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.
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."