In 1998, Americans Adopted 29 Children From a Town in Sierra Leone. Their Birth Families Say They Were Stolen.

Tony Mosley picks up his adopted son Samuel in Ghana in 1998

When Judith Mosley and her husband adopted 4-year-old Sulaiman Suma from Sierra Leone in 1998, in the midst of that country’s brutal civil war, she was sure that they were saving his life.“His orphanage was set fire to; he was one of 12 kids in a family; he had PTSD; he saw people’s limbs cut off—it was tough getting him through our first few years,” Mosley told me. The child, whom they renamed Samuel Mosley, was a “tiny tot” with a distended belly, hair red from malnutrition, and “eyes like radars, that scanned everywhere, all of the time,” she wrote to friends at the time. “The first three nights home, he refused to take off his clothes or shoes, and slept in them, with all his toy cars.” For weeks he ate nothing but meat and eggs, up to 14 a day. He could easily consume two whole chickens, bones and all. Once, when Judi tried to take the bones away, he bit her.

The Mosleys say that their adoption agency, Maine Adoption Placement Services, told them that in the months after Samuel’s birth parents signed him away but before Samuel’s adoption, his orphanage’s caretakers had taken their charges and fled to the hills, where they ate grass, drank from streams, and dodged drug-addled child soldiers armed with guns and machetes. The group eventually made its way to Ghana, where it sent word to the Mosleys and other American families whom MAPS had previously matched with the children. Late that summer, Tony Mosley and the other adoptive-parents-to-be arrived in Accra, Ghana’s capital, and flew the children to their new homes.

The Mosleys are an unusual family. Judi is a white British citizen who met Tony, an African-American man, in Bahrain while she was working for Qantas Airways and he was in the Navy. Since they married in 1988, they’ve made their home mainly in the Pacific, now in Guam, where Tony works in telecommunications. They have two biological children: a girl born in 1989, and a boy born in 1991. But instead of having a third baby biologically, they were persuaded by a friend to find a child who needed a family. In 1997, they adopted a 4-month-old girl from Vietnam via MAPS.

They didn’t intend to adopt again, not until Judi spotted little Sulaiman’s picture on the back of MAPS’s quarterly magazine. As she recently recalled, “his eyes followed me around the room.” She persuaded Tony that, as a mixed-race family, they had a responsibility to take him in. Black male children his age were the last chosen for adoption, they had both heard—even those who weren’t traumatized war survivors in need of extensive medical and psychiatric attention, like Sulaiman. Once Tony brought Samuel home, the Mosleys poured as much care into him as they could. They also went on to adopt three more children, all girls: one from Cambodia in 1999, a second girl from Vietnam in 2001, and that girl’s sister in 2005. In all, they now have seven children, five of them adopted.

Left: Samuel Mosley with his sister Hannah, whom the Mosleys adopted from Vietnam in 1997. Right: Tony with Samuel and Hannah

Even before bringing their last daughter home, however, Judi had begun questioning whether international adoption was always humanitarian. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Lauryn Galindo, who had arranged the adoption of the Mosleys’ Cambodian daughter, Camryn, along with those of nearly 800 other Cambodian children, with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and to launder money. According to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which participated in the government’s investigation, Galindo’s operation used several methods to obtain children, telling some birth families that they would be able to get their children back at any time, and providing others with small payments of food or cash. She then used fraudulent identity documents to strip children of their actual histories.

Everything in Camryn’s paperwork turned out to be a lie, according to Judi. The documents had said that Camryn was 6 years old at the time of her adoption, that she had no family, and that she had lived in an orphanage for four years. But as Camryn explained once she could speak English, she had been at least 10 (which a medical examination confirmed). She had only recently lost her mother, she said, and had been living with her married sister’s family until one of Galindo’s recruiters solicited her off the street. Camryn offered wrenching testimony in Galindo’s sentencing hearing in 2004. In 2005, with Judi’s support, ABC’s 20/20 took Camryn back to Cambodia for a reunion with her birth family.

Meanwhile, over roughly the same period of time, Judi had tangled with another unethical adoption facilitator, this one in Vietnam. After bringing home her second Vietnamese-born daughter in 2001, Judi discovered that an adoption facilitator named Mai-Ly LaTrace—a woman she had never heard of—was using her new daughter’s picture and profile to lure prospective American parents. In 2002, Vietnam deported LaTrace, who is an American citizen and whom the Vietnamese government has described as a “child trafficker for money.” But when Mosley and others alleged fraud, baby-switching, and other forms of manipulation, LaTrace sued for slander and defamation. (I was unable to reach LaTrace for comment. However, she denied these allegations in a Sept. 16, 2005, deposition, saying “I was never deported from Vietnam. … I’m not a fraudulent person, and the many, many allegations that were made against me are untrue.”) Finally, in 2007,  a judge dismissed the case, noting that LaTrace’s deportation was a matter of public record and finding that the other assertions were not actionable.

Some in the online community of adoptive families cheered Judi for her outspokenness about these shady adoption dealings. But others attacked her, arguing that she shouldn’t have exposed Camryn to public scrutiny, or that she was smearing international adoption and thereby hurting children who truly needed new homes. Judi eventually resigned from her international adoption listservs and bulletin boards, happily tending her large family—and taking particular comfort in what she considered her truly good adoption, the one that had saved Samuel from the war in Sierra Leone.

Tony and Judith Mosley with their two biological and five adopted children in 2007. Samuel is second from the left. At far left is the family’s Cambodian-born daughter, Camryn; in front of Judith are the three daughters the family adopted from Vietnam

And then one morning last June, as Judi was scrolling through Facebook over her morning coffee, she stumbled across an Associated Press article about adoptions of children from Sierra Leone. She read it casually until she hit these lines:

It’s been nearly 15 years since Sulaiman Suma last saw … 4½-year-old … Mabinty and 3½-year-old … Sulaiman. Both are now young adults believed to be living in the United States. “We want our children who were sold to these white people,” Suma said. “We want to know whether they are alive or dead.”

Everything went silent, Judi told me, as if she’d been pulled underwater. She read the sentences over and over, trying to comprehend them.

The boy Sulaiman Suma had been looking for all these years was her 16-year-old son, Samuel.