Corruption in international adoptions

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Adoption: Liberia

 Click to follow link Capsule history of intercountry adoptions from Liberia
 Click to follow link News reports of adoption irregularities in Liberia
 Click to follow link Resources & related documents 

NOTE: This page from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism website offers documentation of and background about serious irregularities in international adoption. For the systemic analysis of corruption in international adoption, please read “The Lie We Love,” Foreign Policy magazine, Nov./Dec. 2008, and visit our webpages dedicated to international adoption. For ideas about fairer policy solutions, please read “The Baby Business,” Democracy Journal, Summer 2010.

Capsule history of intercountry
      adoptions from Liberia

As some countries close their doors to international adoptions, U.S.-Liberian adoptions follow a different trend—the number of children sent to the United States from Liberia through the international adoption market has increased sharply over the last seven years. (See data below.) At the same time, some  in the Liberian government, along with some children’s rights groups, are pressing for reform of Liberia’s outdated adoption legal framework, saying it opens numerous loopholes for abuses.

Following a civil war (1989-2003)1 that displaced a third of the population and all but destroyed the country’s infrastructure, there is fairly widespread evidence of trafficking in children for labor, sex, and international adoption.2 NGOs, reporters, and other observers charge that some orphanages seem to have started so that their operators can collect donations and fees.

Trends in other sending countries have shown that a spike in adoption numbers over a short time period can be a warning signal of possible illicit activities. In a single year – between 2005 and 2006—adoptions to the U.S. from Liberia nearly doubled from 183 to 353.3 The BBC recently reported that since the end of the Liberian civil war in August 2003, the number of private orphanages tripled from 40 to 120.4 Liberia is not currently sending nearly as many children to any other country as it does to the United States.5

Number of US Orphan Immigrant Visas Issued to Liberia, FY 1990-2008 

Note: Statistics are from the U.S. Department of State. Data for 2002 not available.

The Context

Liberia’s fourteen years of civil war wreaked havoc on the country’s infrastructure and governmental institutions.6 The country held a successful democratic Presidential election in late 2005,7 but the consequences of nearly a decade and a half of strife remain—the war displaced a third of Liberia’s population of 3.4 million and left 250,000 more dead. Families were separated, and lost children were taken to orphanages, coerced into joining child armies, or were otherwise exploited.8

Liberian Orphanage Scandal

In 2007, the United Nations Mission in Liberia found that, despite a lack of government accreditation, orphanages failed to close and were still operating as for-profit ventures and putting children at risk.9 The National Transitional Government of Liberia (NGTL) recently closed down a number of orphanages which were allegedly involved in child trafficking (for purposes of sexual exploitation or labor), and according to the Monrovia Analyst, “most of those cases appeared to be fraudulent adoptions.”10

In 2006, the NGO National Child Rights Observation Group (NACROG) investigated orphanage fraud and found that some orphanages, while purporting to have altruistic motives, were charging huge sums of money for adoptions.11 NACROG’s findings suggested that “most of the adoption homes are agents and/or facilitators of child trafficking.”12

Since the end of the Liberian civil war in 2003, the number of private orphanages tripled—even though most of the children living in them are not orphans.13 Orphanage owners receive state subsidies for every child in their care, creating an incentive for orphanage owners to house more children than they can accommodate—and perhaps driving them to recruit children from birth families who do not understand the Western concept of “adoption.” BBC radio interviewed John Varkpola, a man who was completely unaware that a document he signed severed his guardianship rights and allowed his niece to be adopted abroad.14

 According to a 2007 Holt/UNICEF report on intercountry adoption practices in Liberia, many children are believed to have entered the adoption pipeline “through fraudulent means, mostly through false promises designed to deceive birth parents into relinquishing them.”18

In fact, in 2005, when the Hannah B. Williams Orphanage in Monrovia was closed because of shocking living conditions, 89 of the 102 “orphans” there returned to their families.15 Liberian news media reported that some orphanage authorities would travel to rural villages and separate children from their families “with fake promises and identify the children as orphans for their selfish gains.”16 Some Liberian parents said they brought their children to orphanages or put them up for adoption because they could not afford to care for them.17 According to a 2007 Holt/UNICEF report on intercountry adoption practices in Liberia, many children are believed to have entered the adoption pipeline “through fraudulent means, mostly through false promises designed to deceive birth parents into relinquishing them.”18

In November 2008, BBC Radio reported on the heartbreaking story an American adoptive parent told them:

Cindy adopted her daughter through West African Children Support Network (WACSN). She was told that her daughter had been abandoned at the gates of the orphanage, but upon her arrival, Cindy met her daughter’s birthmother—who worked at the orphanage. The birthmother was happy that her daughter would have the chance to go to America, but Cindy said that her faith in WACSN was shaken.

According to Maria Lukyen, president of WACSN, birthparents can change their mind about giving their child up for adoption until the moment their child boards the plane to leave Liberia. Cindy told BBC a story that suggests Lukyen was not being truthful.

Cindy described a traumatized boy, screaming for his “papa,” in a trance-like state. After a short time, the boy’s parents came to the orphanage gates, screaming for their son. According to Cindy, orphanage workers convinced the boy’s parents to leave, telling them it was their decision—they had made the choice to give their son up.19

U.S.—Liberian Adoptions

Currently, Liberian adoptions operate under a 1956 law, written before intercountry adoptions became common. As a result, the law does not address international placements.20 In November 2007, the Liberian Parliament began considering a new adoption law, which—if enacted—would provide “additional safeguards to protect adoptive children, birth parents, and prospective adoptive parents.”21 The new deliberations were intended to put Liberia adoptions on hold, but the Political and Economic Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Liberia said that when they are contacted by prospective adoptive parents, they do not use the word “moratorium,” and instead say there is a “slowdown.” The U.S. Embassy continues to issue orphan visas.22 Meanwhile, in October 2008, the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, created a special committee on adoption of Liberian children. She expressed hope that the members of the committee will effectively improve the implementation of the country’s adoption procedures.

Liberia is not party to the Hague Convention. This means that while the United States does have the power to stop Liberian adoptions to U.S. parents, the safeguards added by the U.S.’ status as a Hague signatory do not affect U.S.-Liberian adoptions.23 Canada has placed a moratorium on adoptions from Liberia,24 and the U.K. does not recognize adoption orders from Liberia.25

The U.S. State Department advises prospective adoptive parents to use only licensed adoption agencies, noting that previous adoptive parents have reported complaints of unexpected fee increases during the course of the adoption, incorrect age listed on birth certificates, and alleged siblings who were proven not biologically related.26 The U.S. Embassy in Liberia cautions against payment of some in-country fees requested from prospective adoptive parents; these unexpected fees appear to be bribes and shakedowns. The Embassy explains that “such fees have the appearance of ‘buying’ a baby and put all future adoptions in Liberia at risk.” 27 

By Lindsay Markel, Schuster Institute Research Specialist 


[4] Liberia: Children for Sale,” November 13, 2008, BBC News.
[7] CIA: The World Factbook, Liberia
[8] “Liberian orphanages steal, exploit children,” Katharine Houreld, November 4, 2005.
[9] “A Report on the Human Rights Situation in Liberia,” United Nations Mission in Liberia, May—October 2007.
[10] “Adoption or Child Trafficking?” June 14, 2006, The Analyst.
[12] “Orphanages accused of child trafficking,” February 24, 2006, IRIN Africa.
[13] “Liberia: Children for Sale,” November 13, 2008, BBC News.
[14] Liberia: Children for Sale,” November 13, 2008,BBC News.
[15] “Liberian Orphanages Steal, Exploit Children,” Katharine Houreld, November 4, 2005, RedOrbit.com.
[17] “Parents Cite Poverty for Abduction of Children,” May 28, 2008, The Inquirer. 
[18] "An Assessment of Inter Country Adoption Laws, Policies and Practices in Liberia,” UNICEF and Holt International Children’s Services, 2007.
[19] “Liberia: Children for Sale,” November 13, 2008, BBC News.
[20] "An Assessment of Inter Country Adoption Laws, Policies and Practices in Liberia,” UNICEF and Holt International Children’s Services, 2007.
[22] “Liberia: Children for Sale,” November 13, 2008, BBC News.

[25]  U.K.'s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Liberia Travel Advice; and this email from Kenneth Farrow:

Dear Ms. Markel:

Thank you for your email of 21 November about Intercountry adoption. The only countries that intercountry adoption is suspended from are Cambodia and Guatemala.  

Adoptions which are not effected in accordance with Hague Convention or are from countries not on the designated list result neither in recognition in UK law nor British citizenship for the child.

The child would need to be re-adopted in the UK; this confers British citizenship if at least one of the adopters is a British citizen.

The Department is in the process of updating the information we hold regarding the eligibility criteria and requirements of other countries regarding applications to adopt. 

Updated information will be provided as soon as possible on the country information page of the DCSF intercountry adoption website.   

In the meantime we advise that prospective adoptersinterested in adopting from a particular country may wish to contact the London Embassy of the country concerned for further guidance. Contact details of Embassies can be found on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website.   

In the processing of applications, the Intercountry Adoption Casework Team provides information to prospective adopters on the paperwork we understand is needed to support applications for individual countries. Prospective Adopters are advised to verify eligibility criteria and paperwork requirements with the relevant foreign authority. 

Yours sincerely

Kenneth Farrow
Public Communications Unit

[26]  U.S. Department of State Office of Children's Issues: Intercountry Adoption, Liberia

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Last page update: February 23, 2011