Were These Adoptees From Sierra Leone Stolen?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
May 11 2012 3:00 PM

The Stolen Makeni Children

A preidential commission finds that the adoptees from Sierra Leone were in fact kidnapped.

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Kim Kargbo has a more skeptical take on the findings. Kim, who is married to a close relative of HANCI’s founder, Dr. Roland Foday Kargbo, thinks the order to shut down HANCI and bring criminal charges is a political ploy. Dr. Kargbo is running for a parliamentary seat, she said, and someone wants to keep him out of the government. Kim believes that everyone who was originally involved in the adoptions is partly at fault. “Something wrong was done, it was! There were papers falsified by HANCI; the government knew that and signed them anyway. Some of the parents—not all—lied when they took their kids in to drop them all off at the center.” She told me that it’s common for parents who seek humanitarian aid to say that their child is, instead, “my brother’s daughter, he died, I don’t know how to take care of her, can you help me?” But she agreed that none of them understood that the children were going away forever. “I believe HANCI told them, but they didn’t understand.” The concept was just too foreign to their experience.

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Some of the Makeni, Sierra Leone, birth families whose children were adopted by Americans in 1998. Abu Bakarr Kargbo, whose younger brother and sister were adopted, is seated third from left.

Dr. Kargbo is no longer the HANCI executive director. Its existing leadership has asked not to be shut down, since thousands of children currently depend on their work. Dr. Kargbo himself, whom I could not reach, was quoted by a local news site as saying that he did nothing wrong—and that “there has already been two investigations, now there is a third, even though no new evidence has been brought to light. I have nothing new to add to what I have already said under oath on the matter.”

I’d originally started investigating the Makeni children’s adoptions because I was contacted by Judith Mosley, who had been stunned when she read an AP report about the Makeni families—which quoted her son Samuel’s birthfather asking where his son had gone. Judi, who now lives in Manila, had had two earlier brushes with fraud in international adoption. When I emailed her the commission’s findings, she emailed back, “I do think this is amazing, in one sense for the Sierra Leone families, but in a broader sense that maybe, just maybe, this could be the catalyst that helps transform international adoptions. … [T]he birth families … as we all know are more often than not, voiceless & powerless.” When I asked whether she intended to bring Samuel to Sierra Leone to meet his birth family, she wrote that, to her regret, it wasn’t financially feasible for the family just now, but she hopes to bring him when they can afford the trip.

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The most moving conversation I had was with Abu Bakarr Kargbo, the Makeni families’ representative, who called to tell me the news and later released this statement on their behalf. The Makeni families are already impatient with the pace of their reparations. They are demonstrating again, demanding that the government move more quickly in connecting them with their children. Nevertheless, Abu Bakarr’s voice was trembling as he said that they are “overwhelmed.” He told me by phone, “This is what we’ve been advocating for past 15 years. HANCI took the children away from us by fraud. The commission has established this. We are happy to have this established. The police have already commenced their investigation. We are optimistic that the right thing will happen.” He continued, “We are optimistic. We want to know the fate of these children. We want to see the children. The parents are in agony. They have suffered so much. we have been through a lot. We hope that the adoptive parents will connect their children with their biological parents, because we are not planning to take these children away, but we want them to know that their biological parents are alive.”

I asked how the families would feel if the U.S. government and MAPS were unable to find the adopted children—or if the adoptive families chose not to allow contact. After a long pause, he said gravely, “That will be very, very sad for the parents. My brother and sister, even when I go to bed, I see their faces, I love them so much. I don’t know, I don’t know. This whole thing is complicated.”

Correction, May 14, 2012: The original subhead read that a “court” found the adoptees were kidnapped. In fact it was not a court but a presidential commission.

E.J. Graff is a contributing editor at American Prospect and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.