FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Balia Kamara’s mother sent her to a center in northern Sierra Leone so the 5-year-old could receive an education and food and stay out of harm’s way during the West African country’s brutal civil war.
The mother visited Balia at the Help A Needy Child International center, known as HANCI, regularly for two years until 1998, when the children there were taken to Sierra Leone’s capital for medical examinations.
They never returned. Instead, a Maine agency facilitated their adoptions in the United States. Parents of about 30 children at the center say they never gave permission for the adoptions.
Now more than a decade after the children disappeared, Sierra Leone’s government said it is setting up a national commission of inquiry after years of pressure from the biological parents.
Maine Adoption Placement Services, which facilitated the children’s adoptions, is cooperating with the investigation, the agency’s chief executive said.
“MAPS has no knowledge of any wrongdoing on the part of our Sierra Leone staff and are cooperating fully with the investigation,” said Stephanie Mitchell, the chief executive officer of the South Portland-based agency.
Last month, the children’s biological parents stormed the office of Sierra Leone’s social welfare minister, demanding the government help them find a way to communicate with their children. A spokesman for the parents said they had traveled from villages in the north nearly 100 miles from the capital.
The parents also published an open letter to President Ernest Bai Koroma in a local newspaper. They asked Sierra Leone’s government to reopen the case against those who ran the HANCI center where the children were staying.
Sierra Leone is not the only country where there has been controversy over whether parents have given sufficient consent for adoptions.
Guatemala suspended international adoptions for nearly two years after the discovery that some babies were being sold. In Argentina, the government confirmed that hundreds of children were taken from dissidents and raised by military families or others who supported the ruling military junta in the 1970s and early 1980s. El Salvador has worked to reunite children who were adopted by foreign families during that country’s civil war.
The HANCI adoption case in Sierra Leone began amid the country’s devastating decade-long war that ended in 2002, a conflict dramatized in the film “Blood Diamond.”
Rebels burned villages, raped women and turned kidnapped children into drugged teenage fighters. Tens of thousands of civilians died and countless others were left mutilated after rebels cut off body parts with machetes. The U.S. State Department says 134 children were adopted between 1999 and 2003, the year after the war ended.
Abu Bakarr, who is now the coordinator for the birth parents of the adopted children, said the HANCI center in Makeni refused to return the children to their parents in 1998. Returning the children would have lowered HANCI’s head count, reducing its funding, Bakarr said.
HANCI ultimately contacted Maine Adoption Placement Services to foster U.S. adoptions, and MAPS says it placed 29 of the 33 children from the home with adoptive parents in the U.S.
HANCI maintains the parents gave informed consent.
But the children’s birth parents say that adoption was never mentioned, nor was a trip out of the country. For years they never knew what had become of the children and feared they may have been killed during the war. Not until 2004 did they learn they were adopted by Americans, Bakarr said.
“I only thumb-printed the form to the effect that the center was going to take care of my two children,” said Pa Brima Kargbo, whose 6-year-old daughter Adama and 3-year-old son Mustapha were placed at the center. “Now we want to see our children whether they are dead or alive, even if it is for two days.”
Chuck Johnson, the acting CEO of the National Council for Adoption, said Sierra Leone requires annual post-adoption reports until the child reaches the age of 18. Mitchell said MAPS has been diligent in sending annual post-placement reports, along with photos of the adopted kids, to authorities in Sierra Leone.