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.

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.

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.

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