July 19, 2010
Couple defrauded but not deterred
Attempted adoption from Uganda went bad, but parents now have three kids
A Sioux Falls couple who waited patiently for more than a year to bring their adopted children home say they got scammed, and are looking to the courts to help salve their broken hearts.
Cori and Chris Schmaus said they contracted with an Indianapolis company, Americans For African Adoptions, in early 2008 to adopt two Ugandan children whose mother supposedly gave them up after giving birth to them as part of quintuplets.
The Schmauses received photos, birth records and letters about the children, named Sowali and Fatina Bangi. Having paid $11,500 in initial fees, the couple began sending the agency $400 a month for the children’s care.
Each month, they were assured the adoption paperwork was near completion. It wasn’t. The Schmauses said there never was any legitimate paperwork.
Last October, they found out from a New Mexico couple trying to adopt the other two surviving quints that the Bangi children had lived with their mother since birth. The New Mexico couple flew to Kampala, Uganda, met the mother and learned that she never had agreed to give up her children.
Since then, the Schmauses learned that a Ugandan named Joseph Kagimu reportedly staged photos, forged documents and collected money for dozens of children such as the Bangis, then used the information to collect money from unsuspecting Western parents through the Indianapolis agency.
As of last October, the Schmauses had paid $16,800 to Americans for African Adoptions. Two weeks ago, they sued the agency in Minnehaha County, alleging that its director, Cheryl Carter-Shotts, was negligent because she failed to catch on to the scheme. A handful of others, including the New Mexico couple and another in Michigan, have filed or plan to file similar lawsuits as well.
Carter-Shotts claims Kagimu scammed her as well as the families.
“The most upsetting part for me was that I was emotionally attached to these children,” Chris Schmaus said. “These were our children. It was like losing a child when we found out what was going on over there.”
The Schmauses always had wanted to adopt. Cori Schmaus’ family had adopted kids, and Chris Schmaus had worked with foster children at McCrossan Boys Ranch.
After hearing about Africa from missionaries at their Sioux Falls church, they decided to try for an international adoption. But international adoptions can be expensive. The average cost to adopt one child from most agencies is more than $20,000, Cori Schmaus said.
Still, when she came across Americans for African Adoptions and spoke with Carter-Shotts about the smaller upfront costs, she was sold. Carter-Shotts has a strong reputation. Her agency, founded in 1986, is widely credited as the first to facilitate adoptions from Ethiopia.
According to an Indiana court records search, the agency never has been successfully sued.
Carter-Shotts said Kagimu sent her a newspaper article about a woman in a Ugandan village who had given birth to quintuplets, four who survived. Carter-Shotts had met Kagimu 18 years ago, and said the children needed homes.
Uganda’s strict rules for international adoptions had been loosened, she was told, and Kagimu wanted to begin working with her. He sent her documents that supposedly proved that the mother had relinquished her parental rights and sent photos from what supposedly was an orphanage.
Even on four visits to Uganda in 18 months, Carter-Shotts said everything seemed to be in order, though each time she went, she was told Kagimu needed more time.
Even so, Carter-Shotts was sure the children were being cared for. The Schmauses were sending money, other families were sending money for the other children in Kagimu’s Kampala orphanage, and Carter-Shotts would pass on the money to him.
Back in Sioux Falls, things seemed to be taking too long, Cori Schmaus said. She wasn’t the only one who felt that way, either. Don and Angie Guest of Michigan were working with Carter-Shotts on a Ugandan adoption, too, and met the Schmauses through an Internet message board.
The Guests were trying to adopt a 5-year-old girl named Michelle. About five months after signing their contract, they got a letter from a woman purporting to be Michelle’s mother. The letter thanked them for sending payments to help her daughter but she asked the Guests to send money to her.
“We had a lot of trust in our adoption agency, so we didn’t know what to think,” Don Guest said.
Carter-Shotts told the Guests it probably was a hoax, perhaps an aunt who took the photos and sent the letter to scam them.
As the months passed, the Guests became more suspicious. “We were making our foster care payments, but we weren’t getting any updates on how our case was progressing,” Don Guest said.
The New Mexico couple trying to adopt the other half of the surviving quintuplets flew to Uganda in October to confront Kagimu. They told the Schmauses and Guests the quintuplets still were living with their mother. When the New Mexico couple showed up unannounced at Kagimu’s orphanage, the children weren’t there.
They found the woman who wrote the letter to the Guests. She was telling the truth, too. They’d corroborated the stories with other couples who had flown to Uganda out of frustration.
Carter-Shotts looked into Kagimu’s activities as families began to demand their money back. She hired lawyers in Kampala and learned the same thing the families did – Kagimu had been passing along fake birth and death certificates, and the children weren’t staying where she thought they were.
“Through another family friend, we learned that there were foster homes, but they were being moved around,” Carter-Shotts said. “It seemed they were being moved in when I was coming and moved out when I left.”
The Guests and Schmauses said they haven’t been repaid the fees they sent to the agency. Carter-Shotts insisted she has paid back the Guests in part but can’t refund all the money and that some initial fees were understood to be non-refundable. Besides, she said, the fraud destroyed her business.
“Joseph took all the money. We don’t have any income coming in,” she said.
Who is responsible?
The Schmauses said Carter-Shotts should have figured out the scam.
“I don’t think she was very business-savvy,” Cori Schmaus said.
Guest doubts he’ll see a refund, either, suspecting Carter-Shotts used the money to pay for day-to-day operations.
“I felt like if I let it go, she would win,” he said. “I think Cheryl has been in business too long not to have known what was going on.”
Carter-Shotts hasn’t responded to the lawsuit in Minnehaha County, but her lawyers sent Guest a letter claiming that Michigan isn’t the proper venue for the dispute. Carter-Shotts she thinks Kagimu is in jail. Calls to the Ugandan Embassy in Kampala and in Washington, D.C., were not returned.
The Guests still hope to adopt one of the children they’d learned about through Carter-Shotts. Michelle’s mother decided to keep her daughter, but the Guests plan to fly back to Uganda this week to plead for guardianship of an 8-year-old girl.
As for the Schmauses, a website called Rainbow Kids connected them to 6-year-old Amanuel, 4-year-old Capital and 1-year-old Eyrusalem – three siblings from Ethiopia.
Their mother died in November, so the Schmauses flew to Ethiopia a month ago to adopt all three. Family members lent them the adoption fees, they said.
“These kids saved us,” Chris Schmaus said of the Ethiopian children. “I didn’t think I could trust anybody else.”
Reach reporter John Hult at 331-2301.