Liberia halts adoptions by Eden Prairie agency

Date: 2009-01-14

Liberia is investigating an Eden Prairie agency that has brought children to the United States for adoption

Star Tribune

A Eden Prairie-based adoption agency that has placed more than 100 children from war-torn Liberia has been ordered to suspend its operations while the Liberian government investigates its practices.

International adoptions have flourished in Liberia since its 13-year civil war ended in 2003, but the country has faced international criticism for child trafficking and fraudulent adoptions. Canada halted all adoptions from Liberia last year because of such concerns. U.S. adoptions continue, with more than 1,100 approved over five years.

The West African Children Support Network (WACSN), founded by Liberian-born Maria Luyken of Eden Prairie, is one of the leading U.S. adoption agencies operating in Liberia. The nonprofit runs an orphanage, school and other charitable programs there, but it has been dogged by questions about its adoption practices.

Joseph Geebro, Liberia's deputy minister for social welfare, said in a phone interview Tuesday that his agency has suspended WACSN's activities during an "investigation of whether the children are being taken care of properly and according to our basic standards." He would not elaborate, but said the inquiry could take up to a month.

In recent years, Minnesota has been a leader among states for the rate of international adoptions. But Liberia is only the latest country in which questions have been raised about adoption practices. Some countries have tightened the rules for would-be adoptive families from abroad.

In 2007, before Canada halted all Liberian adoptions, the province of Alberta placed a hold on WACSN adoptions because of concerns about "tampered passports and irregular court orders," according to a provincial news release at the time. A BBC radio documentary, "Liberia's 'Orphan' Trade," which aired in November, reported that WACSN arranged for an orphan girl to be adopted overseas without the consent of an uncle who had left the child with the agency.

Luyken did not respond to repeated voice mail messages seeking comment. She told the BBC last year that Liberians who give up children for adoption sign relinquishment papers and that the U.S. Embassy only grants a visa for the child if the paperwork is in order.

WACSN charges $8,000 for a Liberian adoption and works exclusively with "devout Born Again Christian Families," according to its website, It says Luyken immigrated to Minnesota in 1979, and began charitable work in Liberia in 1995, and adoptions in 2003. The organization is run by Luyken and her husband and has charity workers and caregivers in Liberia.

Couples from several states have adopted children through her agency.

A 2007 UNICEF study of Liberian adoptions found that because of poor government oversight "many children who are not legitimately eligible are suspected of entering the adoption system through fraudulent means, mostly through false promises designed to deceive birth parents into relinquishing them." Those worries were echoed in a 2008 State Department Inspector General report that found "solid evidence that adoption agencies have submitted falsified documents." Neither report accused WACSN or any other agency by name.

In August 2007, the U.S. Embassy in Liberia turned to DNA testing to confirm identities of birth parents and children. A State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said adoptions to U.S. parents are reviewed case by case and include a review of records and interviews with birth parents.

The State Department says it has no authority to investigate WACSN because Liberia is not a party to the Hague Adoption Convention, a newly signed international treaty that aims to protect children. If Liberian adoptions were governed by the treaty, WACSN would need to be a U.S.-accredited agency subject to State Department sanctions.

WACSN does not have an adoption agency license in Minnesota, so its staff hasn't had the required background checks conducted by the state Department of Human Services. Jerry Kerber, the department's licensing division director, said, "what we need to do is take a look more closely" at WACSN's activities.

WACSN also raises money in Minnesota, but has never filed required reports with the state Attorney General's office under a law designed to shed light on how tax-exempt organizations spend donations. The group also hasn't filed its required, publicly available tax return since 2005, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

For U.S. couples hoping to adopt through WACSN, the investigation is a major roadblock on a path already fraught with uncertainty. Seth and Rebekah Dekkenga of Sioux Falls , S.D., had been hoping to adopt a 2 1/2-year-old boy from Liberia. They now are asking for God's help.

"Pray that Maria [Luyken] would have the wisdom to handle the situation and it would be resolved quickly so all the adoptions may continue!" wrote Rebekah Dekkenga on her blog.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090


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