US Grand Jury Accuses Adoption Agency of Fraud in Ethiopia

The US Department of Justice announced today that 4 adoption agency employees have been charged with fraud in connection with Ethiopian adoptions. International Adoption Guides (IAG) has been working in Ethiopia for several years. This could be a very big deal, one that hopefully begins to punish those who are responsible for fraud and corruption in Ethiopian adoptions. 

justice.gov web page

justice.gov web page

Here’s the full press release from the US Justice Department:

“Four current and former employees of International Adoption Guides Inc. (IAG), an adoption services provider, have been indicted by a grand jury in South Carolina for allegedly conspiring to defraud the United States in connection with IAG’s adoption services in Ethiopia. IAG is a South Carolina company that identified children in Ethiopia for adoption and arranged for their adoption by U.S.-based parents.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney William N. Nettles of the District of South Carolina and Assistant Secretary Gregory B. Starr of the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security made the announcement.

“The defendants are accused of obtaining adoption decrees and U.S. visas by submitting fraudulent adoption contracts signed by orphanages that never cared for or housed the children, thus undermining the very laws that are designed to protect the children and families involved,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Raman.  “As today’s indictments show, the Justice Department, alongside its partners both here and abroad, will respond vigorously to these criminal schemes and will act to protect the many families and children who rely on the integrity of the adoption process.”

“The Bureau of Diplomatic Security uses its global presence to vigorously investigate any fraud related to the acquisition of U.S. visas,” said Assistant Secretary Starr.  “The Department of State’s Bureaus of Consular Affairs and Diplomatic Security are firmly committed to working with the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and bring to justice people who victimize children and families by abusing inter-country adoption system and bribe officials to facilitate their actions.”

The international program director and coordinator for IAG, James Harding, 53, of Lawrenceville, Ga., was arrested today in Georgia.  Alisa Bivens, 42, of Gastonia, N.C., who oversaw the Ethiopian operations from the United States, is scheduled to make an appearance at a later date in U.S. District Court in Charleston, S.C.   The company’s executive director, Mary Mooney, 53, of Belmont, N.C., was apprehended in Belize by Belizean authorities and transported to the United States.  Haile Mekonnen, age unknown, an Ethiopian national who ran IAG’s operations on the ground in Ethiopia, was also charged in the indictment.

According to the indictment, the defendants allegedly engaged in a five-year conspiracy to violate laws relating to the adoption of Ethiopian children by U.S. parents.  The scheme involved, among other things, paying orphanages to “sign off” on contracts of adoption with the adopting parents as if the children had been raised by those orphanages — even though the children had never resided in those orphanages and had not been cared for or raised there.  These orphanages could not, therefore, properly offer these children up for adoption.  In some instances, the children resided with a parent or relative.

As part of the charged conspiracy, the defendants then allegedly submitted or caused to be submitted these fraudulent contracts of adoption to Ethiopian courts in order to secure adoption decrees, and submitted or caused to be submitted the fraudulent contracts of adoption and the fraudulently procured adoption decrees to the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia in order to obtain U.S. visas for the children to travel to the United States to be with their new families.  The indictment also charges that the defendants’ scheme involved paying bribes to an Ethiopian government official and agreeing to create counterfeit U.S. Customs and Immigration Service forms that were to be submitted to the Ethiopian government.

The charge of conspiring to defraud the United States carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of the greater of $250,000 or twice the value gained or lost.

The charges contained in the indictment are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

If you believe you have been a victim of this crime involving the named individuals or International Adoption Guides, please call 1-800-837-2655 and leave your contact information.   If you have questions or concerns about adoptions from Ethiopia in general, please contact the Office of Children’s Issues at the Department of State through the email address AskCI@state.gov .  If you have specific questions about an adoption from Ethiopia that IAG facilitated, you should contact the Office of Children’s Issues at the Department of State through the email address IAGadoptioncases@state.gov .

This ongoing investigation is being conducted by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.   The prosecution is being conducted by Assistant United States Attorney Jamie Schoen of the District of South Carolina and Trial Attorney John W. Borchert of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section.”

The US State Department issued a brief statement about IAG here.

Note that while the IAG program director is named James Harding, he is not the same James Harding that was affiliated with Christian World Adoption, an international adoption agency that declared bankruptcy suddenly in 2013. CWA had also worked in Ethiopia, and was featured in an Australian Broadcasting Company 2010 report Fly Away Home, alleging substantial fraud.

The Department of Justice does not rush lightly into indictments; this one appears to have involved five years of investigations, many interviews, many lawyers, and many inquiries about fraud and corruption. These arrests and the indictment must be making many adoption agencies look carefully at their own records and activities, here in the US and in Ethiopia. I hope policy-makers, especially those involved currently with the Children in Families First legislation, are also pondering the implications.

I’m sure many adoptive parents are also looking at their own children, and wondering if their adoptions were indeed ethical. Many adult adoptees have learned a great deal about the realities of their becoming available for adoption. Many Ethiopian families may learn what truly happened to their children. May justice be served, for everyone.

2 thoughts on “US Grand Jury Accuses Adoption Agency of Fraud in Ethiopia

  1. One of these 4 indicted was involved with an agency that we chose not to use for our Cambodian adoption in 1999. I am not the least bit surprised, but I’m furious and somewhat disgusted. How can you make a living going around the world buying children, and live with yourself?

  2. This is very good news, IMO. When they get rid of the bad actors involved with adoption, then it will be so much better for the children, the birth families and the new families.

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