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'Some of the children were actually not orphans'

Bankrupt agency linked to troubled orphanage shut down by Ghana

Brian Caldwell

An orphanage in Ghana run by an Ontario charity has been shut down over concerns that children were taken from their parents for international adoption.

"Some of the parents were not aware, some of the children were actually not orphans and so on," said Stephen Adongo, acting director of social work in the African country.

"We found out that some of the parents didn't understand why their children were taken away, why the children should be in school. They were not told the facts, so we viewed that seriously."

Located near Accra, Ghana, the orphanage is run by Hands of Mercy Christian Outreach International, a non-profit group based in Fort Erie.

Problems there came to light after the collapse this week of Cambridge-based Kids Link International Adoption Agency, which operated under the name Imagine Adoption.

Imagine was working with the Ghana orphanage to arrange adoptions by Canadian families who had invested $20,000 or more to get children.

Up to 450 families across the country were stunned when Imagine filed for bankruptcy amid concerns senior staff members, including executive director Susan Hayhow, had unusually high expense claims.

At various stages of the lengthy, costly international adoption process -- mostly involving children from Ethiopia -- the families are now in limbo while bankruptcy trustees and government officials try to sort out the situation.

About 30 families had reached the point where they were matched with a child while waiting for adoptions to be legally completed.

Nine of those children were at the Ghana orphanage, one of four run by the husband-and-wife team behind Hands of Mercy.

Those adoptions have been on hold since allegations about the orphanage surfaced three months ago.

Adongo said Ghana was already reviewing orphanages in the country when he was alerted by the Canadian High Commission to concerns about possible child trafficking at the Hands of Mercy facility.

An investigation by Ghana officials didn't turn up evidence of children at the home being bought and sold for a profit or exploitation.

Adongo said they determined, however, that at least three children slated for overseas adoptions had been taken away from their parents.

"The orphanage sent people around to bring (children) to the place," he said in an interview yesterday.

Adongo said all adoptions through the orphanage were suspended and it was recently ordered to shut down by the Ghana government. No improper adoptions went ahead.

"We intervened at that time so they couldn't continue," he said.

Karen Shadd, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said the Canadian government also suspended adoptions from the orphanage after trafficking suspicions were raised.

"It's not something that we see a lot of," she said.

Deborah MacQuarrie, an evangelical Christian minister who runs Hands of Mercy with her husband, Max, from their Fort Erie home, denied doing anything wrong. She said the couple has been working since 1999 to help needy children abroad as a religious mission.

"We're a ministry," MacQuarrie said. "We serve God. We teach the children about God. We take kids who are dying and we bring them in and we love them and we give them everything we can give them."

She blamed improper placements at the Ghana orphanage on a local staff member who got fired for bringing in members of his extended family.

MacQuarrie also denied the home has been shut down, with about 100 children still living there, and said the investigation by Ghana officials cleared it of serious wrongdoing.

She said the group worked with an American agency to arrange about six adoptions -- with eight others underway -- and didn't have any problems.

"God has put it in our hearts to help these children," MacQuarrie said. "If you go onto our (website), you'll see the kids are all happy, healthy and everything is wonderful."

Adongo said the Ghana investigation didn't directly involve Imagine Adoption, which began working with the orphanage last year.

Bankruptcy trustees are still sorting through Imagine's finances and working with governments officials to see if proper adoptions that had reached the match stage can be completed.

Volunteer directors of the non-profit group grew worried about a month ago after noting questionable expenses, including leased luxury vehicles.

2009 Jul 17