Lies in the Land of Hope - part 1-4
Lies in the Land of Hope: Part 1
Aug 01st 2013
By Matthew D. LaPlante and Mackinzie Hamilton
Lon Kennard said he wanted to bring hope to Ethiopian orphans. Instead, he stole what little innocence they had left. Photo by Rick Egan.
KERSA ELAWA, Ethiopia—In this land of hunger, disease and anguish, a story is told of a man who arrived amid despair to create a village of hope.
A good man. An honest man. A hero. A saint.
Everyone in this dusty village, about 235 miles south of Ethiopia’s sprawling capital, Addis Ababa, knows about Lon Kennard. And everyone has heard about what happened to him after he left this place.
They know about the allegations. The conviction. The prison sentence.
Some understand why he needs to be locked away as a sexual predator. Others, accustomed to different notions of how powerful men behave and how justice is rendered, see him as a martyr.
But all seem willing to balance his evils against the good he did in their village. Some say that’s just the Ethiopian way.
This is, after all, a land where fear and power are a form of currency. It is a nation whose citizens have endured famine, terrorism and genocide. And it is a country where people can only dream the pathway to hope often runs through hell.
Lon Kennard learned that, too.
This is the story of how one man exploited the most sacred of trusts to satiate his desires. It is the story of how he lifted a village, then left it to fall. It is the story of how those sins rippled across the world, linking Utah to a distant African village.
Lies in the Land of Hope: Part 2
Aug 01st 2013
Kennard enjoyed the role of savior in a small Ethiopian village. Photo by Rick Egan.
A Market for Children
As Lon Kennard tells it, he was driving to work in Salt Lake City, from his home in Heber City, through Parley’s Canyon, when he heard an interview on National Public Radio with Cheryl Carter-Shotts, the founder of Americans for International Adoption. [ppl note: Americans for African Adoption]
The year was 1991, and the terrible vision of starving children—still the only image most Americans can muster of the world’s most populous landlocked nation—was still fresh on Kennard’s mind.
The Great Famine of the mid-1980s claimed the lives of more than 400,000 Ethiopians. But other than buying a copy of We Are The World, most Americans did little to help. Some might argue it’s perhaps better that way. Though Americans mean well, they’re prone to addressing intricate, entrenched international problems with simplistic solutions—a bandage over a festering wound.
Besides, in Ethiopia, home to so much desperation, where do you even start?
In the broadcast, Carter-Shotts offered a simple answer—something pure and benevolent that even Americans of relatively modest means could do to relieve misery in a far away land. They could adopt a child.
Even after the famine ended, malnutrition and disease continued to orphan tens of thousands of children each year. Ethiopia’s orphanages couldn’t hold them all.
Up to that point, and going back to the end of the Korean War, South Korea had been the top “sending” nation for American parents seeking to adopt children from overseas. But as economic winds shifted, and South Koreans were better able to care for their own orphans, the sources for internationally adopted children changed. Russia, China and Guatemala became key sending nations in the 1990s. Ethiopia soon joined those nations as top providers of children to American adoptive families.
Ethiopia, the second-most-populous nation in Africa, sent 95 children to adoptive parents in the United States in 2000, according to the U.S. State Department. During the next decade, nearly 10,000 Ethiopian children were adopted by American families, including 2,500 in 2010 alone.
Gail Gorfe watched the adoption rush with a mixture of excitement and fear. “There were a lot of adoption agencies being created,” said Gorfe, who began working with Adoption Advocates International in Addis Ababa long before the boom. “On the one hand, that meant more adoptions, and that seems on the surface to be good. But it was also inviting problems. There were people who were treating this as a market for children. And there were not enough checks in the system.”
Even with stringent controls, Kennard and his family would likely have seemed a near-perfect placement to adoption officials. A successful medical technology salesman and longtime member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Kennard had recently been called to serve as a bishop in his ward.
And he spoke passionately of giving back to the world that had given him so much.
“When we were young, my wife and I had thought of joining the Peace Corps,” Kennard said in an interview at the Utah State Prison earlier this year. “That opportunity had passed us by while we were raising our children—we had five, and that felt like a lot at the time. But now our children were older and this seemed like a good opportunity to make a difference.”
After hearing the NPR broadcast, Kennard came home and asked his wife to pray with him about adoption. Soon, they agreed, they had received their answer. Although they were nearing retirement age, the couple felt they had more to give.
Heber City had only a handful of black residents, so the Kennards resolved to adopt two children—a brother and sister.
Ali Staking doesn’t remember to which of her adoptive parents she spoke first. In any case, she couldn’t understand what was being said. “But I do remember,” Staking said, “that the people at the orphanage told me to say ‘hi,’ and I said ‘hi’ and they told me to say ‘I love you,’ and I said ‘I love you’ in my funny accent. And the other person on the line was in tears.”
Staking was 3 years old; her brother was five. “Everyone at the orphanage always talked about going to America. We said ‘When I go to America, I will be rich and fat.’ That’s what we knew about America—that everyone was happy, fat and rich.”
Lon Kennard was two of those things. And when the tall, thin, angular and balding man arrived in the orphanage, Staking didn’t know what to think.
“But when he arrived, he said ‘I’m going to be your dad now,’” Staking recalled. “And I went with it, because all I knew was that I was going to America, and that was supposed to be a better life.”
Kennard appeared determined to offer that better life to as many children as possible, first to Ali and her brother, then soon to their two older siblings—another boy and girl—and to two other young girls.
By 1995, the Kennard clan—including parents, biological and adopted children—was 13 members strong.
But Kennard had already set another goal. Their family hadn’t yet fulfilled their purpose, he told his wife and children. Struck by the vast need he’d witnessed in the village of Kersa Elawa, he said he had a burning desire to help “at a greater level.”
“It was something I am certain that God was calling me to do,” Kennard said during the prison interview.
In the ensuing years, he returned to Kersa Elawa again and again, sometimes for weeks, other times for months, as he worked to build an organization that, he told supporters, would help create a model for ending abject poverty in villages across Ethiopia.
By 2009, the organization Kennard called “Village of Hope” had helped dig a 600-foot artesian well, laid the groundwork for a community center, leveled a local soccer field, built a clinic, and established an orphanage for 30 children. The organization, which had a thousand American sponsors—most of them in Utah—also arranged schooling for local children and training for farmers.
“Everything here became better,” said villager Dureti Hussen. “Everybody understood that Lon was the reason for this change.”
Dureti never doubted Kennard’s sincerity. “Many times he would cry when he spoke,” she said. “This is how we knew he was speaking from his heart.”
Lies in the Land of Hope: Part 3
Aug 01st 2013
Residents of Kersa Elawa have mixed feelings about the good and evil Kennard has done. Photo by Rick Egan.
It takes a lot of patience
Dozens of Utahns joined Kennard in Kersa Elawa for a few days or weeks at a time. The tall, gaunt man with piercing blue eyes told the people he invited that they could do more good in a few days in Africa than they could in their entire lives back home. But some who visited got another vibe—that Kennard was in it for personal aggrandizement. They noticed he seemed to delight, especially, in walking among the children, caressing their heads and taking them in his arms. They called him “father.”
Back home in Utah, his own children sometimes felt as though he’d forgotten them .
“We used to joke that he must have had a family in Ethiopia, because he was always spending so much time there,” Kennard’s oldest daughter, Jill Jensen, recalled.
In the fall of 2009, when a group of young volunteers arrived in Ethiopia to serve in Kersa Elawa, Kennard was nowhere to be found.
In the confusion of the ensuing days, a boy who was being cared for at the Village of Hope orphanage had gone missing—Kennard said the boy was taken by one of the organization’s local managers, to whom the boy was related, without permission. In the search for the child, police noticed that the non-profit’s licenses weren’t up to date. Apparently seeking leverage to get Kennard to face questioning, officers arrested several nurses.
It took months to work things out, and Village of Hope board members still aren’t clear about everything that went wrong, but it was obvious that Kennard was in over his head as an administrator.
At that point, Utah entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul Morrell stepped in to help stabilize things.
“The situation wasn’t good,” Morrell said. “But that’s not an uncommon thing in Ethiopia. Things that seem to be going well all of the sudden are in crisis and it takes a lot of patience and hard work to get things into better shape.”
By early 2010, the Village of Hope was back on track—but without Kennard, who had returned to Utah. In a letter to supporters, Kennard called Morrell’s involvement “a stabilizing Godsend to Village of Hope.” And, in what seemed to supporters to be a selfless gesture, he bowed out.
This is how you rationalize
At about the same time Kennard’s daughter, Jill Jensen, was coming to terms with a disturbing childhood memory.
Police had contacted Jensen saying they suspected her daughter had been molested, along with other students, by their elementary school teacher.
That was bad enough, but the questions brought back to Jensen troubling memories she had denied to herself for years. Now, sitting across from her daughter, discussing the incidents at school, Jensen finally confronted her own secret—that her father had come into her bedroom at night and sexually fondled her.
Finally, she accepted that it really had happened.
“I thought—and I don’t know why I thought this, but I guess this is how you rationalize these things when you have been hurt in these ways—that maybe even if it were true, he had changed,” Jensen said. “Everyone revered my father. He was this big hero. He had done so much to help so many people. That’s what we were all led to believe. So for me to come forward with accusations that I’d buried for so long, it just didn’t seem possible to me.”
She told her daughter: “I had been too scared to say anything. But if I found out one day that he had hurt anyone else, I couldn’t forgive myself.”
Though her daughter joined the other classmates in testifying against the teacher, Jensen herself still could not take that step against her father.
In a few weeks, Jensen would learn, however, she was far from her father’s only victim. Kennard had allegedly molested at least five other children—including others in his family and a girl in Ethopia. The teenaged girl—a relative of one of his adopted daughters—was not yet 18 when Jensen began spending time with her near Kersa Elawa.
Like many abusers, Kennard manipulated his victims with a combination of fear and isolation from each other.
On March 5, 2010, everything changed.
Months had passed since Kennard’s unexplained ouster from Village of Hope, but already he was hatching a plan to return. Over email and the telephone, the then-68-year-old man was promising the young girl back in Ethiopia that he was going to leave the United States and live out the remainder of his life in Africa. He was planning to establish a new non-profit organization, Love One Another, that he said would address social and economic issues in Ethiopia.
As he discussed his plans with the African girl that evening, he didn’t hear the soft click as his wife picked up an extension phone in another room. “When I leave here, I will never return,” Kennard told the girl as his wife listened in.
With that, the lies began to unravel. Kennard’s biological and adopted children joined to support their mother. The secrets finally were brought to light. The sexual abuse had begun, Staking would later testify, almost immediately after Kennard took custody of her and her siblings in Ethiopia.
That evening, Matthew Kennard—the youngest of Kennard’s biological children—broke into his father’s office and copied the contents of an external hard drive. There, he found pictures of naked children, one including his adopted sisters taken in Ethiopia and Utah. Many of the Utah photos appeared to have been captured wrisith hidden cameras.
Two weeks later, Lon Kennard was arrested by Wasatch County Sheriff’s deputies on charges of aggravated sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and forcible sodomy.
“I was just so happy and relieved,” Staking said. “I’d been so sad and scared, and I was happy that I would not have to pretend I was happy anymore.”
Soon word of his crimes reached Ethiopia.
Lies in the Land of Hope: Part 4
Aug 01st 2013
Lon Kennard stands trial on charges of child rape. Photo courtesy of Chris Detrick/The Salt Lake Tribune.
Difficult to believe
It was difficult for many of the citizens of Kersa Elawa to resolve what they were hearing from Utah about Kennard with the kind man they thought they knew.
“The people here, they all like Lon,” said villager Milkessa Gemedi Sero. “They believe he is a good man. The things they say he has done, these are not expected of a man of his stature, so it is difficult to believe.”
Abero Chala, a government development officer and native of Kersa Elawa said Kennard “was a good man and a good helper. He really did a lot of good things for our community.”
Dureti Hussen thinks Kennard’s crimes are outweighed by the good he did: “Everybody make mistakes… I still love him.”
But Dan Alger, who helped found the Village of Hope’s Foresight program—that helped farmers get more out of their fields—sees Kennard’s philanthropy as simply prelude to his sexual predation. “I don’t doubt where Lon’s head was going,” Alger said.
For a time, Alger said, it wasn’t certain that the program could survive the scandal. And even after it became clear that the Village of Hope would continue its work, the program stopped growing.
“We’re not a good candidate under [the name] Village of Hope to go out and grow this program with new donors, because if you go do a Google search for ‘Village of Hope’ you don’t learn a lot of good stuff about Village of Hope,” Alger said. “You’re more likely to hear about Lon and his activities up in Heber.”
Today, the Village of Hope complex in Kersa Elawa is a ghost of its past. A guard keeps watch over the property. Inside locked gates, a swing set is overgrown with grass. Domed huts, once intended for clinics, protect a recent potato harvest.
And the domed structure in which Kennard often stayed is gone—a large, round imprint in the dirt is the only physical evidence of his presence. But the impact of Kennard’s transgressions don’t end in this small village.
We are placing less children
For the better part of a decade, Ethiopia had been one of the easiest places for American parents to adopt a child from overseas. By the time Kennard was convicted of sexual abuse crimes in the fall of 2011, that had drastically changed.
Standing before 4th District Court Judge Derek Pullan, Kennard—then 70 years old— trembled, sobbed and begged for his family to forgive him. “I need a family,” he cried. “It’s horrible to be without a family.”
At the same time Kennard was begging for mercy, Ethiopian government officials were cracking down on lenient policies that had allowed thousands of fast adoptions.
Now, most families must make multiple trips to Ethiopia to secure their adopted children. The Ministry of Women’s, Children and Youth Affairs has significantly slowed the number of adoption files it reviews each week, adding additional checks to the process.
Most of all, government officials say they have focused support on orphanages that provide long-term care for the nation’s children. Still, most orphanages remain overcrowded. In one government orphanage in Addis Ababa, for instance, babies are crowded into rows and rows of bassinets. The flies are thick in the fetid air. Workers say they try to hold each child a few times a day.
An adoption official from the Women’s Affairs Ministry said her agency fully understands the over-crowded orphanages are not ideal, but abusive adoptive parents like Kennard have left the ministry no choice.
The official said the Kennard matter “was something we were aware of—very much—when it became clear there needed to be changes in the system to protect our children from exploitation and predatory people.”
She described Kennard as “a sick monster.” And, she worried, “There are more.”
Gorfe, the veteran adoption agency official in Addis Ababa, said most of the changes are positive—particularly given that only a very small number of Ethiopia’s children (those who enter the system as relatively healthy infants) stand much of a chance of being adopted out of country.
But the changes also slowed down a system that was, in the overwhelming majority of cases, placing children of great need with families of great means.
“The numbers have gone down over the last three years; definitely we are placing less children then we did,” said Marquita Thompson, an international adoptions coordinator with the Washington state-based Adoption Advocates International.
At one time, her agency was placing about 300 Ethiopian children a year. “And I think last year we placed 106,” she said.
Among the changes, the Women’s Affairs Ministry has made a cutback on the number of children any family may adopt. “They think large families aren’t good,” Thompson said, relating a recent conversation she had with an official from the women’s ministry. “Maybe they don’t have enough energy for each child or enough attention.” Or maybe, she said, it’s because “some of the bigger child abuse cases that they’ve seen have been in larger families.”
Who I Really Am
It’s either the depth of his denial, or the boundlessness of his hopes, but Kennard believes he will someday return to Ethiopia.
Told of the admiration many people in Kersa Elawa still express for him, Kennard’s eyes become distant. “That is because they know who I really am.”
Kennard also says the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, when it considers his case years from now, will recognize his actions in Ethiopia were humanitarian, not predatory.
But he will never convince Jensen, his daughter.
“My father was always looking for more compliant victims,” she says. “He was a coward and he was looking for the most powerless people he could to manipulate and abuse. And one day he realized there was a place a long way from here where he could have exactly what he wanted—and that they would welcome him with open hearts.” And so, in a land of hunger, disease and anguish, a story is told of a man who came to a place of despair and created a village of hope.
A good man. An honest man. A hero. A saint.
And, like many stories in that land, Jensen says, it is nothing more than a myth.
Matthew D. LaPlante is an assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University, where Mackinzie Hamilton is an undergraduate student in the Department of Journalism and Communication. This article was reported during trips to Ethiopia in 2011 and 2012