A federal indictment accusing a Wellsville agency and its workers of tricking parents in Samoa into giving up their children marked a rare prosecution in the international adoption industry.
But the use of trickery, coercion or kidnapping in foreign countries to place children with American families is far from unusual, according to advocates with watchdog groups who say the Focus on Children case bolsters their calls for reform.
"There's no real consequences now," David Smolin, a law professor in Alabama and the parent of internationally adopted children, said of agencies and adoption facilitators accused of wrongdoing.
To stem abuses, Smolin and others are pushing for national adoption laws to replace a patchwork of state laws; limiting the amount of money involved in the adoption of foreign children to prevent human trafficking; and making U.S. agencies responsible for the actions of their overseas contractors. They also want more prosecutions and harsher punishment for offenders.
Kimberly Kennedy, a board member of Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform (PEAR), is urging U.S. District Judge David Sam to impose significant sentences when defendants in the FOC case are sentenced later this month. Under plea deals, the U.S. Attorney's Office is recommending probation.
"What this agency did in Samoa will have long lasting effects for families and children," Kennedy, the California parent of internationally adopted children, wrote to the judge.
A 2007 federal indictment accused the defendants of coercing and tricking parents in Samoa into placing their children for adoption, then falsely claiming that the children were orphans. Five defendants have pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts.
Barbara McArtney, an attorney in Grand Island, N.Y., who runs an accredited adoption agency and serves on PEAR's board, said prosecutions of U.S. adoption agencies are rare.
One of the few prosecutions similar to FOC's was the case of Lauryn Galindo, who was accused of falsifying immigration documents to make it appear that Cambodian children placed for adoption through her agency were abandoned.
In fact, prosecutors alleged, some of the children were bought from their parents for small amounts of money and Galindo, in turn, charged adoptive parents in the United States large fees. She pleaded guilty to several charges, including visa fraud and money laundering, and was sentenced in 2004 to 18 months in prison.
Many nations, including the United States, have signed on to the Hague Convention on International Adoptions, an agreement among the participants to follow certain procedures. However, enforcement can be difficult and some countries, such as Samoa, are not parties to the agreement.
"No one is watching on a federal level," said Joni Fixel, a Michigan lawyer who has represented prospective adoptive parents in lawsuits against adoption agencies. "We need another department in the Department of Homeland Security to make sure these types of cases don't happen. We don't want to become a haven for children being illegally adopted."
In addition, American adoption agencies are regulated by states. PEAR board member David Kruchkow said if a problem arises with an international adoption, states generally say they have no authority over the case.
That, in turn, leads to federal prosecutions for misdemeanor visa violations, said Kruchkow, a Florida high-school science teacher.
Kruchkow said he and his wife were victimized when they adopted a little girl from Mexico, a Hague Convention country, in the late 1990s. They later learned that a Mexican lawyer and two consultants in New York, where the Kruchkows lived at the time, had forged their daughter's paperwork.
Both McArtney and Smolin believe capping fees connected to adoptions could curb many problems. The amount paid to facilitators and lawyers overseas for identifying children for adoption and completing their country's paperwork can be multiple times the average annual income of the country, according to Smolin, who teaches at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., and has written extensively about international adoption.
Smolin also proposes making American agencies legally responsible for the actions of their foreign partners, saying many U.S. placement agencies have a "see-no-evil, hear-no-evil" attitude toward how adoptees are obtained overseas.
Federal prosecutors charged two Samoan citizens who helped Focus on Children locate children for adoption -- Tagaloa Ieti and Julie Tuiletufuga -- but the government has so far been unable to extradite them.
The criminal case against FOC doesn't address the status of the Samoan children who were placed for adoption. However, Tom DiFilipo, president and CEO of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, an association of adoption and child advocacy groups in Alexandria, Va., said because the children are U.S. citizens, it is very unlikely they would be sent back to Samoa.
But they may be back in contact with their birth families. The plea agreements require the defendants to pay into a fund to facilitate communication between both sets of parents.
Smolin likes the idea. He and his wife, Desiree, adopted two adolescent girls from India whose birth mother, they later learned, had been told her children would be temporarily placed in a boarding school. Instead, the girls were placed for adoption.
When the couple learned what had happened, they began searching for the birth mother and finally found her six years after the adoption. Their daughters, by then young women, have visited her but travel required to keep in touch has been costly, Smolin said.
"If they get the (FOC) trust fund together, the children ought to go back a few weeks every year," he said.
Lisa Rosetta contributed to this article.
Five agency operators and employees will be sentenced on Feb. 19 and 25 for misdemeanor offenses involving the adoptions of Samoan children.
In January, Focus on Children principals Karen and Scott Banks; Dan Wakefield, who located Samoan children for adoption; and caseworkers Coleen Bartlett and Karalee Thornock pleaded guilty to counts of aiding and abetting the improper entry of an alien for putting false information on immigration forms.
Their plea agreements have a recommendation for probation, but U.S. District Judge David Sam could impose up to six months on each count and a $5,000 fine.
Focus on Children, which arranged adoptions of children from a number of foreign countries, ceased business in Utah in the summer 2007.
The prosecution halted all international adoptions in Samoa. Earlier this month, Attorney General Ming C. Leung Wai said overseas adoptions are allowed only if the application certifies the child does not have a family or suitable person to provide care and no other suitable arrangements can be made in Samoa.