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No winners in Samoan adoption scandal

Last updated 00:00 18/10/2008

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Each November a family in the Samoan village of Faleasiu remembers the birthday of little Posi Iva, the six-year-old boy taken from them, and sold to an unwitting American family.

They are not alone in their grief.

At least 37 children from Samoa have allegedly been sold to Americans in an adoption scam that has led to heartache in both countries.

"We really want to see Posi, I miss my grandson," says 71-year-old Fatu Fuiono, who looks after his grandchildren while their parents work on their farm.

Looking at the sparse surroundings I can't imagine Posi's birthday is celebrated lavishly.

Posi is just one child taken from poor Samoan families and legally adopted by families in the US, who paid up to $US13,000 ($NZ21,500) to the now-defunct Focus on Children agency.

Couples who took more than two children were given a group discount, and paid only $US10,000 ($NZ16,500) for each child.

Children from newborns to teenagers were caught up in the alleged scam.

Authorities in the US have indicted seven people associated with Focus on Children on fraud charges connected to 37 of the adoptions between March 2002 and June 2005.

The accused could face up to 80 years' prison, and fines of up to $US2.25 million ($NZ3.7 million) if found guilty.

They are also facing charges including alien smuggling, visa fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

But the harshest penalties in the world aren't going to bring Posi back to his biological family.

He has been legally adopted according to both Samoan and US laws, and the family will have to wage a custody battle in the United States if they want their boy back, and they don't have the funds.

People associated with the adoption scandal stand accused of lying to the struggling Samoan families, telling them their children would return home and would send them gifts once they reached the US.

There was a flurry of interest in the case last year when the US Attorney's Office took action, but nothing since, and Fuiono believes people have forgotten about Posi.

"Dan Wakefield was like a friend who came here every week," Fuiono says.

"He came with a sack of rice, noodles. That is why I loved him. If I saw him now I would ask him why he lied to us."

Wakefield was the local head of Focus on Children, and one of those facing criminal action in the US.

Since Posi left, his family has tried to make contact, but a letter sent last year went unanswered.

All they have is some information and photos sent to them by the adopted family in Utah, who have changed Posi's name to Michael Ulisese McKrola.

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The story of Posi, and dozens like him, stretches back to 2002 when Focus on Children set up operations in Samoa.

The agency went to market places and befriended the families, giving them gifts of rice and taro, before slowly broaching the subject of adoptions.

At the heart of the issue is the term "adoption" and what it means in Samoa.

The country has a form of customary adoption where poor families leave children with friends or relatives until their circumstances improve, or the children become adults.

This type of adoption helps struggling families, because while children can be a financial burden, adults provide a vital role in helping share the workload.

Fuiono says although his family is poor their children are well looked after and they would never have let Posi leave if they'd known he was going forever.

No-one involved with the Samoan scandal believes the parents in the USA are anything other than innocent victims either.

"We have victims on all sides of the adoption transaction," US Attorney Brett Tolman said last year.

"It threatens the integrity of the adoption system and immigration system. You cannot mislead, take children and sell them."

"(The Samoan families) believed they would get letters, photos, and in some cases, visits from their children until they reach 18 years of age and were then returned to Samoa with an education and the ability to care for their birth parents," he said in a statement.

However, only one child, eight-year-old Sei So, has so far returned to Samoa.

There is no question her family is poor, but Sei seems happy.

I ask through an interpreter whether she is glad to be home, and her head nods vigorously.

"I like school in Samoa, and also the weather, not like over there where it is very cold," she says.

But the little girl looks to the ground and grinds her hands together as she tentatively explains that she still misses her American family.

"I loved my new parents. I liked the toys and chocolates," she says.

Sei's adopted parents were devastated when they learned the girl's parents had not abandoned her, as they were told, the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper reported.

"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," the adoptive mother Kari Nyberg said.

After learning of the situation the Nybergs returned the young girl to Samoa.

Seven months later, however, Sei was returned to the United States.

The Nybergs were happy to take her back but only if her biological family fully understood the implications.

But just nine months later the Nybergs' marriage was in trouble and it was decided Sei should go back to Samoa for good.

But a child cannot be returned like a Christmas gift that isn't wanted.

Authorities say the little girl is almost certainly still legally the child of the Americans, and her name is probably not even Sei, as it was changed by the US family to Elleia.

Simply living again with her biological family doesn't make the little girl legally a member of the So family.

It is not even certain whether she is a US or a Samoan citizen.

To effect the adoptions Focus on Children had to pass safeguards in the Samoan laws designed to ensure people giving up their children were aware of the consequences.

Local lawyer Patrick Fepulea'i is adamant the families knew what they were doing, and the people facing jail in the US are scapegoats.

He says the families who gave up their children had the situation explained to them by two sets of lawyers, and a judge.

"How could they not know? The system was in place. They were told in no uncertain terms," Fepulea'i says.

"Apparently they (US investigators) thought the whole adoption thing here was a sham which is really insulting," he says.

"If they (the Samoan families) chose to ignore the reality then it is their fault," he says

Fepulea'i says that since the adoptions began only a small number of families later complained about it, despite an investigation by the US government.

Before the children could be adopted they were taken away from the Samoan families and kept in a "nanny house" where they were under the supervision of Focus on Children staff.

There have been allegations children at the house were mistreated.

One little girl, Heta Sioka, left the house on the brink of starvation after her Samoan family demanded to see her and she later died in hospital from severe malnutrition.

For all the evidence that some Focus on Children staff may have deceived parents, the Samoan government has steadfastly refused to allow US authorities to take two suspects from Samoa back to America.

A police investigation is underway in Samoa and officers say it is still possible charges will be laid.

Justice Minister Onasa Mesi says he never considered sending away the two fugitives living in his country, Julie Tuiletufuga and Tagaloa Ieti, who were named in the US indictments.

"Samoa has a sovereign government. We do not agree to being forced by America to bring our people over there. There wasn't any criminal charges here. America has got no right to take anybody," he says.

- AAP

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