Dreams of parents in two worlds shattered by scandal
This story was first published in June 2007
FALEASIU-UTA VILLAGE, Samoa - Sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor of their open air hut, Tupu and Isaia So whip shirts across their backs to scatter a swarm of mosquitoes and flies.
Under the sugar cane thatch roof, there is a bench, a tiny 5-inch television and a large trunk plastered with Spam logos. Purses and backpacks dangle from nails; a cherry-red necktie is knotted around a supporting post.
The couple's 7-year-old daughter, Sei, emerges from playing in the rain forest barefoot and shirtless, her hair pulled back in braids. She plops into her mother's lap, her dark brown eyes scanning the sweltering room.
This way of life, "Fa'a Samoa," is not the only one Sei knows. Far across the Pacific Ocean, in Spanish Fork, Utah, there is another family who once called her their daughter.
Sei -- or Elleia, as Mike and Kari Nyberg named her -- had many firsts with her American family. A winter's inaugural snowfall; a visit from Santa Claus. Dance lessons, birthday parties and ice cream cones.
Today, the Sos and Nybergs are close, the two Mormon families say, but their bond was born in deception.
They are at the heart of an alleged adoption scam that has all but ended international adoption in Samoa, sparked a massive federal fraud indictment in Utah and broken the hearts of grieving birth parents and stunned adoptive parents in two countries.
Samoan families accuse Utah-based adoption agency Focus on Children of tricking them into giving up their children for permanent adoptions. Similar tactics were described in interviews with six Samoan families, all but one members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Recruiters exploited their religious faith and dreams for their children, they said, selling adoption as a "program" that would send youngsters to live with an American Mormon family and get a good education before returning home at 18.
Other promises: Money, regular letters and photos from the adoptive families, the families claim.
In America, adoptive parents were falsely told the children were abandoned or had parents who could not care for them, prosecutors say. Now the parents fear the scandal's impact on their children and the possibility of losing them -- which prosecutors emphasize is not their plan.
Learning her daughter's birth father did not abandon the girl, and instead tried to halt the adoption, "was devastating," said an adoptive mother in the Southwest.
"As much as we love her and can't imagine life without her," she said, "we never would have taken a child away from a family that wanted to raise her."
Scrutiny in Samoa. The 135-count indictment in Utah accuses Focus on Children, owners Scott and Karen Banks and five employees of fraud and immigration violations. Those in the U.S. have pleaded not guilty.
Triggered by suspicious immigration officials, the U.S. investigation led to the February charges. They target 37 of 81 Samoan adoptions by the agency between 2002 and mid-2005.
No trial date is set. Prosecutors and the defendants' attorneys agreed to a court order restricting their out-of-court statements, and none would comment.
Meanwhile, Samoa's investigations into Focus on Children continue. At the Ministry of Police and Prisons, detectives have interviewed five couples who gave up their children. Charges may be filed after a judge releases their adoption records, said assistant police Commissioner Lio Papalii T. Masepau.
"What we're concentrating on is the misrepresentation to the parents by Samoan people [who worked for Focus on Children] here," he said.
Two Samoans named in the indictment, Tagaloa Ieti and Julie Tuiletufuga, have not been brought to the U.S. Other Samoans may yet be implicated.
"If there have been any 'lies' or 'misrepresentations' involved, then hopefully the investigations being carried out by the Ministry of Police and Prisons will reveal such and appropriate charges will be filed," said Samoa Attorney General Ming C. Leung Wai.
A ruling in another case linked to Focus on Children -- the death of 17-month-old Heta Nua -- is expected within weeks, said Masinalupe Tusipa Masinalupe, CEO of the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration.
A doctor testified the girl died of malnutrition and dehydration after spending several weeks in an Ululoloa nanny house run by the agency.
The pitch. Sei's mother, Tupu, was first approached in 2002 by her cousin, Sapati, who suggested placing the then-2-year-old for adoption. Only he never called it that.
Sapati described a "program" that "was for the future of the kids," said Isaia, Sei's father, through a translator. Children would get a U.S. education and return at 18, Sapati told them.
The Sos hesitated. Sapati returned with Ieti and Dan Wakefield, recruiters for Focus on Children.
Wakefield and Ieti brought "fesoasoani," or "cultural assistance," including biscuits, half sacks of rice and tins of fish. Such giving was later banned by the Samoan government because it "clearly affects the bona-fides of an application," a court order said.
The men told the Sos, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that the program was affiliated with the church and an LDS family in the U.S. would educate and care for Sei.
"He believes in the Mormon church, you know," a translator explained Isaia's reasoning. "He knows the kind of people [that are] in the Mormon church because he's the religion."
Trust in the LDS Church, other families said, also drew them to Focus on Children's "program."
Bishop Tovia Matealona -- who is married to Sei's older sister Ama -- said the Sos never questioned Wakefield's integrity, knowing he is LDS. Wakefield, who served an LDS mission on the island from 1957 to 1958, allegedly led families to believe Focus on Children was affiliated with the church.
Matealona warned the Sos they would no longer have any rights to Sei. But they "were focused on the great opportunity for their daughter," he said through a translator. "None of them had been overseas."
Church leaders, including Matealona, cautioned villagers about Focus on Children. "That is when the [Samoan] government realized something was wrong," the bishop said.
LDS church spokesman Scott Trotter said the church "has never had nor does it now have any affiliation with the Focus on Children adoption program." The church is not involved in the investigation, he added.
"This is not right." America would offer Sei, the youngest of eight children, a life she would never see in Samoa, the Sos recall thinking.
Isaia makes a modest living growing cabbage, cucumbers and taro, a potato-like vegetable. He sells it at the bustling market in Apia, where shoppers can buy chilled coconuts, sweet bananas and juicy papaya, or handicrafts, such as brooms and seashell jewelry.
After agreeing to enroll Sei, the Sos went to the office of Focus on Children barrister Patrick Fepulea'i in Apia and met with his secretary and paralegal, Sharon Crichton.
They filled out paperwork -- all in English -- including a relinquishment that stated they were "unable to properly care for [Sei] because we are both unemployed" and could not provide their children "the basic needs vital to their healthy growth and good development."
After the Sos signed, Ieti read the document to them. "This is not right," Isaia said he told him. "I can support my kids."
Still, the Sos continued on to a second law firm, as required by Samoan law, where their affidavits were sworn before a different barrister.
Among the three firms Fepulea'i used for this step was Leung Wai Law Firm, where Samoa Attorney General Ming C. Leung Wai, was a partner. He is now involved in the investigations.
His firm "never charged any fee for witnessing the swearing of these affidavits," Wai said in an e-mail.
Fepulea'i filed the paperwork in court. But a year went by before Wakefield returned to Faleasiu-uta village for Sei.
"It didn't make sense." Mike and Kari Nyberg first met Sei in an Auckland, New Zealand, hotel in January 2004. The 4-year-old repeatedly cried for her mother before falling asleep that night with a Samoan coin and necklace clenched in her fist.
The Spanish Fork couple had endured multiple miscarriages and the death of a newly adopted Micronesian son. They were thrilled to welcome the daughter they renamed Elleia.
There was never an "a-ha" moment that led the Nybergs to believe something was wrong with Elleia's adoption. But as their relationship grew, unsettling information emerged.
Once she learned English, Elleia spoke often of her Samoan family -- her parents, her siblings, what it was like to sleep on the wooden floor of her house.
"It didn't make sense," Mike said. "We were told she was in foster care for a specific period of time."
The agency had discouraged a trip to Samoa, saying Cyclone Heta had damaged the island and there was an outbreak of German measles under way. The Nybergs instead paid an escort fee for Elleia to be brought to New Zealand.
"They did in fact tell us do not go and see the birth family because the U.S. government doesn't want you to," Mike said.
It didn't add up. "What hit me is, Are we supposed to have this little girl?" Mike said. "If what we've been told is [untrue], what happened on that side of the fence in Samoa?"
The Nybergs planned a trip to the island.
"Your rights...are severed." Wearing a navy blue serong and a light blue short-sleeve shirt, Fepulea'i walks around his spacious, downtown Apia law office barefoot. His ceiling-to-floor windows face the murky blue Pacific Ocean and large ships sitting idle.
Fepulea'i insists Focus on Children's adoptions complied with Samoan adoption and U.S. immigration laws. Some Samoan parents, he believes, are simply seizing what they see as an opportunity to get their children back.
"If the U.S. [Consulate's Office] in Auckland -- if there was something wrong with these things -- they would have never issued visas for these kids to enter the U.S.," he said. "So, how the hell can you say it's smuggling?"
Scott Banks had first contacted Fepulea'i in 1999, saying Focus on Children wanted to "set up avenues for adopting kids" from Samoa, the barrister said.
To meet the strict U.S. definition of orphan -- an abandoned child, or one left with a parent who cannot provide care -- the agency opened nanny houses to separate children from their parents. The poorest parents in the villages were approached.
Fepulea'i said he clearly told birth parents an adoption would mean "your rights as a parent are severed." Birth parents acknowledged they understood, he said, and some called off the adoption.
"Even up to the stage the judge was involved, people changed their minds," he said.
Still, he acknowledged, some families initially believed their children were coming back at 18.
"That's when we came down hard on these people [the parents] and said, 'No, these kids aren't going on scholarship,'" he said. " 'You have a good think about it because it's not going to happen that way.' "
When they returned to Wakefield, one family said, he assured them the children would return and said attorneys were only trying to scare them.
"That's how we do it." Fepulea'i and some Samoan officials believe the island's "customary adoptions" caused confusion. Samoan families commonly send children to relatives and, without any paperwork, the adoptive family raises the child as its own.
But it's understood the child is free to visit or return to birth parents.
"For instance, if my sister is in New Zealand and she is doing well, and comes over here and sees I have four or five kids and it's not well," said Unasa Mesi Galo, minister of justice and courts administration and the electoral commission.
"So, she'll say, 'Oh, I'll take one of those kids or two.' That's how we do it here. You do it because you want to do it, no money involved. But this is a new thing, now -- you pay money."
Samoan culture is "hard for Americans to understand, which fuels the zeal for adoptions, because Americans feel every child must have membership in a clearly defined nuclear family," said Jini Roby, an associate professor of social work at Brigham Young University.
An internationally respected scholar on adoption policy, Roby discovered a similar phenomenon in the Marshall Islands. Her research helped shape a Marshallese law mandating, among other things, comprehensive counseling for birth mothers.
Wakefield, Fepulea'i said, was another possible source of confusion.
He once confronted the recruiter, pointing out how children could benefit from the adoptions. "You should emphasize that, instead of telling people lies" about children returning, Fepulea'i said he told Wakefield.
Wakefield argued he only said 18-year-olds are adults in the U.S. and could return. "He basically put his own slant on it, really, saying, 'Well, I didn't really say it in those exact terms,'" Fepulea'i said.
Wakefield, 70, and living with his sister in American Fork, declined to be interviewed. But Tracy Wilson, who served his LDS Church mission in Samoa with Wakefield, said his friend gave him the same explanation.
"If he [an adopted child] has the passport and the money for transportation, then he is on his own," Wilson said.
Wakefield's checklist, Wilson said, included asking, "Do you understand your child may never return to Samoa?" He denies soliciting families and says parents and others came to him, Wilson added.
"I know for a fact there were a number of ecclesiastical leaders who approached him" about adoption, sometimes on behalf of unwed mothers, said Wilson, who makes frequent trips to the country.
The indictment alleges Wakefield received from $1,750 to $9,250 for each adoption. Wilson said most of the money covered nanny-house expenses, attorney fees and vehicle payments.
"He has nothing to show," Wilson said.
Two families connect. Through a friend with connections in Samoa, the Nybergs were able to locate the Sos.
The girl's family told them of promises made -- and broken -- by Focus on Children: Sei would return when she was 18. They would receive money every month from the Nybergs. They would get photographs and regular communication.
"Those things never took place because we didn't know they were being told that," Mike said.
The Sos left the girl's future up to the Nybergs. After wrestling with the heart-wrenching decision, the Nybergs left Elleia with her parents and returned home without her.
"Our family loves Elleia with all of our hearts and doing what is best for the child isn't always easy," Mike said, his eyes brimming with tears.
After Sei had lived in Samoa for seven months, her parents contacted the Nybergs, saying they wanted her to return to America. If her parents fully understood the adoption now, the Nybergs thought, they would love to have her back.
Sei once again became Elleia. Nine months later, however, the Nybergs' marriage was in trouble, and they suggested she could be adopted by one of Mike's sisters.
The Sos decided it was best to bring their daughter back for good. The Nybergs returned her to Samoa in February.
"We know that she is with her family that loves her," Mike said. "And it may look like they're poor, but they're only poor monetarily. They are some of the finest, most honorable people I've ever met, and I have no hesitation saying this is a good place for her to be -- with her parents, who love her."
When Mike called two weeks ago to check in, Isaia answered the phone. Seeing his name on the caller ID, Isaia answered, "Mike! I love you!"
Because Focus on Children and its operators have not yet gone to trial, Mike said, he isn't ready to draw conclusions about the agency.
"If the adoption agency isn't found guilty, then the adoptive families in the U.S. don't have to worry about it," he said. "But if the adoptions are found to be illegal, there will be tough decisions to make for all involved."
Tribune reporter Kirsten Stewart contributed to this story.