Adoption Sierra Leone


When Liz Meyers and Steve Kameika of Germantown decided to adopt a child in 2002, they turned to Sierra Leone, a country that for a decade had been at war with itself. Tens of thousands of people, including children, were killed or maimed in a frenzy of rape, amputation and murder.

"I saw the life expectancy was 34. It's arguably the poorest country in the world," said Meyers, who teaches at a charter school. "Everybody goes to China or they want blond babies from Russia. This program spoke to us."

Meyers and Kameika, both in their mid-40s and childless, had selected two sisters, Amida, 4, and Adama, 7, who were living in the All As One Children's Center in the capital, Freetown. Last spring, expecting the girls to arrive by July, they bought a station wagon and selected a school for them.

But last summer, after waiting for two years, the couple saw their dreams - along with those of more than 40 other U.S. families seeking to adopt children from Sierra Leone - put on hold.

Like so many countries, including those recently hit by the South Asian tsunami, Sierra Leone is reluctant to let its children go. Also, rumors of child trafficking were circulating through the country.

"This is the thing we go up against," said Henry Abu, a manager of Cherith International Children's Center in Freetown. "People here in Africa don't know the difference between child trafficking and adoption. They confuse the two."

Recently, the door to adoption in Sierra Leone has cracked open, with a few American families able to adopt. Yet huge obstacles remain as the country's children's centers clear their names of child-trafficking suspicions.

Abu, for instance, was charged in August with trafficking. Cherith is among a handful of centers that opened during the 1991-2002 war to feed and educate orphans and abandoned children.

With 25 children, it is supported by Maine Adoption Placement Services (MAPS) in Houlton, Maine. Like other centers with ties to U.S. adoption agencies, it helps families through the adoption process, which can easily take two years.

Abu was released after about a week and the charges were dropped when the Maine agency sent Sierra Leone authorities copies of paperwork for every adoption MAPS had facilitated. The documents demonstrated that it had followed the country's adoption procedures. "We did not try to hide the adoption of our children," said Cindy Boody, Sierra Leone program coordinator for MAPS. "We don't believe in child smuggling, child trafficking or human trafficking. Our work in Sierra Leone is humanitarian aid. There are thousands of orphans."

All As One, which runs a clinic and school as well as an orphanage, asked the U.S. State Department and Congress for help last fall. "We are asking the U.S. to send a clear message to the Government of Sierra Leone that legitimate international adoptions by Americans are not a form of child trafficking," executive director Deanne Wallace wrote. "The futures of hundreds of children and families are in jeopardy."

Americans have adopted about 150 children from Sierra Leone since 1999, the State Department says. Among them are three adopted in 1999 by Charles and Elaine DePrince of Cherry Hill, who also have a child from Liberia. About 100,000 children were affected by the war, with about 10,000 recruited as soldiers and another 10,000 abducted for sexual slavery and forced labor.

"Girls were targeted for rape by all sides, and even children had limbs amputated," says a report issued in October by UNICEF, based on survivors' stories - part of a "truth and reconciliation" process. "People were massacred, homes burned, properties looted. No one knew anymore what the war was about."

Now that adoptions are under more rigorous scrutiny in Sierra Leone and adoption agencies are having difficulty providing families with status information, some families, including Liz Meyers and Steve Kameika, are preparing to fly there.

"My head is just swimming," Meyers said. "I think about the girls all the time. The house is covered with pictures. It just seems impossible to think about this not coming together."

But some uncertainty has emerged about the possibility of adopting Amida and Adama, who had been left at the center by their impoverished parents. Last fall, their father retrieved them.

While the Germantown couple still hope to get permission from the father to adopt them, they have applied to adopt two other children - sisters who are 4 and 3, who are among the 70 children at All As One.

"We were totally depressed that this wasn't going to happen," Kameika said recently. "We're pretty excited. There's anxiety of whether it will be two or four girls."

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