Voices of the Triad: Adoptive Parent, Elizabeth Muenzler discusses her family's experience after the airing of 48 Hours segment on FOC and corrupted Samoan adoptions. The Muenzler case was previously published on PEAR's blog on March 16, 2009
Many thanks to Gina and the PEAR Board for letting me once again address this group. (I previously wrote on the blog after the Focus on Children sentencing in early 2009.) I was offered this space again, many months ago after our story first aired on 48 Hours on December 12, 2009, to discuss our Samoan adoption with the agency Focus on Children. Quite frankly, the aftermath of the story was a very traumatic time for me and I’m just now getting to the point where I can talk about it. So I appreciate their patience in allowing me now to address the group, as we gear up for the initial re-air of the show over the summer and then its entry into syndication.
Needless to say, I have unfortunately learned that you can’t believe everything you see on those TV news shows, as much of the “truth”--due to the edits of overzealous producers in search of drama and ratings--gets left on the cutting-room floor. Statements are taken completely out of context, and in some cases things are made to fit into the agenda they have already decided upon, despite being inaccurate.
I can state this now because all of the above happened to us. For example, there was no “police car chase, with lights roaring and sirens blaring” on our way to the airport. Our police “escort” was a friend of Dan Wakefield’s, who was off-duty as a police officer. It was framed at the time for us that the two buddies were going to hang out together after we left—only much later, after we heard the story of what really happened, did we put two and two together and realize he was probably a “police escort.” in case anything went wrong for Focus at the airport. And yes, we left in the middle of the night, but we were not whisked away—all flights out of Samoa to New Zealand leave in the middle of the night. All of the “facts” related to these scenarios above were greatly skewed by 48 Hours to make me look like I knew what Focus was doing on the island when we were there. And that was NOT the case.
With the assistance of our attorney, we communicated our dismay to the 48 Hours’ producers after the show aired, and while a few things will be changed in the upcoming version this summer, most will remain the same. As a result, the decision to work with 48 Hours will always be a great regret of my life. Not only were we grossly let down by our agency and the U.S. justice system, we were also let down by the media, simply because we were trying to tell the truth about this horrific travesty of justice.
After the story aired, I was vilified, demonized, and threatened. Not only were horrible things posted about me on the 48 Hours website, but my home and work were called by people who said horrible and vile things to me. I was labeled a kidnapper and a thief and called unspeakable things. There were threats against me, threats by people to come throw me in jail themselves with their personal posse, and threats to pay for lawyers to take my daughter away.
This was just as traumatic, in hindsight, as the day the State Department visited our house to tell us of the truly despicable acts by our agency.
In spite of what was portrayed in the story, I do not regret the decisions we have made since we learned about what our agency did (other than working with 48 Hours). As soon as we learned of the situation almost 5 years ago, we began to reach out to our daughter’s Birth Mother in Samoa with letters and pictures. These packages were delivered by the State Department representatives as they continued their investigation and continued to make trips to Samoa for the next several years.
In fact, we’ve been told by State Department reps that we were the FIRST family to communicate—other than the Nybergs, who returned their daughter to her Samoan family upon learning about the ordeal. To this day, we are one of only a handful of the families in the U.S. of the 100+ kids involved in this case who has had any communication at all with Samoan Birth Parents. The U.S. Families who adopted our daughter’s Samoan siblings and cousins have all been in contact with each other and the extended Birth Family members. We hope to have a “family reunion” at some point on this side of the ocean, so the kids can have a relationship going forward. None of this outreach was described in the story.
We did not hear about the Birth Father, his story, and his involvement with our daughter, until nearly a year AFTER the State Department had initially visited. We learned about everything when we read the indictment and read that she had lived with him, contrary to what we had been told. We immediately wrote him – again through the State Department representatives –and received our one and only letter about 7 months later from him, again through State Department channels.
But, of course, none of this was addressed in the story. We have always felt it was our obligation to start communicating with the Birth Family to help our daughter have a foundation on which to build on for a future relationship, if she so chooses. We have never tried to keep them from her, or keep them from communicating with her. Whether they choose to communicate or not, though, is their decision.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure what the real story is in this scandal in relation to our daughter’s history, and I’m not sure we’ll ever really know. Both Birth Parents told different stories to the State Department, and then different versions to 48 Hours. The Birth Mother is upset that the Birth Father says he wants their daughter back, since she says he wasn’t involved in her life. The Birth Mother wants her to stay here. (That interview with her also never aired in the story).
Then, of course, there’s the story from the agency, which, based on what we have pieced together, still has fragments of truth to it. Finally, there’s our “cattle driver friend”—Dan Wakefield--who was on the ground in Samoa with us, who obviously lied directly to our faces, and who took advantage of the fact that we were at his mercy on the island during our stay. Who knows what, if anything, he told us that week had a speck of truth to it?
We were told a wild story while we were there about the families fighting—but it had nothing to do with anyone wanting to keep our daughter, or raise her. I specifically asked this question numerous times and was reassured by government officials, the attorney, and the agency, that was NOT the case. Hindsight is 20/20, and of course now, I can see through the story I was told. But when you’re in a foreign country, at the mercy of your handlers, and told not to be the “ugly American” and go with the flow, it’s quite a different story in the moment. Foreign adoptions from foreign countries aren’t like those in the U.S. Laws aren’t like those in the U.S. Family relationships aren’t like those in the U.S. We’d seen this through our first adoption in Ukraine. So, ultimately, we put our trust in those who were running the show.
I find it very strange that people thought we should have shipped out our daughter on the first plane out upon hearing the news, back to her Birth Parents, when even now we aren’t sure what really happened and what their situation was in Samoa—and to this day, we still don’t know. Our daughter’s Birth Parents were not married, and by the time the story broke, were married to other spouses—our Birth Father even living in Hawaii. Our daughter has no memory of Samoa, her Birth Parents don’t speak English, and to uproot her after years in the U.S. from the only family she has ever known --and to people whose stories keep changing--is not my idea of responsible parenting. In addition, with the PTSD and attachment issues that resulted from her being taken, we feel that to abandon her again would again re-traumatize her and harm her beyond repair.
We recognize now we have an open adoption and will honor that. We are also horrified that this situation happened and will do whatever we can to help facilitate a relationship with our daughter’s Samoan family. But I’m not just going to ship her off to people I don’t even know. Once a more stable relationship has been built, we will be open to visits, most certainly. But people don’t really realize that most of these kids don’t remember their time in Samoa—and they’ve been in the U.S. for 7+ years. Just ripping them away from the only life they have ever known would be cruel—on top of the cruelty that has already been bestowed upon them by the agency.
48 Hours did a great job, though, of making our Birth Father look like a very sad soul—and I know for a fact that he is horribly traumatized by all of this. But we still have conflicting reports about his involvement with our daughter during her time in Samoa. And, most importantly for me, he has done nothing in response to our many letters and regular, ongoing attempts for contact and communication in the more than 4 years since we first reached out to him. This information was conveniently left out of the 48 Hours story. Aside from the one letter he initially sent to us through the State Department almost 3 ½ years ago, we’ve heard nothing from him directly, despite our giving him specific options to mail letters and to communicate with our daughter.
Our phone calls that have been set up with him—including one for filming with 48 Hours that was left out of the story, and others on her birthday and Christmas last year--have constantly been rescheduled. Sometimes he wouldn’t answer the phone at all, which has created more angst for our daughter. In fact, on the suggestion of her psychologist, we don’t even tell our daughter we communicate with him via letters anymore, because she became so upset years ago that he never wrote anything--and still has never written anything--back to her.
Again, it’s not my job to judge anyone, but it is my job to protect my daughter’s best interests. Despite the outrage directed at me after the story, I will always continue to do that. So, we will continue to reach out on a schedule with both Birth Parents regularly. If more contact is requested, we’ll be happy to discuss that.
I know that each and every time the story is aired, more people will continue to judge and attack me. And it pains me that the people most responsible for this travesty continue to get away scot-free while the arrows are all pointed at me. But I stand behind what I have done for my daughter. Now that she’s 8, she knows most of her story; when she’s older we’ll tell her everything related to the situation. Contrary to popular belief, especially from those who demonize me, I do not believe she will hate me for what I have done to try to get justice for her, her Samoan family, and our family, and to protect her best interests, no matter what. I will be able to tell her what happened, and my thoughts on the matter, with love, honesty, and a clear conscience—in spite of 48 Hours version.
Ethics, Transparency, Support
~ What All Adoptions Deserve.