Corruption in international adoptions

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Adoption: Samoa

 Click to follow link Overview of adoption issues in Samoa
 Click to follow link News reports of adoption irregularities in Samoa
 Click to follow link Resources & related documents 

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.

The following report is based on a number of sources, including court documents related to U.S. v. Focus on Children and news reports from the United States, New Zealand, and Samoa. The government’s allegations in U.S. v. Focus on Children were investigated by the Salt Lake Tribune, whose articles independently corroborated many of the charges, quoting defrauded birthfamilies and adoptive parents alike. For source clarification, please see footnotes.

Overview of adoption issues in Samoa

Charges of corruption in intercountry adoptions from Samoa, an archipelago with fewer than 200,000 people,1 almost exclusively involve one now-defunct adoption agency: Focus on Children (FOC). The Utah-based agency was operated by husband and wife Scott and Karen Banks before they, along with FOC employees Dan Wakefield, Coleen Bartlett, and Karalee Thornock, were indicted on February 28, 2007 for charges of conspiracy to commit alien smuggling, fraud and misuse of visas, and money laundering, among other charges.2 On January 6, 2009, the defendants all pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of aiding and abetting the improper entry of an alien. An attorney pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy charge on behalf of FOC.3 Judge David Sam sentenced the defendants to five years of probation—and banned them for life from any participation in the adoption business.4 

All these charges were related to 37 questionable adoptions of the eighty that FOC arranged between 2002 and 2005. According to the indictment, Samoan birthfamilies were falsely told that by signing their children up for this “program,” their children could benefit from an American education; the birth parents would receive photographs and regular communication; and the children would return at age eighteen. The indictment states that these promises were consistent with local concepts of adoption or “fostering.” Agency workers sought out large families, and told them that the U.S. government ran the “program” to assist struggling Samoan families; alternatively, some said that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ran the program for the same purpose.5 Relinquishment documents were prepared in English, a language that most Samoans whose children were adopted could not read. Birthfamilies were promised what agency employees called humanitarian assistance: small amounts of money or food. This assistance ended once the child was adopted,6 and was later banned by the Samoan government because it “clearly affects the bona-fides of an application.”7

Dan Wakefield, a Wellsville, Utah man who was also indicted, acted as FOC’s in-country facilitator in recruiting children for adoption. FOC reportedly paid him $1,750 to $9,250 per adoption, (a total of approximately $281,388 over the three years, according to the indictment) most of which he said went to nanny homes, attorney fees and vehicle payments.8 He and FOC lawyers stated that Samoan law requires birth families to meet with two different lawyers before relinquishing their children, and that because of this safeguard, the birthfamilies were aware that they were giving up their parental rights. One family told the Salt Lake Tribune that after meeting with the lawyers, Wakefield “assured them the children would return and said attorneys were only trying to scare them.”

American adoptive parents, meanwhile, were falsely told that the children had been abandoned, and were actively discouraged from traveling to Samoa to pick them up. Parents were forbidden from contact with the birth family and told that all adoptions in Samoa were required by law to be closed adoptions. They were encouraged to instead meet their children at the nearest U.S. consulate, in New Zealand.9 Mike Nyberg, who adopted Sei So (renamed Elleia) in 2004, said, “They did in fact tell us not to go and see the birth family because the U.S. government doesn’t want you to.”10

Allegations against Focus on Children

According to a March 1, 2007 press release from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), FOC orchestrated the adoption of more than eighty Samoan children, aged infancy to twelve years,11 by U.S. families, between March 2002 and March 2005. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said it launched the investigation after an immigration official “saw something that didn’t add up, suspected fraud, and kept digging,” said Robert Mather, a field officer director for USCIS in Salt Lake City.12 According to New Zealand news station TVNZ, however, an August 2004 investigation by their ONE News Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver first highlighted the alleged scam.13

Kurt Fitz-Randolph, assistant special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in Salt Lake City, said the lawsuit resulted from a multi-agency14 investigation focusing on “a scheme that treated children as little more than a commodity.” The defendants, he said, “not only compromised the integrity of our immigration system, they also defrauded numerous well-meaning parents who wanted nothing more than to provide the best possible life for these children.”15

The defendants could have faced up to 80 years in prison and fines of up to $2.25 million, if found guilty of the original dozens of felony charges.16 However, in the January 6, 2009 plea agreement, in which the defendants pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts, prosecutors recommended probation instead of prison.

Some of the families who adopted through FOC were disappointed with the plea and sentence; 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.”17

U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman stated in a sentencing memo that his office considered the plea agreement the “most meaningful solution to addressing the most serious harm in this case.” He said that in this case, the best interest of the children “trumps the concept of punishment alone.”18  According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Tolman said a drawn-out case focusing on punishment would have been "catastrophic" for the adoptive parents, birth parents and children.19 

The U.S. Attorney’s January 6, 2009 statement outlined the stipulations of the plea agreements:

  • As a 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.”20
Samoan cultural adoption practices

News reports and the indictment say that FOC exploited a common Samoan tradition to benefit financially from facilitating intercountry adoptions of Samoan children. In Samoan cultural tradition, as in many cultures around the world, “adoption” refers to a common, unofficial practice of allowing children to live with relatives in other parts of the country or even in nearby New Zealand. This involves no legal proceedings and does not sever parental rights. Even though such an “adoption” has occurred, parents still maintain contact with their children, and it is understood that the child will return to care for them as they age.21

 Unasa Mesi Galo, a Samoan government official, described the custom:

“For instance, if my sister is in New Zealand and she is doing well, and comes over here and sees I have four or five kids and it is not well… So she’ll say, ‘Oh, I’ll take one of those kids or two.’ That’s how we do it here. You do it because you want to do it, no money involved. But this is a new thing now—you pay money.”22

Nanny Homes

According to the indictment, FOC often told prospective adoptive parents that their soon-to-be adopted children resided in a FOC-run nanny home, and required them to donate clothing, toys, or other supplies to the home.23 Even though FOC’s fee included fostering charges, some children waiting to be adopted still resided with their birth parents, and others left the nanny home often to visit home, sometimes for extended periods of time.24

 In spite of the supplies donated and fees paid by prospective adoptive parents, children who actually did live at the nanny home “lacked adequate food and supplies and, on some occasions, were left to be cared for by older children.”25 Older children were allegedly beaten with a broomstick if they asked for more food.26

 The dangerous conditions at one nanny home allegedly caused the death of one 17 month old girl, Heta Nua. The baby’s parents became concerned when she appeared sickly on a visit home from the nanny home. They brought her to the hospital on June 5, 2005; medical officials said she was very malnourished, dehydrated, and had a chronic untreated ulcer in her foot. She died in the hospital on June 7, 2005. FOC attempted to convince Heta Nua’s birth parents to continue with the adoption of another child, S.N. They refused.27

Samoan Adoptions Today

News outlets offer conflicting reports about the number of children who have returned to their birth families. At least one child, adopted by Mike and Kari Nyberg in 2004, has been returned to her family.28 When the Nybergs met their daughter Elleia in New Zealand, the little girl cried for her mother as she fell asleep, clutching a Samoan coin and necklace. Once Elleia learned English, she spoke often of her Samoan family. The Nybergs decided to bring their adopted daughter back to Samoa and reunite her with her family.29

The FOC scandal “all but ended” U.S.-Samoa adoptions.30 From 2002–2005, the years the indictment covers, Americans adopted one hundred Samoan children, more than eighty of whom were adopted through FOC.31 Only one Samoan child was adopted by an American in each of the years 2007 (when FOC was indicted) and 2008.32

Number of US Orphan Immigrant Visas Issued, FY 2000-2008

In 2005, Samoa passed an Overseas Adoption Amendment to its adoption law. It states that a court cannot make an adoption order authorizing an overseas adoption unless there are “no other suitable arrangements available in Samoa for the care, support and welfare” of the child.”33 Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy has cracked down on issuing visas to Samoan children. A consular official must now interview birth parents to verify their desire to have their child adopted internationally.34

 —Lindsay Markel

[1] U.S. Department of State Profile. 

[2]  U.S. Department of State, Fact sheet on Focus on Children adoption fraud case. For specific charges against each defendant, please see the indictment.

[3] “The U.S. Attorney’s office’s January 6, 2009 “Statement on Focus on Children Case”;  “Adoption scam defendants cut no-jail-time deal,” Pamela Manson and Lisa Rosetta, January 7, 2009, The Salt Lake Tribune.

[4] “Focus on Children scam: No jail time in adoption-fraud case,” Pamela Manson and Steve Gehrke, February 25, 2009, Salt Lake Tribune.

[5] U.S. v. Focus on Children, U.S. District Court of Utah. Sealed indictment, 9.

[6] U.S. v. Focus on Children, 9-10.

[7]  “Whose children are they?”

[8] “Whose children are they?”

[9] “Whose children are they?”; U.S. v. Focus on Children, 12.

[10] “Whose children are they?”

[11]  “Utah adoption agency hit by fraud allegations: Agency is suspected of swindling Samoans out of their children,” Pamela Manson, Salt Lake Tribune, March 2, 2007.

 [12] “No winners in Samoan adoption scandal,” Stuff.co.nz, October 18, 2008.

[13] “Arrests over Samoa adoption scam,” Tvnz.com, March 6, 2007; “Samoan adoptions raise eyebrows,” Tvnz.com, August 14, 2004.

[14] The multi-agency investigation included ICE, the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

[15] U.S. ICE, March 1, 2007 Press release, “Seven charged in federal probe targeting fraudulent adoption scheme targeting Samoan 'orphans.'”

[16] “No winners in Samoan adoption scandal,” Stuff.co.nz, October 18, 2008.

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

[18] U.S. v. Focus on Children Sentencing Memorandum, February 24, 2009.

[19] “Focus on Children scam: No jail time in adoption-fraud case,” Pamela Manson and Steve Gehrke, February 25, 2009, Salt Lake Tribune, Pound Pup Legacy.

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

[21] United States v. Focus on Children, 4-5.

[22] “Whose children are they? Dreams of parents in two worlds shattered by scandal,” Lisa Rosetta, Salt Lake Tribune, June 18, 2007.

[23] U.S. v. Focus on Children, 13.

[24] U.S. v. Focus on Children, 12.

[25] Ibid, 13.

[26] Ibid, 21.

[27] Ibid, 21; “Cache County man faces 135 counts in alleged adoption scam,” March 5, 2007 ABC 4, Salt Lake City, UT.

[28] “No winners in Samoan adoption scandal.” This article says Elleia is the only child to return to Samoa, while others report that multiple children have returned.

[29] “Whose children are they? Dreams of parents in two worlds shattered by scandal," Lisa Rosetta, Salt Lake Tribune, June 18, 2007.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Utah adoption agency hit by fraud allegations: Agency is suspected of swindling Samoans out of their children.”

[32] United States Department of State: Samoa Statistics.

[33] Samoa Infant (Adoptions) Amendment 2005.

[34] “Embassy grilled on adoption scandal,” TVNZ, March 11, 2007.

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

Last page update: February 23, 2011