Four Sentenced in Scheme to 'Adopt' Samoan Kids

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

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.

U.S. Mom: Defendants Deserved Jail

"People who steal children deserve to go to jail," said Elizabeth, one adoptive parent who adopted who asked that only her first name be used.

"No child should be subjected to their entire world being turned upside down. The pain we see on our child's face will be the worst moment of our lives," she said.

A 2007 federal indictment charged the defendants with 135 counts of conspiracy, fraud and immigration violations. The indictment covered the adoption of 37 children between 2002 and 2005.

Prosecutors characterized the plea agreement as a creative solution to an unusual crime, and some parents say prison time would not be appropriate, saying the defendants have their own children.

The government "believes that the best interests of the children [and finding a way to achieve that interest] trumps the concept of punishment alone," prosecutors said in a sentencing memorandum.

"We have victims on both sides of this adoption scheme, all of whom acted in good faith," said U.S. Attorney Brett Tolson. "Birth parents in Samoa believed they were sending their children to take advantage of opportunities in the United States. …Samoan families did not view the placement as permanent. They thought their kids would come home."

But it's difficult to say what is best for the children.

For now, most of the children remain with their American families, many of whom are terrified that the criminal case will allow the Samoan families to nullify the adoptions. U.S. officials told ABC News that they did not think the adoptions would be disrupted.

Patti Sawyer, a single mother from Wisconsin, said she had no idea that the little girl she fell in love with came from a loving family.

"When I was first introduced to my daughter I was told she was found in a public bathroom. In reality, she was from a very happy family, eight brothers and sisters, who turned her over to give her an opportunity," she said.

Sawyer said she is concerned that if she takes her daughter back to Samoa to visit her biological family, she may not be able to bring her back to the U.S. She is hoping to convince the girl's Samoan family to let her finish her education here, visit home, and share her life with two sets of parents.

"I've told her she has a mom and dad in Samoa. They love her. She has two families," said Sawyer. "She says I want to see my family. She says she doesn't remember her brothers and sisters or the games they used to play."

Of the families who were involved in the case, only Nyberg has sent his child back to her family in Samoa.

Nyberg said the decision to return Elleia to her family in Samoa was "excruciating," yet he knew it was the right thing to do. "To see the tears when they came around the corner and saw that little girl, and to know how much they missed her. It was just a great experience to have that reunion," he said.

But he now says he feels like the girl's birth parents are members of his own family.

"The beautiful thing is I have developed a strong relationship with this family on the opposite side of the world," he said. "Her parents are my brother and sister. We have a daughter we share.... She is truly my little girl and to not have her with me is a really difficult thing, but I know that she is where she needs to be right now."