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U.S. families stunned and angry

Published January 7, 2009 11:36 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

This story was first published in June 2007

This is what J.T.'s American mother was told about her Samoan daughter:

She was in foster care; her father had disappeared; and her mother had a household of children she could scarcely afford to feed. The 20-month-old had been abused and faced a bleak future as an illegitimate child.

It's a tidy myth, tucked among the photos and other mementos into J.T.'s baby album. Looking at the scrapbook now is a "bittersweet" experience for her adoptive mother, who on May 16, 2006 - three years after the adoption was finalized - learned from federal authorities that much of what she knew about her daughter was a lie.

"It was devastating. As much as we love her and can't imagine life without her, we never would have taken a child away from a family that wanted to raise her," said the woman, who lives in the southwestern United States.

A year ago, similar revelations were unfolding in homes across America as investigators dropped in on adoptive families, building a federal case against employees of Utah adoption agency Focus on Children.

"This is just the beginning." In Samoa, agency staffers duped impoverished families into signing away rights to their children, promising an education for children who would return, a February indictment alleges. In the U.S., staffers falsely described the children as orphans or exaggerated their families' poverty, it charges. For some adoptive families, shock and feelings of betrayal quickly gave way to anger at the agency. Others feel the truth is murky and are less willing to cast blame. They are united in their fear of what comes next, although prosecutors say the adoptions are final.

"People need to realize this is just the beginning for us," said J.T.'s adoptive mother, 40. "These children will be living with this for the rest of their lives."

Recently, she started a new scrapbook for J.T., including a copy of the indictment and news clippings. The charges allege her daughter was not abandoned; she lived with her birth parents, not in a nanny home. Her birth father never consented to the adoption and attempted to thwart it, prosecutors say.

"The true victims." Adoptive parents who worked with the agency are reluctant to speak out.

Some don't want to fuel the prosecution. Others fear jeopardizing it. Everyone spoke of a desire to protect their children from public exposure.

"There are victims in all of this, and the children are the true victims," said the Ogden mother of two Samoan siblings, ages 6 and 9. "When this hit the press, my older kids came home asking, 'Were my brother and sister stolen?' ''

She and J.T.'s mother spoke on the condition their names are not used. The Ogden stay-at-home mom has six kids; five were adopted. Her Samoan children are the latest addition, joining the family in July 2005.

"We just wanted to increase our family. It's not like we were trying to save the world," she said. "I hope the courts get to the bottom of this."

She has since contacted her children's Samoan family and shares their correspondence with the kids.

The youngest fondly remembers being rocked by her birth mother; her older brother talks nostalgically about climbing trees and playing in the warm island rain, "but they're happy here," she said.

The boy aspires to become a doctor or engineer, but struggles with feelings of abandonment and plans to attend a Utah college so he can live at home, said his adoptive mother. "He'll do great things. I just want to see him succeed and have the opportunity to do that and have all this other stuff go away."

"We had no qualms." J.T.'s mother turned to adoption after a bad reaction to a fertility treatment landed her in a hospital. She and her husband chose the international path, thinking it safer. Overturned domestic adoptions "scared the living daylights out of us," she said.

She and her husband heard about Focus on Children (FOC) through a friend, and its references checked out. "You can do all your due diligence and things can still go awry," said her Houston attorney, Ellen Yarrell.

The couple first adopted a boy from the Ukraine through the agency. "When it came time to look for a sister, we had no qualms about going through FOC," said J.T.'s mom.

Samoa was appealing because its relinquished children lived in nanny homes, rather than institutionalized orphanages. In May 2003, J.T.'s mom traveled to Samoa to pick up her daughter.

"I can't speak for all adoptive families, but know I speak for some," she said. "During the investigation we all kind of rationalized within ourselves that, yes, FOC probably did something unethical. But when the indictment came down, it was like a whole other horror for all of us."

"Many people . . . love this child." The U.S. Department of State has helped adoptive families reach out to birth families, and J.T. sends letters to Samoa. The 5-year-old is getting ready to lose her first tooth. She likes singing, dancing, swimming, playing dress-up and having tea parties.

"Her dream right now is to be on 'American Idol,' and she's got the voice to do it," her mother said.

"There are many people who love this child, and that's not a bad thing," she added. "Hopefully, we can all work together to make sure she lives a happy life in spite of what's been done to her."

kstewart@sltrib.com