Almost a year after the Department of Justice indictment for fraud and bribery, two staff members of International Adoption Guides are scheduled to go to trial on January 26.
In February 2014, the US Department of Justice indicted 4 staff members of the adoption agency International Adoption Guides (IAG). Three former staff members from the US–Jim Harding, Mary Mooney, and Alisa Bivens–were arrested for fraud and bribery involving Ethiopian adoptions.The fourth staff member is Haile Mekonnen (the IAG program director in Ethiopia); he remains, apparently, in Ethiopia. The DOJ February 11, 2014, press release on the indictment is available here.
Last fall, Alisa Bivens (IAG Ethiopian program director in the US) pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing. I wrote about it here.
Jury selection for the trial of Jim Harding (IAG’s International Program Director) and Mary Mooney (IAG’s Executive Director) is scheduled to start in South Carolina on January 14, 2015. The trial itself is scheduled to begin January 26. Pretrial meetings start soon.
It is safe to say that, if this trial is like other criminal trials, there have been and will be many meetings and conversations between the prosecution and the defense. Everyone has to have a chance to examine all evidence. The lawyers on both sides are building their cases, deciding on witnesses, and defining their strategies. Until the trial actually begins, schedule and other changes are entirely possible.
For example, a plea agreement could be made for either of the defendants prior to the trial, similar to what Alisa Bivens decided to do. My understanding is that, at this point, no agreement has been reached.
According to the DOJ 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.
…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. Citizenship and Immigration Service forms that were to be submitted to the Ethiopian government.”
If the defendants are found guilty, the penalty for fraud and bribery could be five years in prison and a fine of the greater of $250,000 or twice the value gained or lost.
That’s the current factual update. Here are some important questions to consider in light of adoption policy:
How, if at all, will these charges and the trial affect the way adoption agencies work? How will they affect the way adoptive families pursue adoption?
The charges are for defrauding the US government. Many of the affected families, in both the US and Ethiopia, were also defrauded, and their lives immeasurably and unfairly damaged. There will be no direct compensation for them, though they have experienced considerable trauma and harm. This is especially true for the children, who are all now 7 or 8 years older than they were during the time this fraud was allegedly occurring. How can these families–now the witnesses and victims in this trial–best be helped and healed?
Some have suggested that IAG should be charged with trafficking. Trafficking, though, involves the transfer of children internationally for purposes of exploitation, such as forced labor, sexual purposes, military service, drug trade, or forced begging. While these end purposes were not the intent, as best I know, of either IAG nor the adoptive families, the way that these children were “internationally transferred” appears jarring and exploitative. The children may not have been trafficked under the current definition of international law. That does not mean, though, that serious thought should be given to a new definition of criminal offense that may not be “trafficking,” but that does relate to the way fraudulent international adoptions are handled. Such a definition should include compensation and support for all victims: birth families, adoptive families, and the adoptees.
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“How can these families–now the witnesses and victims in this trial–best be helped and healed?”
Well, 10 years after the previous prosecution of US citizens who did the same things (conspired to complete international adoptions under a system of law written by and for US adoption agencies), I’m not hopeful that this trial will result in news coverage let alone reform, but a couple of thoughts come to mind.
1) I was defrauded, my kid’s identity was laundered, and her Cambodian family was exploited…and it’s not clear that any law was broken in the process. Changing the definition of ‘trafficking’ would be worth exploring; aside from adoption agents in developing countries, who is benefitting from the def. that focuses on the purpose of the transfer? Instead of a definition that says, international transfer of a child is unlawful unless informed consent of all parties to the transfer is proven, which would put the burden of demonstrating best interests in the laps of the people making money off the transfer?
2) Desiree Smolin suggested a reframing of what occurs in international adoption to put this kind of criminal prosecution in context. Her idea was, What if we treated the revelation that an adoption involved fraud like we treat a plane crash–by providing services for the survivors, and assessing the system to find the weaknesses that led to disaster? Instead, we have a system under which my urge to find out the truth about my child’s past is both a personal matter, and potentially uncovering a crime in which I’m both victim and participant. That…doesn’t make much sense.
I understand that my family’s experience isn’t typical, but I don’t think we’re alone in wishing that we had been told the truth about our child from the beginning. Even if that meant fewer adoptions.