The Long Road to Sentencing For International Adoption Guides: Still Not There

In February 2014, four employees of International Adoption Guides were indicted by the US Department of Justice for bribery, falsification of documents, and more, based on a multiyear investigation of Ethiopian adoptions. James Harding, Mary Mooney, and Alisa Bivens, the three American IAG defendants, all pled guilty to various counts about two years ago. They are still awaiting sentencing, three years after the indictment. The one Ethiopian defendant, Haile Mekonnen, as best I know is still in Ethiopia and has not been in court.

According to the 2014 DOJ press release, ” ‘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.’ ”

Behind that legal language is astonishing loss and heartache for many children and their families in Ethiopia and in the United States.

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I recently came across a website, justiceformary.weebly.com, which seems to be written by Mary Mooney. While it mostly has password protected pages, it has a long list of the court documents from 2014 to 2016, including the plea agreements from the three defendants, as well as transcripts of several court appearances. The site mentions a court date in January 2017, but I have yet to see anything to confirm that.

In May 2016, the government recommended a sentence for Mooney of 51 to 60 months of incarceration, per this Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing.

A sentencing hearing was held in August 2016.

In November 2016, there was an order filed on Mary Mooney‘s case. My understanding, as a non-lawyer, is that in January 2015 Mooney had made a plea agreement: she pled guilty to making false statements for the agency’s Council on Accreditation process, and the government then dropped other charges, including those related to Ethiopia.

Mooney could, however, face a conviction on charges related to adoptions from Kazakhstan. Mooney’s co-defendant James Harding had operated World Partners Adoption, located in Georgia; he is an adoptive parent of children from Kazakhstan. WPA lost its accreditation to handle international adoptions in 2008. Harding and Mooney then arranged for Harding to take over at IAG, which still had accreditation at that time. Apparently IAG also has charges against it in relation to adoptions from Kazakstan, and Mooney could face a conviction as a result of those.

Any lawyers who want to weigh in would be welcomed. It is not clear to me whether this means that Mooney will face no punishment in regard to the bribery and falsification of documents in Ethiopia, but that could be correct.

Every month or so, I have called the office of Judge David Norton in South Carolina, the judge handling the case. A pleasant court official consistently tells me that, no, there’s nothing on the sentencing yet. He can’t comment on whether that’s unusual, or on any reason as to why sentencing would not have taken place. He says he will send my inquiry on to someone who might have more information. I’ve never heard anything back.

Unless I’ve missed it, I have not seen any outcry about this case from adoption agencies or from the National Council on Adoption.

The three defendants are, I believe, not in jail. I understand and applaud the value of a full and fair legal process. Still, I can’t help but feel deep disappointment in the slowness of this case, especially when the defendants pled guilty. Will the final sentencing be minimal, with the defendants getting jail time reduced?

I also can’t help but feel this long delay for sentencing is a slap in the face of the Ethiopian adoptees brought here via lies and deception. They have gone through so much, as have their families, in Ethiopia and in the US. What is the message for them about the American court system?

Where is the justice for the innocent victims?

 

 

Sentencing Hearings for International Adoption Guides (IAG)

Update July 13: The sentencing hearings have again been rescheduled. Now they are supposed to take place August 29. Unbelievable.

Update June 20: My understanding is that the IAG sentencing hearings are now scheduled for July 13 and 14. What a long, hard road this has been for the victims.

Update: I have heard from someone connected with the trial that the June 16 and 17 sentencing hearings have been postponed, yet again. How frustrating and disappointing this whole process has become for the adoptees and their families. When I have more news, I will post again.

Three International Adoption Guides officials could be sentenced, finally, next week.

They were indicted by the U.S. Justice Department in February 2014, after lengthy investigations. They are scheduled for sentencing next week, having pled guilty over a year ago to charges of conspiring to defraud the United States by bribery and fraudulent documents, all involving several Ethiopian adoptions.

The sentencing hearing for Mary Mooney (IAG’s executive director) is scheduled for 11am on June 16. Mooney had pled guilty in January 2015, then changed her plea to “no contest” several months later. In August 2015, the judge ruled against the “no contest” plea, and the guilty verdict was reinstated.

For James Harding (IAG’s director of international programs), sentencing is scheduled for 10am on June 17. Harding had entered a guilty plea in January 2015.

For Alisa Bivens (IAG’s Ethiopia program director), sentencing is scheduled for June 17 at 10:30am. Bivens had entered a guilty plea in August 2014.

Each of these hearings will take place before Judge David Norton in Courtroom 2, J. Waties Waring Judicial Center, 83 Meeting St, Charleston, SC.

There is a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine up to $250,000 for the original charges, according to the February 2014 press release by the Department of Justice when the indictment occurred.

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My guess is that the sentencing hearings will be fairly brief. Many details have probably been worked out by attorneys in advance. It’s possible that victims of these cases will speak at the hearings.

I have no insights as to why there has been such a long time between the guilty pleas and the sentencing. I thought, and was told by others, that the sentencing would take place within months after the guilty pleas. Clearly I was wrong about that. As I (a non-lawyer) understand it, there can be a number of reasons for delays: courts are overloaded with cases and everything just takes a long time; the guidelines for sentencing can be contested by the defendants; pre-sentencing investigations can be lengthy; lawyers can ask for continuances; and other reasons that a lawyer could no doubt better explain.

It’s not clear to me whether the three defendants have been in jail awaiting sentencing, but I don’t think that’s the case. My understanding is that defendants can earn reduced sentences by cooperating with the process and, of course, not getting into any further trouble. That could mean, given the lengthy time between convictions and sentencing, that the three defendants’ actual time in jail, if any, would be reduced.

What a long, hard journey this has been for the Ethiopian children adopted via bribery and fraud, for their Ethiopian families, and for the adoptive families. This case represents so much that is wrong in international adoption, so much that is heartbreaking for innocent victims. Here’s hoping that justice is done in the sentencing next week.

 

 

 

 

Guilty Plea by IAG’s Mary Mooney Will Stand: Sentencing Within Two Months

Mary Mooney, the former executive director of International Adoption Guides (IAG), was among four IAG employees indicted by the US Justice Department in 2014 for fraud and corruption involving adoptions from Ethiopia. She entered a plea of guilty, and then this past spring requested to change the plea to innocent.

The judge has determined that there is no basis for her to change the plea from guilty to innocent, so the case now moves to sentencing. Two of the other IAG employees, James Harding (IAG program director) and Alisa Bivens Ethiopian program director in the US), will also be sentenced along with Mooney. All three had pled guilty. Sentencing will take place in the next 60-90 days.

 

 

Mary Mooney of International Adoption Guides Has Changed Her Plea

Mary Mooney, the former executive director of International Adoption Guides (IAG) indicted by the Justice Department for fraud and corruption in Ethiopian adoptions and who pled guilty in January, has recently asked the judge to change her plea from guilty to innocent.

You can read about her guilty plea here. You can read the Department of Justice’s February 2014 press release on the indictments here.

Alisa Bivens and Jim Harding, the other two IAG staff people also indicted by the Justice Department, pled guilty last year. None of them has been sentenced yet. There will now be a delay in their sentencing pending the outcome of the judge’s decision as to whether Mooney can change her plea. It is unclear when the judge will rule on Mooney’s request, but it probably won’t happen until sometime this summer.

As far as I know, the fourth person indicted, an Ethiopian citizen apparently now living in Ethiopia, has not been arrested.

I am not a lawyer, and I have no inside information about this. Defendants can indeed change their plea, and will do so for various reasons: new evidence is uncovered, they want to have a trial, the lawyer didn’t provide adequate information about the plea, the deal worked out with the judge and prosecution under the guilty plea was unacceptable to the defendant, or some other reason. I don’t know if making this request six months after pleading guilty will have an effect on the judge’s decision.

If the judge allows Mooney to change her plea to innocent, the whole legal process starts again. She could then go to trial, or there could be a deal worked out between the defense and the prosecution to which the judge must agree.

I don’t know how much this has cost the Justice Department for years of gathering evidence for the indictment, nor how much has been spent for the legal process of the three current defendants.

I do know this is one more level of heartache for the families who adopted from International Adoption Guides.

 

 

 

 

 

 

AAI, Hana Williams’ Agency, Is Out of Business: Now What?

2014 has been a rough ride for international adoption agencies: Celebrate Children International was the subject of a 48 Hours investigation, and International Adoption Guides is under indictment. The so-called Children in Families First legislation is under siege and appears to be foundering. And now Adoption Advocates International is closing. What other signs are needed to convince agencies and agency-affiliates that they need to change the way they are doing business?

On March 7, Adoption Advocates International, the Washington state adoption agency used by Larry and Carri Williams to adopt Hana and Immanuel Williams, announced it was closing its Ethiopian adoption program. Today, March 12, it appears they are closing their doors completely.

An article about AAI’s closing was printed here, in today’s Peninsula Daily News.

Many people are happy that AAI is closing, given AAI’s role in the placement of Hana Alemu and Immanuel Williams. As always in complex situations, though, there are other elements to consider. Many families in the process of adopting through AAI, not just from Ethiopia but from Burkina Faso, China, and perhaps elsewhere, are now in a difficult emotional and financial position. AAI has placed some 4500 adoptees over the last 3 decades whose records must be (I hope) kept available for them, somewhere. There are now children who will not be adopted, who perhaps legitimately needed new, safe, loving families. There are first/original parents, always the most marginalized in adoption, who may not be able to access information about their children.

Interestingly, AAI is a Hague-accredited agency, certified by the Council on Accreditation through April 2016. That COA accreditation is intended to be a high standard that signifies an agency is in excellent financial and programmatic health.

Christian World Adoptions, a South Carolina adoption agency, suddenly closed its doors and declared bankruptcy early in 2013. It was also a COA/Hague certified agency, right to the end. It startles me that 2 COA-accredited agencies within about a year can suddenly just close. What went horribly wrong in their financial status that COA totally missed?

According to the COA website:

Hague management standards apply to all adoption service providers regardless of the type of provider or services provided. These management standards promote accountability and include:

  • Licensing and Corporate Governance
  • Financial and Risk Management
  • Ethical Practices and Responsibilities
  • Professional Qualifications and Training of Employees
  • Information Disclosure, Fee Practices, and Quality Control
  • Responding to Complaints and Records and Reports Management
  • Service Planning and Delivery

When 2 COA-accredited international adoption agencies abruptly close within about one year of each other, many questions are raised about COA accreditation. Certainly it casts a shadow on the strength and value of the accreditation process for other currently accredited adoption agencies.

According to page 36 of COA’s 92 page Policies and Procedures Manual-Hague, when an agency closes, it has to provide to COA the following: a listing of all Hague adoption service(s), the closing date, detailed description of reasons for the decision, and the transition and referral plan for consumers.

In this case, I am guessing that “consumers” are the prospective adoptive parents: the paying customers. I’d like to think that COA would also demand information about the plans and needs of all the children (some of who are surely adults now) who were adopted through AAI, and even of the first/original parents.

Ethiopian adoptions have been problematic for a while, for many reasons: increased awareness of fraud and corruption, implementation of new procedures, increased costs due to labor/time of ensuring the accuracy about why children become available for adoption, and more. There have been far fewer adoptions from Ethiopia in recent years, and there is increasingly great concern in Ethiopia about the outcomes of adopted children. The majority, of course, do fine, but the reality of Hana and Immanuel weighs heavily on many minds around the globe.That’s true for other Ethiopian adoptees. Kathryn Joyce’s Slate article, Hana Williams: The Tragic Death of an Ethiopian Adoptee, And How It Could Happen Again, describes other placements by AAI, and how these Ethiopian adoptees are greatly struggling.

The recent death of Korean adoptee Hyunsu O’Callaghan surely makes all of us–adoption agencies, adoptees, adoptive parents, first/original parents–pause and reflect with sorrow as well. What now?

Indeed, it’s hard to cheer about AAI’s closing. So many doors are still left open for vulnerable families and children around the world.

This could be an incredible opportunity for adoption agencies and adoption agency-related organizations (Joint Council on international Children’s Services, National Council For Adoption, Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, for example) to reach out to those who’ve been too often excluded from adoption policy discussions: adult adoptees (yes, including those whom agencies have written off as angry and rude), international first/original parents (to whom adoption agencies have a deep, ethical obligation), and even adoptive parents who disagree with them. We all want children to be in safe, loving homes. We all agree that if adoption is a viable option, it must be transparent, and all involved must be held accountable. Some are happy to see adoption agencies close, and most of us also know that the closures don’t mean that vulnerable children are now safe and cared for.

It’s time to have some really hard conversations, and not simply because adoption agencies are closing. It’s because all voices are needed if we are going to see viable, positive change in adoption policy. Pay attention, adoption agencies and coalitions: the changes are happening now, due to the adopted adults and first parents who are stepping up, speaking out, and creating overdue change.