The toddler was sitting with the man and his wife, eating biscuits and drinking juice, as they sought legal guardianship over her in Uganda’s High Court.
“I was in great pain,” the girl’s 47-year-old grandmother said. “I was sure, since they had bought the child, there was no way we would get her back.”
Although informal adoption is common across Africa, less educated people sometimes use the term “bought” when they see white foreigners with African children, because of the assumption that their wealth has helped them to adopt the child.
It can take years to formally adopt a child in poor countries with cumbersome, overburdened legal systems.
In Uganda, foreigners can secure legal guardianship in a matter of weeks, sometimes before the child’s birth parents realize what has happened.
Ugandan families have been bribed, tricked or coerced into giving up their children to U.S. citizens and other foreigners for adoption, a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation has found.
Leaked documents, court data and a series of exclusive interviews with officials, whistleblowers, victims and prospective adoptive parents has revealed:
– a culture of corruption in which children’s birth histories are at times manipulated to make them appear as orphans when they are not
– a lucrative industry in which lawyers acting on behalf of foreign applicants receive large payments
– a mushrooming network of unregistered childcare institutions through which children are primed for adoption
– an absence of reliable court data to counteract allegations of negligence or fraud by probation officers involved in the adoption process
Across Uganda church-backed orphanages and private child care institutions are springing up.
“Fifteen years ago there were just two dozen orphanages, now there are as many as 400 such institutions,” said Stella Ayo-Odongo, executive director of the Uganda Child Rights NGO Network.
“But this is steeped in problems. Intercountry adoptions constitute a booming industry in which child traffickers are profiteering,” she said.
According to Ugandan law, foreigners are required to spend at least three years in the country before adopting, but they can acquire a legal guardianship days after arriving and complete the process back home.
Data from the U.S. State Department shows that 201 children were adopted from Uganda by U.S. citizens in 2013/2014, making it the third biggest source country in Africa. In all, Americans adopted 6,441 children from around the world last year.
Uganda’s parliament is expected to pass tighter legislation that would ban legal guardianships, with a view to signing an international treaty, the Hague Adoption Convention, but corruption and bureaucracy have stalled the process, critics say.
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Ethiopia, two of the biggest source countries for adopted African children last year, have taken steps to restrict overseas applications.
“Uganda must ratify the Hague Adoption Convention urgently,” said Ayo-Odongo. “It was previously not an issue, but now, with levels of child trafficking at such a high level, it should be a priority.”
Ugandan children regularly pass through Kampala’s Entebbe international airport.
On a given day they can be seen hand-in-hand with white adoptive parents at the departure gate.
Many of these adoptions will lead to successful unions between the child and his or her adoptive parents.
But others will never make it this far.
In Uganda, a lack of available documents makes it impossible to determine how many adoptions involve fraud, but four government officials told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the problem was widespread.: