Four Sentenced in Scheme to 'Adopt' Samoan Kids

Prosecutors: agency tricked Samoan parents into giving children up for adoption.

ByABC News
February 25, 2009, 2:55 PM

Feb. 26, 2009— -- Not long after he adopted a baby from Samoa, Michael Nyberg knew something was wrong.

The girl, whom he named Elleia, started saying the names of her parents and siblings, talking about how they all slept in a house together.

Nyberg said the adoption agency had told him that the 4-year-old had been abandoned by her family, left in foster care for months. "She starts talking about things that didn't add up," he said.

"She cried herself to sleep every night for the first three weeks she lived with us," he said. "And I thought this doesn't sound like a little girl that's been in foster care."

It was not until later, after he grew to love Elleia and think of her as his own daughter, that Nyberg learned the girl's Samoan family never planned to give her up. Her biological parents, federal prosecutors say, were duped by an adoption agency into releasing their rights as parents, always thinking that their daughter would return to them.

"She was supposed to be our daughter," he said. "I totally fell in love with her, just like my own flesh and blood."

Elleia, who is called Sei in Samoa, is among dozens of Samoan children who prosecutors say were sent to the United States as part of an adoption scam that has left a string of broken-hearted families in both countries and dozens of children in limbo.

Four employees of a Wyoming-based adoption agency, Focus on Children, were sentenced on Wednesday in federal court in Utah to five years on probation for their role in the scam. Scott and Karen Banks, Coleen Bartlett and Karalee Thornock have all pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of aiding and abetting the improper entry of an alien. A fifth defendant, Dan Wakefield, who helped find the children to be adopted in Samoa, will be sentenced next month.

Prosecutors say the adoption workers and others tricked unwitting Samoan parents into giving up their children for adoption, telling them that the children were being sent on an educational program in the United States and that the children would return to Samoa.

The families didn't know they were giving up their rights to their children forever. American families paid thousands of dollars for the adoptions.

U.S. District Judge David Sam ordered the four defendants never to work in the adoption business again and to contribute to a trust fund for the children.

Sam said the case "cries out for a sentence that's restorative rather than punitive."

"We don't want to put these people in prison and have them kept from doing anything," he said. "They can address the interests of the children to restore the damage that has been done."

But the sentence has left families in both countries with mixed feelings, some of them outraged at what they view as a light sentence for tearing apart families.