International Adoption Guides (IAG) Headed for Trial on Ethiopian Adoption Fraud

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.








Alleged Child Smuggling Comes to Light in DRC, Amid Hopes of Avoiding “A Media Storm”

An alleged attempt by some Americans to smuggle out children for adoption from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was featured in news reports there a few days ago. Here in the US, there apparently has been an effort by some adoption advocates to urge silence about that attempt, “to avoid a media storm.”

IMG_4913In Erin Siegal McIntyre‘s article “American Implicated in Congo Child-Smuggling Ring” on, she writes that “The illicit practice of smuggling children across the DRC’s borders has reportedly been going on for years, sources tell Fusion.

“ ‘It’s a word-of-mouth referral system,’ an adoptive parent told Fusion on the condition of anonymity. ‘The [Americans] have the children brought through Lubumbashi instead of Kinshasa. It’s $2,500 for fees and services, and a $750 donation… They do it in groups of four…. there was another trip scheduled for this Sunday, but because of the bust, they’re postponing trips until December.’

“Adoption advocates are concerned that the recent scandal could bring unwanted attention to the cross-border smuggling network. During a private conference call on the morning of Sept. 17, an adoption lobbying group warned adoptive American families to keep their mouths shut and maintain ‘absolute discretion’ about adoptions in the DRC.

According to one adoptive parent on the call, the group’s spokeswoman warned that talking to the press about the situation might trigger a cascade of ‘radioactive’ publicity similar to what happened in 2010, when American Laura Silsby and eight others were caught smuggling 33 children out of Haiti.”

A Harvard Human Rights Journal article, “Owning Laura Silsby’s Shame: How the Haitian Child Trafficking Scheme Embodies the Western Disregard for the Integrity of Poor Families,” is available here.

Adoptions from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have been problematic for quite a while. Just under 800 children have been adopted to the US from there since 1999, according to the US State Department. The DRC is not a signatory to the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, and its infrastructure is limited for adoption. I hope that all families who considered adoption from the DRC were fully informed by their adoption agencies about the huge risks inherent in adopting from a country with very limited resources. The DRC’s involvement in trafficking has been cited in many reports and articles, including by the US State Department here.

Last year, according to State, the emigration office of the DRC announced that they would no longer issue exit permits for adoptions approved on or after September 25, 2013. Children could not leave the country without these permits, although they had been legally adopted by US citizens. It is unclear at this point when the DRC government will lift the suspension. Several hundred US families have been affected by the suspension, which was put into effect because of concerns about the fraud and corruption along with the well-being of adopted children.

There has been, for months, a highly publicized, highly vocal campaign by families affected by the DRC decision to suspend granting of exit permits. The campaign has been led by Both Ends Burning, which has been aggressive in its lobbying to get the DRC to change its position and allow the children to leave. BEB may be the adoption lobbying group now urging discretion about the attempt to smuggle children out of the DRC. BEB’s silence now is almost puzzling, not condemning the smuggling or even acknowledging it on their web page.

Many of the affected families communicate and commiserate together, including on Facebook. In McIntyre’s article, she includes a screenshot of a brief conversation from a closed Facebook group, Congo Adoption Families.


I mention this to underscore the fact that there is no privacy on Facebook, that all posts even in ostensibly closed groups can be photographed and shared on the Internet. This is especially relevant to adoptive parents, and I’ve written about it here. While the Congo Adoption Families post has since been deleted, it now lives on nonetheless. It is a comment that lends credence to families’ being asked to be silent about alleged trafficking. In any event, the notion that news about the alleged child smuggling/trafficking could be kept quiet seems naïve and irresponsible.

If we are ever going to have ethical, transparent adoptions, we must speak up and demand that child trafficking never be accepted, condoned, sanctioned, or ignored.

The notion that child-trafficking should not be spoken about is disturbing. This most recent alleged case from the DRC is chilling to read about. Trafficking is a crime, a horror imposed on children, and not something we should ever be silent about.