How Flawed Is the International Adoption Process?

For more than a decade, Dona Meers, the Kentucky nurse practitioner who adopted Adama K., said prayers for Adama’s parents, thanking them for giving her such a “special child, with good manners and a great sense of humor.” Meanwhile, Adama, now 16, also thought frequently about her birth parents, so desperate to see the family she had left in Sierra Leone—a family she could not remember—that she descended into a severe depression. Meers responded by launching an all-out campaign to find Adama’s family. Through another adoptive parent of a Makeni child, she found a woman named Kim Kargbo, a white American who was raised in Sierra Leone by missionary parents, married a Sierra Leonean, and now runs a Christian humanitarian group in Makeni, dividing her time between Makeni and Mississippi. Kim had been asked by other MAPS parents to find their children’s birth families—and independently had been asked by some of the Makeni families to help find their children. When Sheik Alimamy K. approached Kim for help finding his daughter, she knew immediately that he was asking about Adama K.

For Meers, it was “pretty gut wrenching,” she told me in a quiet voice, to discover that Adama’s birth mother had not died during the civil war, as HANCI’s case history said. She had died just eight years earlier, in childbirth. Nor had Adama’s birth father, Sheik Alimamy K., been killed by a snakebite: He was alive, living with his four other daughters and a son, and searching for Adama. “I felt really guilty and really sad,” Meers said, her voice anguished, “like I had taken their child away from them.”

In March Adama K. spent a week in Makeni, Sierra Leone, visiting her birth father, birth sisters, and niece

Today, it’s not clear exactly what the Makeni families are hoping for. When I asked Samuel’s birth mother, Isatu, what she wants now, she began to weep, and said that she just wants to see her son again, if only for two days. Suma, his uncle, said that pictures are not enough; he wants his entire family to see the children in person, with their own eyes. After having them for a few days, he said, he would be happy to send the children back to their new families—knowing that he had made that “arrangement” himself.

Abu Bakarr agreed that the families long to see and speak to their children, at least for a visit. He added that they do notwant or expect money and he said that they know the children will never come home to live. And yet it isn’t entirely clear what he himself wants: When I relayed various comments from the HANCI contingent, Abu Bakarr emailed back: “I am asking them for my BLOOD brother and sister whom they took away fraudulently, which is causing tremendous pain in my heart.” At a minimum, he says that he and the other Makeni family members want to know more than just that their children were sent “to America.” Were the children taken to be slaves, as some still fear, or are they treated well? Where, exactly, do they live? What are their new names? What do they look like now? Do they know about their Sierra Leonean birth families and heritage?

In April, I spoke by phone to Dr. Soccoh Kabia, who was Sierra Leone’s minister of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs from 2009 until earlier this year. By the time Kabia became minister, the Makeni affair was already notorious throughout Sierra Leone, so he decided to meet with the families himself. “I talked to them face to face,” he told me. “I saw the anguish and the pain.” Kabia says that HANCI was one of the reasons he put a moratorium on adoptions soon after becoming minister and simultaneously launched efforts to reform Sierra Leone’s adoption laws. Under the old system, a single government official could approve an adoption. The new law, which Parliament recently passed, adds procedures based on the 1993 Hague adoption convention. Now, an expert committee will check each child’s family background so that, as Kabia told me, “we know if a child being given up … is indeed a child that would benefit from adoption.” International adoptions have not yet resumed.

Meanwhile, Kabia’s ministry launched a preliminary investigation into the Makeni adoptions. But in May 2010, the birth families, growing impatient for answers, occupied the ministry’s office, demanding information and threatening drastic measures if they didn’t get it quickly. At Kabia’s recommendation, President Ernest Bai Koroma set up an official commission of inquiry to investigate the adoptions, with power to subpoena and take sworn testimony. It began hearings in March but is currently on hiatus. One person I spoke to claimed that the commission was set up to appease the birth families, and that no follow-up action would be taken. But Kabia painted the commission as a serious body, and Abu Bakarr and Smith told me they considered it the Makeni families’ last hope for justice.


Whatever the commission finds, how should we think about Judi Mosley’s multiple brushes with fraud and other adoption-related misdeeds? Do they reflect extraordinary bad luck, or the state of international adoption?

It is impossible to know exactly how many international adoptions are similarly tainted. The underlying problem is that the developing world does not have as many young children who need families as the West has families who want a young child. Many Westerners have heard that there is a massive worldwide orphan crisis involving upwards of 160 million children—and they have responded to this news with a generous desire to give needy children new homes. But the 160 million figure is deceptive; most of those children live with families, as Camryn Mosley once lived with her elder sister. More to the point, there’s too much Western money in search of children. Adoption agencies send comparatively enormous sums money to desperately poor countries without adequate oversight. In country after country, that money has motivated unscrupulous people to “find” adoptable children through methods fair and foul.

Different adoption source countries have different—and shifting—profiles that leave them more or less prone to fraud. For instance, families who have adopted from Russia can be relatively confident that their children truly needed new families. Russia’s child welfare institutions house sizable populations of abused and abandoned children. Families that adopted children from China a dozen years ago can also be relatively confident that their daughters were truly abandoned. Over the past 15 years China has been the world’s most popular source country for international adoption because its one-child policy combined with a cultural preference for sons produce a genuine surplus of unwanted girl babies. However, for a variety of reasons, China now offers thousands fewer children for international adoption than it once did, and there have been serious allegations of, and prosecutions for, child-selling and kidnapping for adoption in recent years.

By contrast, each of the countries from which Judi adopted her children fell into at least one of two categories that tend to make international adoption particularly risky. The first category: poor countries that suddenly become popular adoption sources, quickly doubling and tripling the numbers of children going abroad—an increase that outpaces what a given country’s shaky regulatory system can effectively oversee. In the past 15 years, “sending” countries whose adoption numbers suddenly rose and whose adoptions were then found to be riddled with “irregularities,” as the State Department diplomatically phrases it, have included Cambodia, Guatemala, Ethiopia, India, Liberia, the Marshall Islands, Nepal, Romania, Samoa, and Vietnam. Tens of thousands of children have come west or north from these locales—and during the peak period of adoption from each country, a significant number of those adoptions may have involved fraud, according to a number of government, journalistic, and NGO investigations listed on the pages linked above.

The second risky category involves countries where conflict or disaster has bred chaos. Such places tend to be doubly problematic, because at precisely the moment when Westerners’ desire to save children from danger grows especially strong, the national government’s ability to oversee and regulate adoption becomes especially weak.

The Mosleys are unusual in several ways: They adopted older children whose identities were uncommonly intact, they were willing to pursue troubling facts, and they are determined to talk publicly about their painful discoveries. If the Makeni families are telling the truth, they are also remarkable: How often are illiterate, desperately poor families willing and able to agitate against official misdeeds—and able to get attention from the Western news media to boot? Perhaps the most unusual part of this story isn’t the nature of the alleged fraud; it’s that it became an international story at all.


From the moment last June when Judi first read the Associated Press story about Samuel’s Makeni family, she knew that she had to let him know that he had another father. She also knew that she had to inform Samuel’s birth father that she had his child. “I have many, many faults,” she told me, “but even as a child, I never had a problem telling the truth. I owe my son the truth, as much as he wants to know. And I owe the truth to this man who has never given up looking for his son.”

Judith and Samuel Mosley, who is now 17, near their home in Guam, November 2010

And so on Father’s Day last year, Tony Mosley took Samuel, then 16, aside. Tony told him that he had a father in Africa. Samuel didn’t seem especially interested, and when I last contacted Judi, he hadn’t pursued the subject. Last August, Judi managed to contact Samuel’s Makeni family via Smith and Abu Bakarr; the two families have since exchanged photographs and information. But by then, Samuel’s birth father, Abdulai, had died. Isatu, Abdulai’s widow, says that after the families were told they would never see their children again, he was so offended that he never recovered. Eventually he stopped eating, she says, and died of a broken heart. Samuel’s uncle, Suma, says Abdulai cried so much that he finally died. His death shocked and deeply saddened Judi. She can’t get over the fact that, as she put it, “we came so close, after 13 years, to making contact—and then he died, not knowing what happened to his son.”

Meers’ daughter, Adama, has not only contacted but visited her birth father. They were brought together by Kim Kargbo, the American woman who has been informally helping various MAPS and Makeni families to reunite. (Kim told me that her husband is related to HANCI founder Dr. Roland Kargbo and to HANCI’s current executive director. For this reason, she said she preferred not to discuss HANCI’s role in the Makeni adoptions with me.) Kim first saw the Makeni children when they were on their way to Ghana, not long before their adoptive parents came to collect them. She refused to give me names, but says she has since spoken with six families who adopted Makeni children, and has put a few of the children in touch with their birth families.

After Kim connected them, Adama and her birth father, Sheik Alimamy K., spent a year talking occasionally by telephone, with Kim as translator. In March, after paternity was confirmed via a DNA test, Adama accompanied Kim to Makeni to meet her birth father. Adama says that the weeklong trip changed her life for the better, answering the deep need she felt to connect with her African family. “I sat on his lap,” she told me. “It was great. He was like, just touching me, my shoulders, my head, just making sure this is real. I felt like a daddy’s girl. It just felt really good. Just being together.” She found a sister whose features were so close to hers that, she says, they looked like twins. Her depression lifted completely, and she came back, in Meers’ words, “a happier child.”

What also disappeared was Adama’s desire to stay in touch with her Sierra Leonean family, in part because her father started asking for money. “I remember Kim saying, you can have a relationship with them and help them out, purses, clothes, watches—but they want money. Or you don’t have a relationship at all,” Adama told me. (Sheik Alimamy K. objected emphatically to this claim, saying that it was Kim, not he, who asked Adama for money.) For her part, Kim told me that she’s trying to get the Makeni families to understand that their children will never come home to live, that they may not even come to visit, and—perhaps most baffling to families who expect migrant family members to send remittances—that they can’t be expected to make financial contributions. (Certainly not all of the families who have been in touch with their birth children have asked for money. Judi told me that Samuel’s birth family has never asked for anything, not even the photographs she has sent.)

Kim has concluded that the situation is a tragedy that can’t be fixed, and that reconciliation is the best that can be hoped for. “Some of the kids remember being taken,” she said, “and remember that they didn’t want to be.” The adoptive families, meanwhile, have had to struggle with the repercussions of war trauma, parental loss, malnutrition, and now, the discovery that their sacrifice was all for a child who may not have needed a new family after all. “The adoptive families were wronged. The kids were wronged. The biological families were wronged,” Kim told me. “Injustice makes my blood boil.”