The Children’s Act Amendment Bill 2015 comes up for debate in Parliament today (Thursday). Our undercover reporter attended an intriguing workshop of stakeholders on the controversial legislation and now writes . . .
Government officials, social workers and security personnel fear for their safety and are frustrated with dealing with what they called ‘the mafia’ in the country’s adoption system.
The child adoption experts fear that many Ugandan children are in danger of landing in the hands of child traffickers, through the inter-country adoptions due to loopholes in the process. They confessed to getting threats from anonymous people in the course of their duties.
“I was called once on my mobile phone and ordered to back off adoption issues,” one of the activists said.
One of the people who works with the country’s registration of births and deaths department said they feared for their lives from people looking to quickly whisk a child out of the country on grounds that they have no one to look after them.
“Some of these people come claiming that their ticket has been booked, they are in a hurry and must be cleared!”
“Our children are being sold like goats in the name of inter-country adoption!” another cried out.
She said the adoption process in Uganda is more lucrative than drugs, and traffickers are on the alert. “Look, we all know that this is a syndicate that runs far beyond our reach, and the Government should surely protect her own children.”
The social workers, Government officials and security personnel spoke freely unaware of my presence, telling of their frustrations dealing with adoption and ‘mafia’.
I sat in the room thinking; “I will need counseling after this!” I had attended the meeting incognito but was to attend another meeting, again anonymously, on the same issue.
It gets worse
It was the launch of a report titled: “The legal guardianship and adoption practices in Uganda.”
The report, based on a research by Dr. Hope Among, comprised interviews with law firms, birth parents, family members, childcare institutions, adoptive parents, judges, and LC1 chairpersons.
With the approval of the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development (MGLSD) and funding from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the research unearthed the rot in the country’s adoption systems. It tells of ways in which many people looking to adopt beat the system, have found ways around it.
In one of the chapters, a story is told of two babies, a boy and girl, who were abandoned, were taken to children’s home. Soon, an American couple filed for legal guardianship.
However, when they tried to acquire travel documents for the children to immigrate to America, they were denied the documents on grounds that they were not residents in Uganda and that in the US court would lose jurisdiction and supervision rights.
They appealed the decision on grounds that the judge had erred in fact and law when he ruled that the applicants did not qualify under Ugandan law to be granted legal guardianship, as he failed to evaluate the welfare and best interest of the child. They won! The court decided based on the individual’s financial ability and mental stability.
“If that is all you need to get a child, then God knows how many children are in trouble,” a distraught Stella Ayo-Odongo, the executive director of the Uganda Child Rights NGO Network, said.
“We need a system in place, one that should be followed to the dot, and one that clears any doubts before we allow any of these inter-country adoptions to go on,” she said.
In Uganda, sworn affidavits by birth parents or caretakers are enough for a child to get adopted. “These can be forged or caretakers, who can barely speak, read and write, can be manipulated,” Ayo further cried out. Some of the traffickers have mastered the art of forgery.
“So tell me, is a sworn affidavit enough? We need action and we need it now,” Ayo pressed.
In 2011, it was reported that Uganda was among the top 20 countries of origin for inter-country adoptions to the US. In fact, a report by the US Department of State indicates that between April 1, 2008 and September 30, 2008, 30 children from Uganda received immigrant visas to the USA.
This soon skyrocketed in 2012, where 238 Ugandan children received immigrant visas. Zahara Kibirige, a social worker, said it is quite hard to get the real adoption figures, as many hide behind the visitor visas, after the transactions have gone on.
“It is hard to say which child went where, unless the countries’ immigrant information is easily accessed,” she said. “But if the US alone is taking over 200, how about the other hundreds of countries?”
The UNICEF-funded researchers found that not all parents and guardians understood the adoption and legal guardianship process and its implications.
“According to one father in Gulu, the legal guardianship order granted the adoptive parents temporary custody of the child, who he assumed would be returned to him when he reached the age of seven years,” the report stated.
However, Salome Nanteza, a social worker, formerly with Mulago Hospital, said many times these parents are faced with language barrier and the translation is manipulated to suit those seeking to adopt.
“Before they sign off, many parents are given sugar-coated lies,” she said. She said this is worsened when the parents are alcoholic.
The way forward
Interestingly, American blogger Sara Brinton, who recently adopted a child in Uganda, showed how lenient the courts could be.
“Many people have heard that it is only possible to adopt from Uganda if you spent at least three years living in the country. This is true, however, the Ugandan courts are, when it is in the best interest of the child, willing to grant qualified Americans legal guardianship for the purpose of adoption in the US,” she said.
The lot that sat in the room agreed that the child traffickers, disguised as lovely people, could easily nail this argument in court. So when tasked to explain what Government would do, Mondo Kyateeka, the assistant commissioner for youth affairs at the gender ministry, said the power now lay in Parliament’s hands.
“What has been made by Parliament, can surely be unmade by Parliament,” he said.
Jacob Wangolo, the Bunyole County West Member of Parliament and one of the members on the children’s committee, revealed that soon Parliament would be looking into the issue.
“I hope that this will again be discussed when Parliament next resumes. We can come to a right decision,” he said.
But as of now, nothing has been decided yet, but Wangolo believes all would happen after elections. The question is, will parliament decide in favour of the Ugandan children that might be at risk?
In neighbouring Kenya, government had to act quickly and suspend all its inter-country adoptions before they got out of hand.
“Because of this, many people are rushing to adopt children in Uganda, which is still quite lenient,” Ayo said.
At both meetings, it was agreed that the ratification of The Hague convention, which does not by any means provide for legal guardianship, let alone allow small stints fostering, was much needed.
Benon Kibenge, a city lawyer, defines legal guardianship as a legal relationship between a child and an adult who is not the child’s biological parent, which does not extinguish a birth parent’s legal relationship to the child.
Legal adoption, however, he said is when any and all rights to child are withheld from the biology parent and given to the adoptive parents.
“In Uganda, some children are taken on legal guardianship and never seen by the parent, who usually has no means to see if their child will be returned, or even ever visit them,” he said.
“If Parliament does not suspend these inter-country adoptions for now, prolong the fostering time, and increase the monitoring of children’s homes, then we might as well open our doors to child traffickers,” Ayo observed.