2009.

An Appleton woman's donation of frequent flyer miles will reunite a Fond du Lac girl from Samoa with her biological family. A crew member from "Good Morning America" will travel with the Sawyers to Samoa to chronicle the trip on film.

"Adoption scam hits home for Fond du Lac family," Sharon Roznik, Fond du Lac Reporter March 2, 2009.

"Good Morning America" interviewed Patty Sawyer in a segment on an adoption scam that involved her daughter Jayden, adopted from Samoa.

"Four Sentenced in Scheme to 'Adopt' Samoan Kids--Prosecutors: Adoption Agency Tricked Samoan Parents Into Giving Children Up for Adoption," Beth Tribolet, Teri Whitcraft and Scott Michels, ABC News Law & Justice Unit, February 26, 2009.

ABC News interviews two parents who adopted Samoan children through Focus on Children: Mike Nyberg, who made the "excruciating" decision to return his daughter to her birthfamily; and Patti Sawyer, who was told her daughter was found in a public bathroom, but who she learned actually came from a loving family who expected her to return to Samoa.

“Adoptive parents feel betrayed,” Kirsten Stewart, February 25, 2009, Salt Lake Tribune.

Excerpt: Elizabeth and Gary Muenzler, the parents of a Samoan girl adopted through FOC, told the judge she and her family have endured their own "personal prison" since learning from federal authorities that much of what they knew about their daughter was a lie.

While the Muenzlers said their daughter is doing well now, she had to be treated for attachment problems and post traumatic stress disorder.

"We lost years of her childhood and so did she," said Muenzler, "and now we are dealing with an emotional albatross forever."

Muenzler said she feels betrayed by the Bankses who facilitated two adoptions for her.

"All we ever wanted was a family, a family built the right way," said Muenzler. She regrets there's no moral to the story, no take-home lessons for other adoptive couples.

"We did this the right way. We checked our references… There's no other explanation other than we were just duped," she said.

“Judge says Samoan adoption defendants don't need prison,” Pamela Manson and Steve Gehrke, February 25, 2009, Salt Lake Tribune.

“Moms make most of chance to reconnect,” Pamela Manson, February 24, 2009, Salt Lake Tribune.

“Adoption scandal has prompted only minor changes,” Pamela Manson, February 14, 2009, Salt Lake Tribune.

“Adoption scam defendants cut no-jail-time deal,” Pamela Manson and Lisa Rosetta, January 7, 2009, The Salt Lake Tribune. 

Scott and Karen Banks had faced dozens of felony charges for what federal prosecutors alleged was an adoption scam that misled Samoan parents into unknowingly relinquishing their children for American adoption. (See articles below.) But on Tuesday, January 6, 2009, the Banks pleaded guilty to five misdemeanors (aiding and abetting in the improper entry of an alien) in a deal in which prosecutors recommended them for probation instead of prison. The Tribune reports that “prosecutors that once referred to the Wellsville adoption agency operated by the Banks as an ‘insidious criminal enterprise’ and touted the case as a crackdown on adoption fraud on Tuesday called the plea deal a ‘creative, forward-looking approach to ensure that justice is served.’” Adoption facilitator Dan Wakefield (who also pled guilty to five counts) is slated to be sentenced on February 19, 2009, while the Banks, along with Coleen Bartlett (FOC adoption facilitator; pled guilty to two counts) and Karalee Thornock (FOC case worker; one count) are scheduled to be sentenced on February 25, 2009. An attorney pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy charge on behalf of FOC.

The Tribune reported that American families who adopted through FOC were disappointed with the plea. One unnamed mother said, “We would have wished the defendants would have received jail time for their actions, and the plea does not address the adoptions and permanency of the adoptions in the U.S.—now or in the future.”

For more about the FOC plea agreement, see:

The U.S. Attorney's office's February 24, 2009 "Sentencing Memorandum" 

The U.S. Attorney’s office’s January 6, 2009 “Statement on Focus on Children Case”

States that the U.S. Attorney’s office and its federal law enforcement partners worked to “create a more far-reaching resolution than the typical criminal justice model provides.”

The statement outlines the provisions of the plea agreement, which include:

  • During the term of their probation, all defendants agree not to participate in the adoption business.
  • Scott and Karen Banks are required to meet with prosecutors and the State Department to provide information about FOC’s adoption program and determine if adjustments need to be made to U.S. laws.
  • The court will establish a trust fund for the benefit of the adopted children “in an effort to empower birth parents and adoptive parents to do what they believe is in the best interest of their children.”

“Utah adoption scam defendants admit guilt,” Courthouse News Service.

“Defendants in adoption scam involving Samoan children cut no-jail-time plea deal,” Samoanews.com.

“5 from agency in Utah plead guilty to adoption scam involving Samoans,” Deseret News.

“Suspects in adoption fraud case expected to plead guilty,” December 10, 2008, KSL.com. 

Article reports that a prosecutor and defense attorneys said at a December 9, 2008 hearing that they are working out the final details on plea deals for five defendants in U.S. v. Focus on Children. Judge David Sam scheduled hearings for January 6, 2009, when plea negotiations are expected to be complete.

"Adoption agency to plead guilty to fraud,” December 10, 2008, Pacific Islands Report.

New Zealand news also reports that five of the seven defendants will plead guilty. The United States cannot prosecute the remaining two defendants, Samoan citizens, because the U.S. and Samoa do not have an extradition treaty.

“No winners in Samoan adoption scandal,” October 18, 2008, Australian Associated Press.

Even though their facilitators have been indicted, 37 children adopted from Samoa to the United States were legally adopted and their parents will need to wage a custody battle if they wish to bring them home. The affected families don’t possess the funds to take the matter to court. One child, eight-year-old Sei So, was returned to Samoa when her adoptive parents learned that she was not really an orphan, but now the legal status of the child’s citizenship is in question.

“Dreams of parents in two worlds shattered by scandal,” Lisa Rosetta, June 17, 2008, The Salt Lake Tribune, Pound Pup Legacy.

The story of the Sos, a Samoan family whose daughter Sei was returned to them after they were deceived into giving her up to Focus on Children. Article describes not only the decision Sei’s adoptive parents, the Nybergs, faced when they discovered their daughter was defrauded from her parents, but also the relationship between the Sos and the Nybergs. Like others, the So family is Mormon and believed they were sending their daughter to live with a Mormon family in America and receive an education until she was 18. The American family was led to believe she had been abandoned. More details about adoption in Samoan culture.

“Tangled adoption suit heads to trial,” Pamela Manson, October 29, 2007, The Salt Lake Tribune, Pound Pup Legacy.

A trial has been scheduled in the dispute between Scott and Karen Banks and Mary Frances and Curry Kirkpatrick over an adopted Chinese girl. The Bankses claim the Kirkpatricks were unsuitable parents and abandoned the girl. The Kirkpatricks are arguing that the Bankses have no legal right to her. The trial is scheduled for February 2007.

“Prosecutors outlining scheme to illegally adopt Samoan children to U.S. families,” Lisa Rosetta, September 4, 2007, The Salt Lake Tribune.

Update on the FOC criminal proceedings. A federal prosecutor is preparing to file a brief outlining the FOC criminal adoption “conspiracy.” Plea negotiations continue.

“Two couples fight for right to claim child as their own,” Pamela Manson, September 2, 2007, The Salt Lake Tribune.

Scott and Karen Banks, owners of the legally troubled Utah adoption agency Focus on Children, are now embroiled in a dispute over a Chinese child whom they helped a Kansas couple to adopt. Mary Frances and Curry Kirkpatrick adopted the child through FOC and at the urging of the Bankses gave her up to the Bankses in a voluntary guardianship agreement when she displayed “destructive behavior” towards their other children. Now the Bankses accuse the Kirkpatricks of abandoning the child and are seeking to adopt her themselves.

“International adoption can be risky endeavor with shadowy agencies, heartbreak,” Kirsten Stewart, June 18, 2007, The Salt Lake Tribune, Pound Pup Legacy.

Focus on Children is charged with falsely telling adoptive families in the US that Samoan children up for adoption were orphans, and telling Samoan families that their children would return with an education when they were 18. Even after FOC was indicted, clients without knowledge of the legal troubles continued signing on and are upset they were not informed that the agency was under investigation. Also examines questionable ties between FOC of Utah and FOC of Wyoming.

“Out of Samoa: How Adoption Laws Work,” June 18, 2007, The Salt Lake Tribune. Pound Pup Legacy.

Concise overview of adoption proceedings in Samoa. Parents seeking to give their children up for adoption to meet with two different lawyers to swear their affidavits on reasons for giving up the child are accurate and to give their consent. They must also have permission from the Attorney General if the adoptive parents are foreign, and a judge evaluates the documents. Nevertheless, Samoan families embroiled in the Focus on Children scandal claim they thought their children would return home when they turned 18.

“Families share adoptions woes,” Brooke Adams, March 13, 2007, The Salt Lake Tribune.

An overview of problems clients encountered with Focus on Children and the story of Joan Sattler, who hired FOC without knowing the agency was under investigation and is now out over $8,000 with no results.

“Embassy grilled on adoption scandal,” March 11, 2007, One News (New Zealand).

The US Embassy in New Zealand continued issuing visas to Samoan children for 10 months after being informed that some Samoan families had been deceived and didn’t realize they were putting their children up for adoption, according to One News.

“Families defend, denounce indicted adoption agency,” Brooke Adams, March 5, 2007, The Salt Lake Tribune.

Focus on Children, a Utah-based adoption agency charged with duping Samoan parents into giving their children up, is being defended by some client families and condemned by others. Allegations from US families include information gaps, mishandled paperwork, and other poor business practices.

“Cache County man faces 135 counts in alleged adoption scam,” March 5, 2007 ABC 4.

TV news coverage of Focus on Children’s indictment. Camera crews follow Dan Wakefield, the in-country adoption facilitator, and the Bankses, FOC founders. Includes an interview with parents of H.N., a baby who died from malnutrition, dehydration, and a skin infection untreated in a nanny home. Also includes footage of a secret nanny home.

“Utahns ran baby scam, feds say,” Geoffrey Fattah, March 2 2007, Deseret News.

A 135-count indictment has been issued against seven owners and managers of the Utah-based Focus on Children adoption agency, including its owners, Scott and Karen Banks. They are charged with misleading birthparents into giving up their children under the assumption that they would return later, and with lying to adoptive parents into America by claiming the children were abandoned or orphaned. Children were placed in a nanny house before adoption, in which they suffered from poor care. Agency officials discouraged parents from picking their children up in Samoa, although US immigration law requires them to do so. The majority of adopted children are staying with their adoptive families until the case is resolved.

“Utah adoption agency hit by fraud allegations,” Pamela Manson, March 2 2007, The Salt Lake Tribune.

More than 80 children were illegally taken from their Samoan families and adopted to the United States by the adoption agency Focus on Children. The indictment alleges that the conspiracy started in March 2002 and continued through June 2005, and that the children taken ranged between infants and 12-year-olds. 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. If no agreement is reached by the Samoan and American families, the status of the children will be decided on a case-by-case basis.

“Arrests Over Samoa Adoption Scam,” March 6, 2007, TVNZ.

Owners of an American adoption agency have been accused of running a baby-smuggling operation out of Samoa. Seven people have been accused in the scam, in which birth parents were brought to halfway houses, mistreated, and were then separated from their children without understanding that the adoption was permanent.

“Feds uncover adoption scheme that targeted Samoan children,” Fili Sagapolutele, March 2, 2007, Samoa News, Free Republic.

Samoan local coverage of the Focus on Children indictments. States that three of the defendants, Dan Wakefield (U.S. citizen), Tagaloa Ieti, and Julie Tuiletufuga, are currently residing in Samoa. Article states that American authorities will petition the Samoa government to turn them over to be officially charged. Samoa does not have extradition treaty with the U.S.

“Death Prompts Samoan Adoption Change,” June 27, 2005, TVNZ.

Samoa has rushed through legislation to tighten foreign adoption laws after the death of a child while in the custody of an American adoption agency. New laws stipulate that anyone arranging an adoption in Samoa must prove that the child can’t be looked after in Samoa.

“Samoan Adoptions Raise Eyebrows,” August 14, 2004, TVNZ.

The Samoan government has launched an investigation into an international agency that facilitated adoptions of Samoan children who were neither orphaned nor abandoned by Americans. The adoptions took place in Auckland, New Zealand; the US consulate there issued 61 visas for Samoan children last year.

Resources & related documents

United States Department of State> Country Information> Samoa

“Samoa—the “Sending State:” A Brief Outline of Customary Child Adoption Practices in Samoa.” From “INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; A South Pacific Perspective,” Wendy Galvin presentation for the International Bar Association 2005 Conference, Prague Czech Republic, September 24-30, 2005. (Republished on Pound Pup Legacy.)

The New Zealand firm Galvin Law lists intercountry adoptions as one of its areas of expertise, and provides this guide to traditional Samoan adoption.

© 2008-2014 Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA 02454. All rights reserved.

Last page update: April 7, 2011