Two years ago, Ron and Mary Nelson and their four children traveled from Indiana to Nairobi, Kenya, to volunteer at an orphanage for three months. While there, they fell in love with a baby girl named Mercy and decided to adopt her. "She was patient and sweet and seemed sensitive to my husband trying to help the babies," says Mary Nelson.
They came back to Indiana and registered with Carolina Adoptions, an international adoption agency that had just been approved by Kenya's National adoption committee to work with a local adoption agency called Little Angels. The Nelsons were approved by both.
"We were actually the first American couple approved under their new program," says Nelson. In Kenya, the law for international adoption states that the couple planning to adopt must spend at least eight months in the country to be approved before taking the child home, a sacrifice the Nelsons were happy to make for Mercy.
They packed up the family once again and arrived in Nairobi on Christmas day 2006, believing they were coming to get Mercy.
"We thought we were coming to get our best Christmas present ever," says Nelson.
Instead, the Nelsons became entangled in a turf war between rival Kenyan organizations looking to control the complicated, expensive adoption process. Their experience was symptomatic of a culture of profit that has sprung up around Kenyan adoptions as the government has ceded control of the process, according to Tonny Odero of The Cradle, a children's rights organization in Kenya.
Ordero says the problem is that instead of orphans being awarded to the state, Kenya has outsourced much of its child welfare to adoption societies, that are supposed to be working solely for the welfare of the child. Instead, Odero says, they operate like "cartels."
"To do an international adoption, there's a lot of money involved," says Odero, "These adoption societies perceive they are in a competition for business."
Although paying for children outright is illegal, international adoptions involve thousands of dollars of fees to agencies, lawyers, doctors and for immigration documents. Often alliances between adoption societies and the "recommended" parties involve behind-the-scenes kickbacks, said a source.
Rivalry Between Adoption Organizations
Once the Nelsons arrived in Kenya, infighting between adoption agencies and lack of oversight by the Kenyan government's Children's Department meant that Mercy's future depended on one woman, Irene Mureithi. She is the executive director of the Child Welfare Society, a rival adoption "society" accredited to handle international adoptions.
The Child Welfare Society is a non-profit organization that has existed in Kenya for decades and operates as both a custodial agent for children who are awarded to the state and also as an adoption agency. For years it was the only organization able to conduct adoptions, but not anymore. Now there are at least two other agencies accredited. Little Angels is one, and there is rivalry, sometimes bitter, between them.
These adoption societies will often "send cases to certain lawyers or agencies friendly to the children's home they are dealing with," says Tonny Odero, of The Cradle, a children's rights organization in Kenya. "If the person doesn't choose the lawyer or agency they recommend, they will not get the baby."
In Mercy's case, she was placed under the care of the Child Welfare Society, and Mureithi refused to free her to be adopted by the Nelsons because she says Little Angels did not follow procedure.
"They should have written to us officially," Mureithi told ABC News. "We were responsible for the child." Nelson said that Mureithi pushed hard for another agency. The Nelsons did meet with the recommended agency, but because they were registered with Carolina, which has an exclusive partnership with Little Angels, they could not use the new agency.
Nelson said that despite multiple visits to Mureithi, she was unsympathetic to their dilemma. "I actually got on my knees and begged this woman, sobbing," says Nelson. "She wouldn't budge."
At one point Nelson says that Little Angels offered to give Mureithi a cut of the international adoption fee and let her be involved, but she still refused, allegedly telling them, "Unless I am able to get approved to do international adoptions and can get an agency in America to work with, then I am not helping you people in any way."
Mureithi strongly denies that allegation. She and her colleague Jen Odiya, a senior child protection officer for the Child Welfare Society, maintain that their issue was not with the Nelsons, but with Little Angels' exclusive partnership clause with Carolina Adoptions.
"We went for a meeting with Little Angels to ask them if they could open the clause," says Mureithi. "They refused." Tom Jackson, the international director of Carolina Adoptions says the organization partnered with Little Angels because they felt it had the most integrity. "Realistically, there was one agency that was prepared," says Jackson. "We looked at the other agency and we were unprepared to deal with some of the issues surrounding it. After three months of wrangling, the Nelsons were finally told that Mercy was going to be adopted by a local couple and that they had been rejected.
Odiya says that because Mercy was placed in the care of Child Welfare Society, Little Angels and Carolina Adoptions should have included it in the process from the very beginning.
"The scenario would be different if they had started in a courteous manner," says Odiya. "To give up completely our rights to Little Angels was not acceptable."
Adoption, or Big Business?
Both Little Angels and Child Welfare Society deny that they are in the "business of adoption" and claim that all decisions are made in the best interest of the child. But The Cradle's Odero says after organizations meet the government's requirements for registration, there's little oversight on how they are actually run.
"The National Adoption Committee should be the regulating arm of what the adoption societies do," says Odero. "It needs to look into and be supervising the whole issue."
Kenya is not known for international adoption, but the country does have its share of orphans.
The government's Children's Department only collects official data on the country's total number of orphans every three years, but according to a 2006 address launching an initiative for children given by Moody Awori, the former vice president of Kenya, there are an estimated 1.8 million orphans in the country, mostly due to HIV/ AIDS deaths of parents. Children's rights advocates expect that number to rise this year because of post-election violence. The number of adoptions, by comparison is much smaller. In 2006 the government recorded only 100 international adoptions, and 69 domestic.
'Miracle Babies' Lead to Strict Laws
Kenya's international adoption laws, once considered lax, are now quite strict. The latest Children's Act was implemented last year as a response to a scandal in 2004 in which a pastor and his wife claimed to produce "miracle babies" for couples in the United Kingdom who could not have children.
The babies turned out not to be "miracles," but part of a ring involving the pastor, his wife and a maternity hospital where nurses would tell new parents their babies had died, only to sell the newborns to the pastor and his wife. At that time the laws were such that according to media reports, Millie Odhiambo of The Cradle said that "Kenya is actually a country where you can buy babies."
That may no longer be true, but Odero says that with adoption societies essentially regulating themselves, "it's the children who suffer."
The Nelsons say they suffered too. After they were refused Mercy they decided, reluctantly, to continue the adoption process in Kenya. A baby girl named Josie was placed with them. Nearly a year, and $40,000 later the process was finalized and the Nelson's were able to take their new baby girl home to Indiana. They kept a blog chronicling the entire experience, and while they say they feel "blessed" to have Josie, they continue to ask people to "pray for Mercy."
Despite being told more than a year ago that she was being adopted by a local family, the child remains in an orphanage.
"We still have a picture of Mercy hanging on our refrigerator," says Mary Nelson, "That's the hardest part. There she sits, never knowing our love for her."
Wilfred Wambura contributed to this report.