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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Judith and Samuel Mosley in 2010

Were Samuel Mosley and Adama K. stolen from their birth families in Makeni, Sierra Leone so that Americans could adopt them—and so that greedy middlemen masquerading as child welfare workers could get paid? That question was at the heart of the series published here last August, The Makeni Children, which investigated the torturously complex stories of 29 adoptions in 1998 from Sierra Leone to the United States. Birth families from Makeni had agitated for more than a dozen years, insisting that their children had been wrongfully taken. But the child welfare organization that had taken those children, HANCI (Help a Needy Child International), insisted that the families were lying—that in the midst of the brutal civil war, they had knowingly and willingly given their children away.

While I was reporting the story, Sierra Leone President Ernest Koroma appointed an official commission to look into the families’ charges. By all accounts, the group painstakingly heard testimony from anyone even remotely connected with the case: birth families, HANCI officials, police, and many more. Kim Kargbo, an American missionary who lives half-time in Sierra Leone and had helped bring together some of the Makeni children with their birth families, and who had testified in front of the commission, told me that she felt that the commissioners listened carefully and fairly and were genuinely concerned about the welfare of the children and the facts of the case.

The families had high hopes for the commission’s findings. As a skeptical journalist, I had my doubts that the three appointees would do any serious digging. But then, to my surprise, last month the commission released its findings and concluded that the “so-called adoptions” were fraudulent. In the commission’s words, the biological families “cannot be said to have genuinely consented” to the adoptions, as they did not understand the concept of giving up their children forever; had never signed any agreement to relinquish their children; and were never informed that their children would be sent to the United States. Further, the commission concluded, HANCI had failed to inform either the parents or the Sierra Leone court system that those children would be sent to live with American citizens permanently. The commission instructed the nation’s police to reopen a criminal investigation, using all the sworn testimony filed with the commission, “with a view to preferring criminal charges” against the wrongdoers within six weeks. The wrongdoers weren’t named, but the commission did order that HANCI be shut down and its books audited at HANCI’s own expense.

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Finally, the commission advised Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Social Welfare to make contact with the United States government in order to help the birth families make contact with their long-lost children. The families say they do not expect those children to come back permanently—but they are desperate to see and talk with them again, and to find out how those children are.

When I heard the news, I called Dawn Degenhardt, the founder of Maine Adoption Placement Services (MAPS), who had originally worked with HANCI to bring the children here. “It’s shocking that [HANCI] would knowingly do that,” she said, sounding genuinely bewildered by the news. “It’s just amazing. How tragic. How tragic. I just am astounded. They told us these children were abandoned and orphaned and free for adoption.”

The Makeni families’ vindication is unusual. I’ve covered fraud and corruption in international adoption for several years now. Other wrongful-adoption investigations and prosecutions have taken place in countries as disparate as China, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Vietnam, and the United States. But I cannot think of another in which a determined group of birth families have agitated until they were told officially that their children were wrongfully taken—and that justice must be done.

The most notable case is that of Loyda Rodriguez, who in August 2011 received a Guatemalan court decision declaring that her daughter Anyeli—now living with an American family in Missouri—had been kidnapped for adoption. The court canceled Anyeli’s passport and ordered the child’s return. While few believe that the United States will carry out this order, some of the child’s kidnappers are now behind bars in Guatemala.

Of course, the Sierra Leone commission has only made recommendations; the police haven’t yet brought criminal charges, and the Ministry of Social Welfare hasn’t yet made contact with the United States or MAPS. A State Department official told me they did not have enough information yet to comment, and MAPS’s CEO, Stephanie Mitchell, emailed me that they would respond if contacted. Nevertheless, the commission’s findings suggest that the Sierra Leone government is willing to bring criminal charges and help these families reach out to their estranged and now-foreign children.