Was This Adoption Or Child Trafficking?
In 1998, 29 kids were taken out of Sierra Leone by a local NGO named HANCI (Help A Needy Child International – S.L). Parents of the children have cried foul play insisting they never surrendered their children to any adoption process. HANCI on their part claim the kids were adopted in the proper manner with consent of the parents. In a special investigative report, Sierra Eye seeks to unravel the most complicated adoption matter in Sierra Leone’s history. Dreams Of The Disappeared Children Mariatu Kargbo has trouble getting to normal life these days, unlike many Sierra Leoneans facing post-war traumatic experiences. She is having a different type of nightmare, Mariatu continuously have day dreams about her two kids. Adama Kargbo and Mustapha Kargbo, at times during the day Mariatu will have hallucinations of the two kids amusing themselves in their compound. But amidst this reverie, Adama is always abruptly brought back to her senses and the stark reality facing her and many of the parents of 29 kids taken out of their sight some 12 years ago. She is still struggling with the disturbing experiences of waking up in the middle of the night from dreams and she suffers from insomnia also.
Promises Of Protection It all started about 14 years ago when some parents and guardians of kids in the northern town of Makeni and surrounding villages where approached by officials claiming to be representatives of HANCI (Help A Needy Child International – S.L). Sulaiman Suma, a driver and father of one of the children, recalling the day he was met by one John Gbla claiming to be a HANCI social worker told Sierra Eye that Mr Gbla approached them that they want to take his two years old daughter (Mabinty Suma) to a children’s home where they will take care of them and educate them up to university level. “They never told us anything else, except that and I was praying for the war to come to an end so that I can happily resettle with my lovely daughter.” Trader Kassim Kargbo told Sierra Eye in Makeni that when he was approached by Mr Gbla on a sunny afternoon in 1997 for her three year old daughter, Yeabu Kargbo. He was very sceptical of the whole scheme and wasn’t convinced about Mr Gbla’s assertion that they were taking her daughter only for child grooming. “I asked him (Gbla) and Mr Henry Abu and tried to clarify things with them and they insisted that all they were interested in as their name suggests was to help children in need. Although I doubted the whole scheme, I had no option then because the threat of rebel invasion made me fear for her and that made me thought she could be safe there than with us in the village,” he said. Unexpected Farewell Weeping bitterly as she recalled her experience to Sierra Eye, Mariama Jabbie, a trader and mother of one of the children taken away by HANCI said because of safety concern at a time when there were sporadic rebel attacks in surrounding villages, she had no qualms with handing over her daughter, Mbalia Kamara to HANCI. “I used to visit her at the HANCI Home at No 3 Mission Road, where they used to stay. When I go there, the other children will be singing ‘Mbalia e mama, Mbalia e mama’, they will be so happy because I used to send her biscuit and sweets,” she said. Mariama said the last time she saw Mbalia was in 1998 (Mariama like the majority of the parents who cannot read and write did not recall the exact date) and that as if the little child foresaw the future, she was not happy as she used to that day. “I will never forget the cheerless farewell we had, but I still had hopes then that peace will return and we will one day settle back,” said Mariama. Gone To Where? Another parent, Marie Sesay said she was very worried about her son, Abdul Rahman Sesay who was just over two years when HANCI beseeched her for him to join the children’s home at Mission Road. “I regularly visited him there to see how he was getting on, but on the verge of an imminent rebel attack I left Makeni for my safety only to return back after the end of hostility to find the home at 3 Mission Road empty. It was after this that many of the parents of the children started asking questions and at last they were able to get some answers from Mr John Gbla. Sulaiman Suma said when he confronted Gbla sometimes in 1999, he told him the children are in a secured home in Guinea and will be brought back when stability returns. But the family began to suspect foul play when Gbla gave different excuses to other parents, and according to Kassim Kargbo, when he met Gbla and asked him about the whereabouts of his daughter, Yeabu Kargbo: “He told me they had taken the kids overseas to the United States for health check-up and that after six months they will come back with them,” said Kassim. We Want Our Children Back But as months turn into years without the families having no concrete news of their children, they took the matter to the authorities and started advocating for HANCI to answer questions about their children. Parent of one of the kids and miner, Ibrahim Turay said they could not stand the sight of witnessing the ‘crude and deceptive’ taking away of their children. “I never planned to give away my child to strangers, I allowed my kid to join the HANCI children’s home because they told me she will be taken care of there and educated up to university level. All I want is to see her back, her mother is in sick bed now and is still struggling with illness and cry everyday that she will die soon without seeing our kid that we never plan to give away,” said Ibrahim. The family has insisted that they will not accept anything less than seeing their kids back and confirming that they are indeed well and fine. Adoption Was Genuine? HANCI on their part insist the children were adopted through the right procedures, HANCI Director, Dr. Kargbo continues to maintain that there are documents proving that the parents and guardians agreed that their children were to be adopted and sent out of the country. HANCI Operations Director, Kelfala Mallay even stated that about eight parents who did not consent to surrendering their children to adoption removed their children from the adoption programme back in 1998. HANCI claimed that the children were adopted through a United States based adoption agency, Maine Adoption Placement Services (MAPS). They also claimed that the children are now living a very good life in the United States with responsible families and that according to the rules of adoption, there is no way they can be returned to their families in Sierra Leone again because the Sierra Leonean parents have relinquished the right to their children. Process Was Legitimate In an exclusive interview with Sierra Eye, the man that was identified by almost all the parents interviewed insisted it was a legitimate adoption. Gbla who was the HANCI social officer in Makeni said an adoption procedure was held in Makeni Magistrate Court and that the parents were adequately informed through an interpreter. He acknowledged claims by parents that at the start of the process they told the parents they were only helping the children: “At first we embarked upon sensitisation and invited parents of malnourished and orphan babies to come at No 3 Mission Road where we will take care of them and help educate them up to university level. But later on we had a meeting with the parents and representatives of MAPS where we told them about our plans to adopt some of the kids and those who agreed were made to sign and thumbprint on agreement papers. The legal adoption procedure went through the Makeni Magistrate Court and it was done openly,” said Mr Gbla. Despite these remarks, John Gbla could not produce any evidence of documents with signatures of 29 biological parents accepting they had agreed to the adoption of their children by families in America. Attempts to reach Dr Roland Kargbo and other top HANCI officials in Freetown for interview proved futile as they told us they will not comment until government finish it investigations. Bundle Of Lies All of the parents denied Mr Gbla claims and insisted they never went to any magistrate court or enter into any agreement that even insinuate their agreement to give up their kids to an adoption process. Abubakarr Kamara whose junior brother and sister, Adama and Mustapha were part of the process said he was shocked to hear this claim from Mr Gbla; “This was the man who confessed to FM 96.2 Colenzo Collins that they indeed didn’t informed us about adoption and now look at him telling Sierra Eye a different story. We were told that an adoption process should go through High Court, but now he is telling you that they went through Magistrate Court in Makeni. All this is a clear indication that these people are criminals because the truth is that we never went to court and agreed to any adoption process. Let them produce evidence to that effect,” said an angry Abubakarr. Unity Among Parents The war of words Between HANCI and the parents actually began in 2000, parents of the lost children were becoming more aggressive in their pursuit of the whereabouts of their children. Some of the parents confronted HANCI officials in Makeni whilst others contacted the police and made complains. The parents had organised themselves and made several efforts to HANCI Director Dr Roland Kargbo who told them that there is no way they can bring back their kids because they have already been ‘legally resettled’ in various homes across America. The parents who were by then holding regular meetings and planning on taking on the issue with a united front when they saw a window of opportunity that could help them locate their children. The Chase From Makeni To Freetown In August 2004, two Americans identified as adopted parents came to Sierra Leone and went to Makeni allegedly wanting to meet see the community the children hailed from and help other children in need. The parents of the 29 kids after hearing the announcement on SLBS Makeni hurriedly assembled and ran to the Hamza Hotel. Upon arriving at the hotel, the Americans and HANCI staffs who had already spent three days in Makeni were already leaving in a vehicle for Freetown, although parents tried to stop the vehicle by waving. The vehicle sped away. After a meeting that same day, the parents decided to follow them to Freetown. Within hours they were onboard a vehicle headed for Freetown tracing the Americans. Interpol Investigations Upon reaching Freetown, the family learnt that the HANCI workers and Americans were at Calaba Town where they reported the matter to the police unit there. Police acted promptly by arresting both Americans and Henry Abu. This arrest prompted the first serious police intervention in the matter, with Interpol police detective Mrs Kamara opening an international investigation into the matter. Basing on the parents’ complains that their children were illegally trafficked out of the country. Police sought to establish evidence to charge the matter to court for possible child trafficking. Tears From Americans Noticing the desperate situations they found themselves in, one of the two Americans shed tears for two days in detention saying their aim was not to hurt anyone and that they had a genuine intention to help the children. After the intervention of the US Embassy in Freetown, the Americans were released with Police claiming they could not find out any criminal intention on the part of the Americans. Although parents claimed that the police didn’t give them any feedback in a matter that was actually reported by them. This was a start of an investigation by the Sierra Leone police that led to charges later that same year. Court Action in 2004 After investigating the matter, talking to Ministry Of Social Welfare officials, parents and other stakeholders, police charged the HANCI Director, Dr Kargbo and two others to court with a 23 count charge of conspiracy to commit a felony contrary to law and child stealing contrary to section 56 of the offenses against the Persons Act 1861. The court action which brought hope to parents of the children was presided over by Magistrate Sam Margai in Court No 1, Freetown. John M koroma, former president for the children’s Forum Network in Makeni said it was like a victory for them and others who had been campaigning for justice in the matter of the ‘so-called adopted’ children. “It was clear for all to see that these parents had been defrauded into handing their children in a manner that breached the law, so for us it was a matter of the law acting against those who had committed these criminal acts against these parents,” he said. Discharged For Want Of Prosecution In a surprise decision on the 18th of March 2005, Dr Kargbo, John Gbla and Henry Abu were discharged for want of prosecution. Kassim Kargbo, father of one of the children involve said they were shocked to hear that. “When we meet together, we were all dumbfounded and could not say a word. The question then was what could we do next? We chose to take on the matter with the political leaders,” he said. Meeting With AG After the matter was discharged, the parents held a meeting with the then Attorney General, Tom Carew who told them quite clearly that the government has evidence that their children are in good care in the United States and that except if the children come back after they become adults. There was no way they could see their kids again, because the laws of adoption means biological parents surrender their ultimate right to their kids. When the parents insisted they want to see their kids because they never agreed to any adoption process, the AG told them to buy air tickets and go to America, suddenly there was an outburst of weeping from the female parents inside the AG’s office. Security OSD personnel who also hails from Makeni and was at the scene told Sierra Eye: “It was like a funeral, we were surprise to hear the weeping inside and immediately the AG called us and ordered us to march them out,” he said. NGO Intervention The case soon attracted the interest of NGOs most of whom saw the matter as an injustice against the parents who were mostly illiterate, TIMAP for Justice, Foundation for Democratic Initiative and Development (FDID) et al, all came into the matter and advocated on behalf of the parents. Emmanuel Hindowa Saidu of the FDID said they understood the matter in Magistrate Court No. 1 was suddenly discharged through the orders of Inspector General of Police Mr. Acha Kamara, claiming “for want of prosecution.” Mr Saidu whose organisation spent considerable number of years investigating the issue of the 29 children at the social welfare regional office in Makeni and talking to parties concerned said his organization found no form of adoption case had ever been handled by the regional office as all adoption cases are above the regional offices and magistrate court. Incompetence Ministry Many of the parents of the 29 children have been blaming the Ministry of Social Welfare, accusing them of having a hand in the ‘illegal’ adoption of their kids. Harry Gbange of the Family Home Movement FHM, a local NGO stressed this point when he noted that the Ministry does not heed the right process of adoption in Sierra Leone. “I am afraid they are not even in charge because most of the adoptions done in Sierra Leone go through lawyers instead of the Ministry and in the case of the HANCI matter, one can clearly see that with HANCI officials pointing to the approval of the Ministry, the rules were certainly broken. The Peep Magazine in an article last November titled; How Our 29 Kids Were Trafficked To America, pointed the blame at the Ministry noting; “It now appears clear that elements of the Social Welfare Ministry were integral part of a CHILD TRAFFICKING SYNDICATE.” Guinea Departure Further doubt about the HANCI claims were put into doubt when Mr Simeon Menjor, Social development officer at the Ministry of Social Welfare trying to defend his ministry told participants at the Faith Alliance Against Slavery and Trafficking (FAAST) workshop recently that those who are blaming his ministry on the HANCI matter are unaware of the fact that it was in Guinea that HANCI hurriedly put together the kids for departure to the United States. “It was during the war and most of our regional field officers were fleeing for their lives, so HANCI had a freehand to move away with the children to Guinea and send them to the USA,” said Menjor. It must be noted that this claim contradict with Mr Gbla’s version that the children were actually flown to the US through Lungi Airport. What Are The Fundamental Rules Broken By HANCI? A Human Right lawyer that had his internship in Sierra Leone told Sierra Eye that from the start, HANCI broke the rules in every respect. “According to the Adoption Act, 1989 (No. 9 of 1989) passed on the 29 December 1989 and the one which still governs adoption in Sierra Leone. ‘The juvenile (child) to be adopted must have been in the continual care and possession of the applicant for at least six months preceding the date of the order. The consent of every parent of the juvenile is necessary before an adoption order can be made unless the parent has abandoned or abused the juvenile or is unable to give consent.’ This is the major flaw of the whole process. It was very clear that HANCI never abided by this because none of the adoptive parents came to Sierra Leone and stayed for six months. Also my investigation showed that the adoption process wasn’t even taken to the High Court because I was told that HANCI are claiming they went to the Makeni magistrate court (something they couldn’t even provide any evidence) which does not have the jurisdiction to grant adoption,” she said. The lawyer who prefers anonymity now because she is involve in some investigation in the US that will possibly lead to a lawsuit said this is one of the most flagrant abuse of parents right she has ever heard of in an adoption matter. Police Bias? Parents of the 29 kids who have been frantically exploring all avenues to seek redress for their children have accused police of unfairness in the matter. They accused the police of playing games and buying time for HANCI in the hopes that they the parents will give up hopes and cease their fight and campaign for justice. “We will never stop seeking for justice until we establish with all certainty that our children are well and alive. The police have definitely been treating us with contempt and frustrating our efforts just because we do not have money and most of us cannot read and write. Can you imagine how the police can drop charges because they said there isn’t evidence after all the documents we showed them and the testimonies we gave. They can fool us, but they cannot fool us all the time,” said Sulaiman M Suma. He said they even explored the possibility of hiring a private attorney to file a case for them, but when they were told about the cost they realised that they just cannot afford that option. Mr Samuel Koroma, one of the parents said he is surprised by the police attitude in the matter showing Sierra Eye the only form he ever saw and signed. The one page admission form only indicated the admission of Mr Koroma’s son, Andrew Koroma into the children’s home in Makeni. There was no indication of adoption in that document which was dated 13th January 1997. We Are Doing Our Best Detective Inspector, Paul Bannister attached to Family Support Unit (FSU) told Sierra Eye contrary to what the parents think they are doing their best to ensure justice for the parents. “We have opened another investigation into the matter and will soon charge the matter to court. The matter was dropped in 2005 because of want of prosecution, but now we are taking a new look at the matter and soon we will come up with something. He said parents should understand that investigation is being delayed not because of the SLP’s fault, but the bureaucracy involve in getting to the bottom of the story,” said Inspector Bannister. He said the police are still waiting for reply from MAPS and Interpol before they can take any further action. Political Avenue The biological parents have not hidden their desire to politicise the matter, and they have already used some of their links with the current government which have a strong base in Makeni where many of them hailed from. The government have been playing a very diplomatic approach with the parents claiming that since the matter occurred way back under the SLPP administration, they have to take a step by step approach in solving the matter. In a front page story headlined; Parents Threatens To Kill on Monday, 17th May, 2010, the Global Times newspaper reported that the parents of the 29 kids who travelled from Makeni to demonstrate against the Minister at his New England office on the snail pace of government efforts to resolve the matter, warned the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, Dr Soccoh Kabia that if they don’t have justice for their missing kids ‘they will even kill or sacrifice their lives’. The Minister who asked them for patience said he was doing his utmost to ensure there is a resolution to the matter. Hold On Adoption In an exclusive interview with Sierra Eye, Dr Kabia said because it is a long standing issue there are several development attached to it. “When I took up office here, I was mandated by government to investigate the matter of which I have already done so. But I will not say anything public until the matter is addressed by Cabinet. I will only say this is one of the reasons why as a responsible government we chose to put a hold on adoption, both internal and external,” he revealed. The minister who was very tight-lipped to reveal any further information said his Ministry have amended the adoption Act which he has forwarded to parliament. In a word of caution, he warned that government treat the matter very seriously and will do all in it power to address the issue in the national interest. Did HANCI Sell The 29 Kids? In 2004, quoting local sources Associated Press (AP) in an article: Aid workers smuggle kids quoted local sources saying that HANCI may have been paid US$ 3000 for each of the 29 kids. Was this basically a child selling exercise? Former Regional President of the Children’s forum Network, John Koroma insinuated that HANCI may have basically sold the 29 children to MAPS. “In this vein, the interests of the biological parents were never taken into consideration by HANCI. The main aim was financial since the parents were vulgarly deceived,” said Mr Koroma. Abubakarr Kargbo, brother of two of the children said he has no doubt that HANCI sent their kids overseas for adoption without their consent because of the financial gains they will secure in the whole process. “If that wasn’t the case, they will have adequately ensure they go through the right processes and consult with us properly and get our consent before sending these kids abroad,” he stated. Money Raises Doubts An expert on human trafficking, Janet Nickel, country director for FAAST said selling children can well fit into trafficking because it can spur agencies or people to pursue these acts without going through the appropriate procedures. “The main aim might turn out to be selfish and deceptive if money becomes the key,” she told participant at a recent FAAST workshop. HANCI Contradiction Another Sierra Eye investigation revealed that from the onset the children’s home was sponsored by MAPS who had already got an agreement with HANCI for child adoption. It was MAPS who first broke news that they sponsored the ‘orphanage’ at 3 Mission Road, Makeni to help raise orphans for likely adoption in the United States. Dr Kargbo himself told the New Citizen on 5th November, 2009: “When the American adoption organization, (MAPS) joined us, we started the orphanage at 3 Mission Road, Makeni for children whose parents wanted their children to be adopted overseas, USA,” Dr. Roland F. Kargbo revealed and went on to disclose that adoption of the 23 out of 33 children was facilitated by HANCI with the consent of their parents each of whom completed and signed an agreement document. Therefore, this indicates that from the start of the children’s home the intention was not for grooming of children only but for adoptive reasons. Gbla and Kargbo had earlier said at the beginning their main intentions were to help needy children and educate them up to university level. Orphanage Or Children’s Home One word that comes up consistently in some of the documents between MAPS and HANCI Sierra Eye lay hands on is the word ‘orphanage’. According to Oxford online dictionary, an orphanage is: “A residential institution for the care and education of children without parents.” But the overwhelming majority of the 29 children have living parents who are now aggressively campaigning for justice. An inside source who used to work at HANCI told biological parents recently that almost all of the files forwarded by HANCI to MAPS indicated that the parents are deceased or lost in the chaos of the war. This view is strengthened by report from a hotel worker in Makeni who claimed he heard an HANCI worker telling one of the Americans adoptive parents who visited in 2004 that not even the distance relatives of one of the adopted kids are still around in the area. “They are likely dead or moved away elsewhere,” he reported to have eavesdropped. Hindowa Saidu of the FDID echoes this same belief by saying he is strongly convinced HANCI corruptly manipulated the biological parents who are all illiterates in understanding that it is not an adoption program but rather a child care unit while giving the impression to MAPS that it was an orphanage. UN Condemnation A UN Human Right Report has also criticised HANCI and questioned the government handling of the whole adoption matter; “The case was committed to court but never concluded because of what the parents believe to have been foul play, and there seemed to have been a lot of interference by the perpetrators who allegedly used their money to buy themselves out of the arms of justice…” the report states. The report also recommends government bring to book all offenders of child trafficking and the tight scrutiny of organisations such as HANCI that claim to provide child welfare. MAPS Response A Sierra Eye survey showed that MAPS is a Maine based adoption agency, one of the most recognised in America. They have a worldwide based adoption plan that sees them providing adoption to American families from countries as far as Russia and India. Several attempt by us to contact MAPS through email and telephone failed, it is important to note that MAPS have in the past stated that it fully complied with standard adoption procedure before adopting the 29 children through HANCI. In an email made available to us, dated August 20, 2008 MAPS claim they ‘forwarded all past placement reports and photos on children who were adopted through this programme to the Ministry of Social Welfare’. But questions posed by Sierra Eye to MAPS whether they did know about the legal clauses of the Adoption Act of 1989 were not responded to. State Department Warnings The HANCI matter may well have prompted the US State Department to reform and offer warnings to Americans after the 2005 court matter in which it states; “Due to a high rate of document and adoption fraud in Sierra Leone the U.S. Embassy in Freetown, will conduct field investigations into the circumstances surrounding the adoption as warranted…” The State Department also warned American citizen to be careful of organisations that pose as child welfare institutions. Commission Of Inquiry On Thursday, June 3 2010, the Sierra Leone government announced it was setting up a commission of enquiry to look into the matter of the 29 children and come up with recommendations for government to act on. Minister of Social welfare, Dr Soccoh Kabia told Sierra Eye the commission have been charged with the responsibility to critically investigate the said matter with thorough involvement of both the parents of the alleged ‘adopted children’ and the organization. He therefore urged the parents and interested members of the public to be patients as the government addresses the issue: “We need to get everything clear before we act,” said the minister. Spring Of Hope The minster also revealed that he has received placement reports from MAPS on about twenty children; “I personally demanded these reports and they look good although I can not tell exactly who the children are, but we are surely working on it and we have already begun consulting with the parents,” said the Minister. Reservations And Expectations Reacting to news of the government inquiry, Abubakarr Kargbo speaking on behalf of the parents said they think there is more to be done: “There was a court proceeding which was unwarrantedly dropped down; the question is do we need an inquiry now and if the answer yes. What is the exact aim and aspiration of the inquiry and how is it going to benefit us and help us see our children, brothers and sisters? I had a meeting with the Minister and he hasn’t answered all these questions yet,” said Abubakarr. On the placements report, he said the Minister has only informed them but hasn’t shown them the pictures and reports. “We need to see them and establish whether they are indeed the missing children, but above all that we want justice and answered questions about how we were deceived and cheated,” he concluded. The matter may not be over yet, but there is at least some indications that some common ground is been reached. With the parents desperate to see their children and have justice and the beleaguered HANCI furiously denying any wrongdoing it will be just a matter of time that this issue got some settlement. Perhaps then Mariatu Kargbo and many of the other parents will stop having their nightmare.