Seven owners and managers of a Utah-based international adoption agency have been indicted on charges they ran a baby-smuggling operation out of Samoa.
Federal officials unsealed a 135-count indictment against Focus on Children, a Salt Lake City-incorporated company based in Wellsville, and its owners, Scott Banks, 46, and his wife, Karen Banks, 45, along with five employees.
The indictment alleges employees of Focus on Children systematically misled birth parents in Samoa into signing away rights to their children while telling adoptive parents in the United States that the children had been abandoned and were orphans.
U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman called the allegations some of the most "shocking and appalling" he has ever seen.
"This case is one in which there are victims on both sides," Tolman told the media during a news conference Thursday.
Federal investigators say more than 80 children had been adopted by families in about 13 U.S. cities, including some in Utah.
According to the indictment, agency employees were sent to markets in Samoa looking for pregnant women, who were then told they would be compensated with "humanitarian aid" if they agreed to send their babies overseas to the United States, where they would be raised by families until they were 18 and then returned. In many cases, parents who did not speak very good English were persuaded to sign legal documents in English, relinquishing parental rights. Some parents were given small items, small amounts of money or even bags of rice as compensation, the indictment states.
Some children were placed in a "nanny house," which U.S. State Department officials reported was in deplorable condition with children suffering from dehydration, malnutrition and sores. Birth parents were told they could visit and take home their children from the nanny house. However, Tolman said in one case a mother found her child abused and dehydrated and took her to a local hospital where she later died.
Back in the United States, Tolman said Focus on Children advertised on the Internet to people looking to adopt. In several instances, adoptive parents were told the children were either orphaned or abandoned when they were not.
Agency workers then told U.S. parents to declare the children were abandoned on their U.S. immigration visa application, when in some cases the children were still living with their parents.
U.S. immigration law requires adoptive parents to fly out to pick up the child. In this case, the indictment states Focus on Children workers discouraged parents from flying to Samoa but instead told them to pick up children at the nearest U.S. consulate in Aukland, New Zealand. Persistent parents were told they couldn't go to Samoa because of an outbreak of German measles or that a hurricane had just struck.
Thomas Depenbrock, special agent in charge for the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, called the case "unusually cruel" and a "soulless and heartless misuse of trust."
Federal officials said the agency received about $13,000 for each single adoption and $20,000 for two adoptions. While many siblings were adopted together, Tolman said, there were some cases where siblings were adopted by different families.
In all, federal officials say Scott and Karen Banks, along with some of their employees, made hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits from the adoptions.
Also indicted were Karalee Thornock, 34, of Tooele; Coleen Bartlett, 40, of Evanston, Wyo.; Julie Tuiletufuga, a Samoan citizen; Dan Wakefield, 70, a U.S. citizen in Apia, Samoa; and Tagaloa Ieti, 44, also a Samoan citizen. Tolman said international arrest warrants have been issued for Wakefield, Ieti and Tuiletufuga.
Scott and Karen Banks were arrested Thursday at the agency office in Wellsville, appeared in federal court and were released.
Rebecca Hyde, an attorney for Karen Banks and Focus on Children, said her client has been cooperative with investigators for months. "We're comfortable that Karen and Focus on Children have always been as ethical and conscientious as they possibly could be in organizing the adoptions that they have from Samoa," Hyde said.
According to the agency's Web site, they also provide adoptions in Brazil, Bulgaria, Guatemala, China, Haiti, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia and Ukraine. Tolman said so far the focus of the investigation has been on the adoptions out of Samoa but that focus may shift to other countries depending on what they find.
What remains in the indictments is a painful tangle of adoptive parents and birth parents in two countries trying to sort things out. Tolman said federal officials have worked to open channels of communication between the two groups. In some cases, he said children have been sent back to Samoa, at the expense of the adoptive parents. In other cases birth parents have decided to have their children remain in the United States.
The majority of children remain with their U.S. adoptive parents until things are resolved. State Department officials said the situation is now a civil matter, and that in order for Samoan parents to get their children back, they will have to take legal action. So far, the Samoan government has not officially asked for the children to be returned, they said.Comment on this story
The state Division of Child and Family Services has not taken in any Samoan children affected by the charges, spokeswoman Carol Sisco said Thursday.
The Utah Department of Human Services is responsible for licensing child-placing agencies and was aware of the investigation into Focus on Children, Sisco said. Now that official charges have been filed, the department will issue an immediate notice to revoke the organization's license, which was issued in August 2003.All seven people face multiple charges of visa fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to commit human smuggling. If convicted, they face maximum sentences of 10 to 20 years for each count.
Contributing: Angie Welling