A Dad's Adoption
People Magazine, June
By NINA BURLEIGH
After Bringing Home a
Child from Samoa, Mike Nyberg Learned She Had a Loving Family Back
Standing with his video
camera at the Auckland, New Zealand, airport in February 2004, Mike
Nyberg watched the adoption agency worker lead in a saucer-eyed
4-year-old wearing a dirty blue dress and clutching a rubber ball. She
was crying, but that didn't surprise the adoptive father in light of the
heartbreaking story the agency had told him and his wife—that the girl
had been abandoned by her destitute parents in Samoa and left in an
orphanage. Under the circumstances, "there's not a child on the
planet that wouldn't act this way," Mike recalls thinking. Still,
he noticed, as she wept, she repeated a single word: "Tupu."
Back home in Spanish Fork, Utah, the Nybergs asked what it meant. In
broken English, over the next weeks, the daughter they'd named Elleia
explained: Tupu was her mother. She also had a father, Isaia, and seven
brothers and sisters with whom she'd happily lived until the night a
stranger took her away. Stunned but determined to find out more, the
Mormon couple arranged for a missionary friend to visit Elleia's
village; some months later he confirmed her story. "At first I was
angry—who would do this?" Mike, 41, says. "Then I was sad
and scared. What were we going to do?"
It was an adoptive parent's worst nightmare—and the Nybergs weren't
alone. In a massive adoption-fraud case that involved more than 60
Samoan children and nearly 60 American families, federal prosecutors
charged in 2007 that Focus on Children, an adoption agency in
Wellsville, Utah, falsely represented to Samoan parents that their
children would go on an extended study-abroad program—then put those
children up for adoption. Earlier this year agency owners Karen and
Scott Banks and three employees pleaded to lesser charges; they were
sentenced to probation and banned from adoption work. The two
governments also cut a deal: Samoa wouldn't challenge the adoptions, and
the U.S. ordered the defendants to put up money for a fund to foster
relationships between the children and their Samoan families. All but a
few of the American parents have declined to comment (see boxes). The
Nybergs were the only ones known to have returned their child.
For the Nybergs, who had struggled to add a third child to their brood,
the connection to Elleia was instant. Learning of Focus on Children
through their religious community, Mike, a financial planner who paid
the agency $13,000, recalls gazing at her photo as the agency worker
explained her "parents were giving her up; they couldn't feed her.
I had no reason to question that."
Even as he tried to unravel her puzzling story, Mike quickly bonded with
Elleia. "She was such a little doll, it wasn't hard to love
her," he says. And despite her tear-filled nights, Elleia became
part of the family—snuggling with Mike as he read her Dr. Seuss and
Curious George, going on family hikes in the mountains, getting T-ball
lessons from her brothers Porter, now 6, and Blaine, 11. Still, when
Mike would take Elleia grocery shopping, "she'd point at the mangos
and pineapples," Mike recalls, "and say, 'Samoa, Daddy!'"
Within a year after adopting Elleia, the Nybergs contacted authorities;
their report helped launch the investigation into Focus on Children.
Then, in late 2005, the Nybergs took Elleia to Samoa to see her family.
"We needed to find out," Mike says, "where her life
should be." At a pre-arranged meeting place, her parents, Tupu and
Isaia So, were waiting. "She was hugging her mom, and her mom was
crying," Mike recalls. "Then she went to her brother. They
hugged and hugged."
Afterward Elleia's parents explained how they'd been misled by an agency
worker into surrendering their daughter. They showed the Nybergs their
home, a compound of wood-and-palm huts for the extended family, where
they eked out a living growing pineapples, mangos, coconuts and beans.
There was no plumbing, and "there were pigs and dogs and chickens
everywhere," Mike says. "The living conditions were not ideal
by our standards. But she was receiving so much love." The families
agreed: Elleia—whose birth name is Sei—should stay in Samoa. The day
they left, Mike recalls, "she hugged me and wouldn't let go. She
was bawling and I was bawling."
Five months later Mike was astonished to get a call from the Sos. They
were struggling and wanted to know, would the Nybergs take Elleia back,
not to adopt but as a foster daughter, so she could get a U.S.
education? "They said we know you would care for her and we still
want her to have the American dream," Mike says. He jumped at the
chance, and Elleia returned to Utah.
But not for long. Already strained, the Nybergs' marriage had come apart
under the pressures of the past year. "Her [Mormon] parents
expected her to be raised by an intact [Mormon] family—and we weren't
a whole family anymore," says Mike, who now lives in Idaho and
shares custody of his sons with his ex-wife (who didn't return PEOPLE's
calls). "I called them, and they said they'd like to have her
back." In February 2007 Mike had to put Elleia on a plane back to
Samoa, this time for good. "I love my little girl," he says.
"I was heartbroken I wouldn't be there for her."
He's still a part of her life—speaking to her by telephone and last
year visiting Samoa with his sons. "We love Mike and his
kids," Elleia's mother, Tupu, tells PEOPLE through a translator.
Just last year one of Elleia's older brothers named his baby son Mike;
another named his newborn boy Nyberg. "Now," Mike says,
"Tupu and Isaia and I, we share a daughter together. It's a strange
dynamic for people to understand. But that's what it is."
More From This Article
Three American parents
spoke at the Feb. 25 sentencing of Focus on Children owners Karen and
Scott Banks—and there was outrage they wouldn't go to jail.
"There are no words to describe [my] disdain and disgust,"
adoptive mom Elizabeth Muenzler said.
Staying in America
When Patti Sawyer
adopted a 4-year-old Samoan girl in 2005, she thought she was rescuing
her from a desperate situation. "I was told she was abandoned in a
public bathroom, that she had no relatives whatsoever," recalls
Patti, 54, a divorced mother of two teenagers.
Unlike Elleia, Patti's daughter—whom she named Jayden—never
mentioned a family until 2007, after Patti received a letter from the
State Department and started asking questions. "She remembered her
mom taking her to a 'nanny house' and crying,'" Patti says.
As authorities investigated the adoption agency, Patti found herself
torn. "How do you take a child away from her mother?" says
Patti. But she wasn't prepared to give Jayden back.
Her resolution: foster a bond between Jayden and her family. Earlier
this year she arranged what she hopes will be monthly phone calls for
Jayden, now 9. "Her father has this big, baritone voice,"
Patti says, "and he said, 'I love you.'"
Now Patti is scraping up funds to take Jayden to Samoa. "It's
exciting and scary for me," she says. "But it needs to be
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