Focus on Children scam: No jail time in adoption-fraud case

In a plea deal, four defendants get probation and are banned for life from the business.
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Standing in front of the people she blamed for almost destroying her family, Elizabeth Muenzler on Wednesday clutched a photo of her adopted Samoan daughter and struggled to relate the depth of her suffering.

"There are no words to describe the disgust and disdain I have for you," Muenzler told defendants as a judge considered how to punish operators and employees of the now-defunct Focus on Children adoption agency. "Lord knows, if anyone deserves jail time, it's you."

After hearing Muenzler's plea and from other parents who either condemned or supported agency operators Scott and Karen Banks, U.S. District Judge David Sam sentenced the couple and two others connected to the agency to five years of probation and banned them for life from the adoption business.

Prosecutors alleged Samoan parents were tricked into giving up their children as relatives or friends pushed a program that would educate children in the United States and return them at age 18. Advocates for stricter regulation of international adoption, such as Kimberly Kennedy, a board member of PEAR (Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform), criticized Wednesday's sentence as "appalling to say the least."

But Judge Sam and prosecutors, who had recommended probation as part of a plea deal, said they focused on having the defendants contribute to a fund set up for the benefit of the adopted children and provide information to investigators rather than jail time. Among other things, prosecutors said the fund will help set up post-office boxes in Samoa so birth parents can receive letters and photos from their children -- but only if the adoptive families decide to initiate contact.

The amount of the payments and specifics on the fund's operation will be hashed out over the coming 45 days. Jini Roby, an associate professor of social work at Brigham Young University, has agreed to direct the trust fund for free.

And although he called the adoption case "particularly offensive" and the "most difficult and unique" case his office has seen in a long time, U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman on Wednesday spoke in favor of the plea agreement his office reached with the defendants that recommended no jail time.

Tolman said a drawn-out case focusing on punishment would have been "catastrophic" for the adoptive parents, birth parents and children. Tolman also said the birth parents reached by his office did not want prison time for those connected to FOC, and many had already forgiven them. A spokeswoman said the office discussed the plea deal with 25 of the Samoan families, many of which had placed three to five children with FOC.

Sentenced for aiding and abetting the illegal entry of an alien, a misdemeanor, were: Karen Banks, 48, on five counts; Scott Banks, 47, who also held a management position at the agency, on five counts; Coleen Bartlett, 52, who, among other duties, facilitated the adoption of Samoan children, on two counts; and Karalee Thornock, 36, who served as a Pacific Islands case worker, on one count.

Focus on Children itself, which entered a guilty plea to a felony count of conspiracy through its court-appointed defense attorney, was ordered to pay $400 in special assessment fees.

A fifth defendant, Dan Wakefield, who helped locate children in Samoa to be placed for adoption, has pleaded guilty to five counts of the misdemeanor and will be sentenced next month. He is expected to get the same sentence as the others.

In addition to contributing to the trust fund, the plea deal calls for Scott and Karen Banks to:

» Participate through their attorneys in a news conference to educate the public and others who might be engaged in similar conduct about their case.

» Meet with prosecutors and the State Department to provide information on FOC's adoption practices in Samoa, Guatemala and other countries to see if adjustments need to be made in U.S. laws.

» Relinquish all rights to adoption documents, photographs and other papers related to Samoan adoptions.

In handing down the terms of probation, Sam made note of the unrelated Washington state 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.

Galindo, who charged large fees and spent the money on lavish personal items, was sentenced to 18 months in prison, he said.

On the other hand, Focus on Children reinvested $750,000 of its income in foreign orphanages and humanitarian services, the judge said in comparing the punishments in the two cases.

Attorneys for Scott and Karen Banks on Wednesday described them as caring people who wanted to help children. Karen Banks is pained some parents might not have understood what was happening, said her attorney, Rebecca Skordas.

"Mistakes were made and people have suffered. One of the people who have suffered the most is Karen," she said.

Charges are still pending against two defendants, Samoan citizens Tagaloa Ieti and Julie Tuiletufuga, whom the United States has been unable to extradite.

Jonathan Lines, assistant special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said at a news conference after Wednesday's sentencing that the stories he heard from parents who had been deceived and lied to were heartbreaking.

"I hope I'm never again witness to such hurtful actions," he said.

Focus on Children

The agency was started in 1994 in Wyoming by Karen Banks and her sister, Danalee Thornock. In 2003, Banks and her husband launched Focus on Children Utah, which ceased operations in summer 2007.

A federal grand jury issued an indictment in February 2007 accusing the agency, operators, and employees of a total of 135 counts of conspiracy, fraud and immigration violations. The charges involved about 80 children, 66 of whom were placed with U.S. families.