The Makeni Children

"That Was the Last Time We Ever Saw These Children"
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Aug. 9 2011 10:55 PM

The Makeni Children

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For 12 years, Judi Mosley had been raising a boy she was sure she'd saved from a civil war. During those same 12 years, his birth family, together with the birth families of other children adopted from Makeni, a town in Sierra Leone's north, say they were desperately trying to find out where their children had gone. The local child-welfare organization that arranged the adoptions argues otherwise, saying that the birth families knew all along that their children would be adopted—and are now looking for money.

Let's start with what some of the Makeni birth families say happened. This version of events is drawn from phone interviews conducted via interpreters with Samuel Mosley's birth mother and birth uncle, with the birth father of another child adopted from Makeni, and with two additional sources who've advocated for the Makeni birth parents. The first of these is an English-speaking Sierra Leonean named Abu Bakarr Kargbo, whose little sister and brother were among the adopted children and who serves as one of the families' spokespeople. (Unlike Abu Bakarr, most of the families are illiterate and do not speak English.) The second is Amy Smith, a recent American University law school graduate who spent the summer of 2009 as an intern with Timap for Justice, a Sierra Leone-based human rights group. Assigned by Timap to work with the Makeni families, Smith accompanied them to various meetings with government officials and civil society leaders. Outraged by what she perceived as official contempt toward their cause, Smith took down the families' statements, with Abu Bakarr interpreting. In addition, these accounts are supported by documents provided by two of the adoptive families and by Abu Bakarr.

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.
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.
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Here's the story that these sources tell. In 1997, midway through Sierra Leone's brutal civil war, two men named John Gbla and Henry Abu Kargbo started knocking on the doors of poor families in Makeni. The men worked for Help a Needy Child International, or HANCI, a Freetown-based Sierra Leonean organization founded and directed by Dr. Roland F. Kargbo. (Kargbo is an extremely common name in Sierra Leone. A HANCI spokesperson says that Dr. Kargbo is a distant cousin of Abu Bakarr; Abu Bakarr says that is false.) HANCI was starting a child welfare center at No. 3 Mission Road in Makeni, the families say Gbla told them, underwritten by an American group. If they sent their children to live at the center, HANCI would feed, shelter, and care for them. Most important, HANCI would educate the children "up to university level." The families could visit whenever they liked.

Some parents were cautious about the offer, but finally decided that such an education would help their children. Isatu Sesay told me that she and her husband, Abdulai Kargbo (no relation to Abu Bakarr or Dr. Kargbo), sent their son to No. 3 Mission Road because Gbla said he would put the boy through college. That son was Sulaiman Suma—the same child whom the Mosleys would later adopt, and whose uncle was quoted in the AP article Judi Mosley read. Sulaiman's uncle, also named Sulaiman Suma, says that his wife persuaded him to send their own daughter Mabinty to take advantage of this educational opportunity. Isatu Sesay told me that she and her husband visited little Sulaiman often, arriving at the child welfare center around 8 p.m. and staying until about midnight, and bringing him such treats as kanya, a sweet peanut candy.

Abu Bakarr says that he was 14 when an uncle who directed a different HANCI orphanage helped convince his own parents to send his little brother and sister, Mustapha and Adama, to No. 3 Mission Road. Every week, Abu Bakarr told me, he and his father would bring sweets to his siblings; after school, he sometimes played with them. He saw mothers going to breast-feed their children and others arriving with meals. "Some of the children could [weep] bitterly when their parent want to leave the centre," he wrote via email. But free education was hard to pass up; in Sierra Leone, as in much of Africa, families must pay to send their children to school.

Map of Sierra Leone and Ghana.

The families have repeatedly insisted that no one mentioned adoption. Nor would they necessarily have expected anyone to. In their culture, as in many traditional cultures, it is common to exchange children informally but not permanently; as one birth father told me through an interpreter, adoption was not even a word in his vocabulary. In parts of Asia and Africa, moreover, child-welfare centers frequently serve as temporary child-care centers, boarding schools, medical facilities, and feeding centers, even for children who have families.

Sometimes these welfare centers do genuinely care for children in need. But sometimes, when humanitarian aid is one of the main sources of money flowing into an economy, people have been known to open an "orphanage" not to help children but in order to attract, and skim off, this revenue stream. An institution of that sort might solicit international donations to feed children—donations that are absurdly large compared with local incomes, and easy to embezzle. In some cases, such people have realized that by offering a child for adoption, they can get not just hundreds but thousands of dollars or euros, enough to pay off bureaucrats for the necessary paperwork and still make them wealthy by local standards. Such fake orphanages have been documented in a number of African countries, as well as in Cambodia, Nepal, and Vietnam.

Of course, some child-welfare centers truly are homes for children who have nowhere else to go. But how is a foreigner like Judi Mosley to know which ones are which? She relied on an adoption agency, as do most American adoptive parents. The practices of such agencies vary widely, however: At one extreme are international adoption agencies that oversee their foreign partners scrupulously. At the other are operations—such as the one run by Lauryn Galindo in Cambodia—that are actively unscrupulous. Still other agencies are somewhere in between. Some naively trust that their foreign partners share their own humanitarian mission. Some, over time, begin turning a blind eye to local methods so long as adoptable babies and toddlers arrive regularly enough to pay the overhead. Even the best ones cannot monitor local actions day in and day out, especially during a civil war. And, as I have reported elsewhere, U.S. laws and regulations pertaining to this global trade are inadequate.

***

The Makeni families' account picks up when, six years into Sierra Leone's civil war, the rebels overran their town. "Most parents asked to collect their children," Abu Bakarr told me from Freetown last December, over a very crackly phone line, in an account that echoes what Smith heard from about 30 other family members, and also resembles the stories told to me by Suma and another birth father. "But the HANCI workers said they would not allow any to leave. They said [if the children leave] the people that are funding the organization will no longer fund them again. We pleaded, we demanded to release, but they refused. For many of us, that was the last time we ever saw these children."

Why, against the backdrop of Sierra Leone's civil war, would anyone solicit wanted children for adoption? The country was in upheaval. Rebels were killing and brutalizing civilians at will. Many children genuinely were orphaned; others were abandoned and starving. Why manufacture fake orphans when so many children genuinely needed help?

That's what MAPS founder and then-executive director Dawn Degenhardt asked when I called late last year to discuss MAPS' former Sierra Leone program. Now retired, Degenhardt says she ran MAPS for 22 years as a full-time volunteer based out of Portland, Maine. Under her leadership, the agency helped Americans adopt children from a number of countries around the world, and used the income from adoption fees to run various humanitarian aid projects. She said that her memory is spotty about the details of the Sierra Leone program, which offered emergency support for and adoptions from the Makeni child welfare center in 1997 and 1998. But she could neither forget nor stop telling me about her sole visit to Sierra Leone in 1996.

Degenhardt said that Dr. Kargbo, HANCI's founder, had contacted her out of the blue, asking for support for Sierra Leonean children in need. He already had British funders for one orphanage, she remembers him saying, but these funders did not want to get involved in adoptions—and some of his children needed families. In December 1996, Degenhardt and a staff member flew to Sierra Leone, where Dr. Kargbo took them to tour refugee camps. Once people in the camps heard that these visitors were interested in taking care of children, desperate families swarmed around her, shoving their swollen-bellied babies into her arms, begging her to take them away and keep them alive.

Degenhardt was horrified. She had worked in child welfare around the world since the 1970s, but says this was far worse than anything else she's ever seen, with the possible exception of Haiti. "I fell apart," she told me. "I went into the car, an old Baptist truck, and couldn't stop crying. I don't think I've ever recovered." MAPS agreed to support a new HANCI child welfare center at No. 3 Mission Road to care for starving children displaced by the war, and to help Dr. Kargbo find them permanent families.

When I first told Degenhardt about the Makeni families' allegations, she said she was shocked, and suggested that they might be looking for money. MAPS took every precaution, she said, to ensure that only truly needy children were adopted. Dr. Kargbo and HANCI were "very well respected by the government ministry [Sierra Leone's Ministry of Social Welfare] when we met them. That was the top of the government. Who else would you go to? How else could you proceed? Except to leave and let them all die. That was the alternative: let all the children die."

By all accounts, HANCI stopped doing adoptions after the Makeni children were placed; in the process it cut its ties with MAPS and laid off both Gbla and Henry Abu. Dr. Kargbo told me that this was because his chief British funder opposed adoptions, and insisted on family reunification efforts instead. For the next few years, the Makeni families say, they approached everyone they could think of, asking what had happened to their children, but got the runaround. Abu Bakarr says that Gbla, Henry Abu, and other HANCI workers responded with a series of lies, such as: The children are in Freetown for medical care. The children are in Guinea for safekeeping and will come back after the war. The children are in America for education and will return in five years.

In 2004, after the end of war, the families escalated their campaign to find the children. At one point, they persuaded the police to arrest Dr. Kargbo, Gbla, and Henry Abu, whom the police charged with " child stealing." The defendants maintained their innocence, and a year later, the charges were dropped. The Makeni families redoubled their efforts, reaching out to government officials, representatives of the United Nations' peacekeeping mission, nongovernmental organizations, local human rights groups, the U.S. Embassy, and local and international reporters. According to Abu Bakarr and Suma, at different points, each of the country's three major police divisions investigated and then dropped the case.

Finally, in 2007, Suma told me, Timap for Justice informed the families that the children had been adopted by foreigners. For the first time, he told me, the families understood that the children were gone forever. "But how can they adopt a kid if I didn't give them that kid?" Suma asked, incredulous. "We agreed that they could educate our kids. At the time they were adopted, there was no official judicial system; everything had fallen apart. They weren't adopted; they were sold."

Samuel Mosley wearing aikido clothing, in a photo that Judith Mosley included in her first annual report on Samuel’s well-being
Samuel Mosley wearing aikido clothing, in a photo that Judith Mosley included in her first annual report on Samuel's well-being

The families also learned that MAPS had handled the adoptions. When Abu Bakarr emailed MAPS asking for information on the children's whereabouts, MAPS replied that it had been forwarding annual reports about the children to the country's Ministry of Social Welfare, and that the families should speak to their government. Suma told me that at one point, some of the families saw reports about the children, with pictures of them playing soccer and the like. But he says that these reports did not include the thing that the families really wanted: contact information for the children. And Abu Bakarr claims that MSW officials have generally refused to share the reports with the children's birth families, citing "confidentiality." (Despite repeated attempts, I was unable to reach the current social welfare minister for comment; the previous minister, Dr. Soccoh Kabia, changed the subject when I asked about this allegation.) For her part, MAPS's current CEO, Stephanie Mitchell, says that MAPS is not authorized to send its clients' confidential information to private individuals whose identities it can't verify.

***

But is all this true? Or did the Makeni families willingly sign away their children to save them from the terror of the civil war, and later become remorseful or greedy or both? That's the view of  Gbla, Dr. Kargbo, and HANCI's official spokesperson, Moses Kamara, all three of whom tell a story similar to that told by the Makeni families—except that in their version, HANCI is heroic. (Henry Abu, the other former HANCI staffer named in the families' accounts, declined to speak with me, saying that he has cooperated with the Sierra Leone government's investigation of the Makeni adoptions and will not talk to anyone outside the official investigation.)

The three are united in their disdain for Abu Bakarr, who they say is too young to remember what happened when he was, according to their varying accounts, either 4 or 8 years old. (Although Abu Bakarr and I have not met in person, he appears in pictures to be in his late 20s today, an age consistent with his claim that he was 14 when his younger siblings disappeared in 1998. Smith, who has met him, agrees with this assessment.) They also suggest that he is jealous that he didn't get to go to America with his siblings and is concocting a reason to be sent there now; Dr. Kargbo further alleges that Abu Bakarr is waging a family feud with an uncle, Peter Brima Kargbo, who used to run a different HANCI orphanage.

Some details differ among the three men's stories, but they share a basic outline. In 1997, they say, HANCI hired Gbla with a mandate, as he put it, "to register malnourished orphans." Gbla says that he was given a Makeni office, a bicycle, and a megaphone—all paid for with MAPS's funding—and that he rode around Makeni inviting people to a meeting at No. 3 Mission Road. At that meeting, Gbla said, he "explained to them about adoption." Anyone who wanted their children to go to America was asked to stand on one side of the room, he told me. Over the following months, he said, the families heard detailed explanations about what it meant to relinquish a child for adoption, from Dr. Kargbo and Henry Abu; from MAPS's Degenhardt and her second-in-command; and from the Ministry of Social Welfare and court officials. (Degenhardt says that she does not recall returning to Sierra Leone for such a meeting.) Midway through the process, the men say, several families changed their minds and took their children home, leaving 29 to be adopted.

"There was no selling, there was no buying, and we have not stolen any child," Dr. Kargbo said emphatically. "You can only steal somebody because of a negative purpose. If we are doing a good deed, then we don't need to steal."

When I asked Kamara, the HANCI spokesman, about allegations that HANCI had refused to release the children to their parents in 1998, after rebels overran Makeni, he emailed me: "If any parent had wanted his child back during that perilous time, it would have been a great relief returning them." As for the family members' claims that current and former HANCI staffers have since lied to the families about the whereabouts of the adopted children, Kamara wrote that Dr. Kargbo, Gbla, and Henry Abu "need not defend themselves. There are records and living witnesses … a crosscheck and you will know who is lying." He added that "the parents knew and gave their blessing to the adoption of the children."

If this is what actually happened, why would the Makeni families now falsely accuse HANCI staff? According to Kamara, HANCI is active throughout Sierra Leone today, focusing on rehabilitating street children and teenage commercial sex workers, supporting teenage mothers, assisting families in extreme poverty, and ensuring that children can go to school. Dr. Kargbo told me that the British funder of one of these more recent projects underwrites small "resettlement" payments to Sierra Leonean families in exchange for bringing home children who've been living on the street. He says that Abu Bakarr and Suma have persuaded the Makeni families that HANCI has been misappropriating similar funds intended for them. For his part, Gbla thinks the families are greedy. "They are thinking that the child has entered the U.S., they will get money," he told me, and he says the families have said as much to his face. (In my experience, it was Gbla who was seeking money, asking for my help in connecting him to "agencies that are supporting abandon, destitute, homeless, and orphan children.")

***

Finally, the paperwork of at least two of the adopted children tells its own troubling story. Judi and another adoptive mother, Dona Meers, both say that their children's social histories—the reports that outlined each child's situation prior to entering HANCI's care—and other documents are clearly falsified. Gbla told me that he wrote these social histories. Some combination of people—some perhaps knowingly, some perhaps negligently—created and shepherded through the system these and other apparently false documents, including birth and death certificates and letters saying that both the Ministry of Social Welfare and HANCI had investigated the children's circumstances. Dr. Kargbo, whose signature is on some of the adoption documents, boasted to me of his close involvement in getting the adoptions through the Ministry of Social Welfare and in hiring a solicitor to usher them through the courts.

Last year, after Judith Mosley made contact with members of Samuel’s birth family, they sent her this photo of his birth mother and birth father, Isatu Sesay and Abdulai Kargbo
Last year, after Judith Mosley made contact with members of Samuel's birth family, they sent her this photo of his birth mother and birth father, Isatu Sesay and Abdulai Kargbo

Judi told me that Samuel's social history said, " the mother was tall and suffered from headaches, the father was short and fat with a hernia." In fact, both parents were tall and fit, according to pictures and the accounts gathered by Smith. Judi says other details were incorrect as well. "It was all a bunch of bullshit," she told me furiously. "I don't think there's one word in there that's true."

I heard a similar story from Meers, a nurse practitioner in Kentucky who adopted another of the Makeni children, Adama K., then 4½ years old. (Adama K. is not Abu Bakarr's missing sister, though the two girls share the same first name. At Meers' request, I agreed not to use her daughter's last name in this story.) The case history provided by HANCI and paperwork from Sierra Leone's Ministry of Social Welfare both said that Adama's parents had died during the war—her father by snakebite, her mother of a heart attack. Meers was moved by that story and grateful that she could step in for parents who were no longer around to care for their child. She told me that she had immediately noticed that the girl's parents' death certificates were "in the same hand. There was no effort to hide the fact that they were fabricated." But she assumed they had been forged in order to get the child out of a war zone and safely into a new family.

And yet, as Meers and Adama have since learned, Adama's birth parents were both alive when she was adopted. Gbla, as the social worker who oversaw much of daily life at No. 3 Mission Road, handled Adama's intake, and he spoke with me about Adama's birth father, Sheik Alimamy K., who he says knowingly signed Adama away. Gbla also alleged that Sheik Alimany had posed as Adama's uncle, claiming that her father was dead. When I asked Sheik Alimamy about this via an interpreter, no translation was needed to understand his emphatic answer: "No no no no no no no! He lies!" He added that he and his wife had brought Adama to the center together, and that he had always presented himself as "the papa."

Mosley told me that Samuel's relinquishment document features what is supposedly his father's signature. But the late Abdulai Kargbo was illiterate and unable to sign his name, according to his brother Suma, who told me that Abdulai had not attended "even one day" of school.

When asked about these discrepancies, Gbla emailed me that he had simply written down whatever the families told him. Dr. Kargbo insisted to me that—contrary to HANCI's social history—Adama had previously been cared for by her grandmother, her mother having died in childbirth and her father having disappeared. He explained that if there were any falsehoods in the adoption documents, it was because the families had intentionally misled HANCI. "And this is not the first time," he said. "We have crosschecked and found many places where parents lied. They lied because there was competition for space for adoption. We had many more children apply for adoption—70 children—and we only had space for 29 children." So while the Makeni families say HANCI lied in order to get their children, HANCI says that the families lied in order to give their children away.

I also asked MAPS's founder, Degenhardt, about the apparently fraudulent documents. "Nobody noticed the fraud markers," she said last month. "I'm just very surprised. What can I say? We were told that they were all orphans, and we believed it. We thought we were working with—we trusted everybody over there. HANCI, the minister [of social welfare], and all of them said these kids were orphans, and we believed them."

Gbla and HANCI may or may not have lied about the child welfare center's purpose. The families may or may not have misunderstood whatever they were told, conceivably believing that their children would come home after being educated in America. But even if HANCI fully briefed the families on adoption, and even if everything else happened precisely as Gbla says it did, HANCI and the Ministry of Social Welfare still separated families that might otherwise have lived together again. Inviting families to send their children to the United States could violate the "best interests of the child" guideline that underlies the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-Operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, the document that codifies international agreement on minimum standards for intercountry adoption. The convention says that nations must take "appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin."

Even taking HANCI's version of events at face value, the Makeni children had homes before they were given false histories and shipped away to the United States. Their adoptive families paid thousands of dollars in placement fees, some of which was supposed to go to fund humanitarian aid, and some of which surely went to cover expenses. But even allowing for expenses, these thousands of dollars were vast sums in an extremely poor country suffering a civil war. We don't know what happened to all of the money. We do know that some people lost their children.

E.J. Graff is a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. The Schuster Institute hosts an in-depth website examining fraud and corruption in international adoption.