The distraught mother was kept waiting in a room for seven hours last Saturday, her stomach in knots as she waited to be reunited with her son.
But those seven hours were nothing to her, because the last time she had seen her son was almost five years ago.
When the minor, whom the mother could only remember as an infant wrapped in baby shawls, walked into the small room, she broke down tears.
She stared at the young boy, probably trying to come to terms with the years of separation that had denied her the excitement of watching him take his first steps.
The Nation is not revealing the identities of the mother and baby for legal and ethical reasons. The boy’s grandfather, who was in the room, excitedly took the boy in his arms as the grandmother burst into song and dance, followed by five resounding ululations.
The grandfather never had the opportunity to meet his grandson and only got reports on how he had been taken into a new home.
Last year, he moved to a court in Nkubu seeking orders to be given custody of his daughter’s son.
He got the orders, but the case exposed a disturbing truth about Kenya’s child adoption services; a child theft syndicate that has been using the Judiciary, the police, lawyers, several adoption societies and children’s homes to label stolen children as abandoned and later sell them off.
The multi-million-shilling child trade industry has been thriving for years and poor households, especially in the slums and villages, have been the target of its scheming directors, who are the face of the ugly underbelly of Kenya’s child adoption business.
Babies are not only being snatched off the streets by strangers in passing cars, but also being stolen right after birth by nurses and midwives and passed on to social workers and registered adoption agencies eager to meet the demands of their clients. In the maternity wards of private and public hospitals, new mothers are often shown dead foetuses while their healthy babies are stolen and sold off.
When the theft scheme does not involve dead bodies, it uses clever paperwork by adoption cartels, who have been taking advantage of the poor by stealing their babies and giving them to rich families for adoption after framing the parents as “careless” with the connivance of social workers, who take away the “neglected” children.
On Saturday morning, the Nation watched as an elite squad of detectives retrieved the boy at the beginning of this story from a wealthy family in Nairobi’s upmarket Kilimani neighbourhood and returned him to his family in Nanyuki.
The mother recalled how women accompanied by police officers stormed her house in Kibera, Nairobi shortly after she returned from the shop, accusing her of leaving her son unattended.
She was booked at the Kilimani Police Station and locked in police cells, where she spent the night with her baby. The following day, police officers took the boy to a children’s home, and that was the last time she saw her child. She was accused of child abandonment and found unsuitable to be a protective mother.
She was taken to court and remanded at the Lang’ata Women Prison for close to nine months. The child was placed for adoption and given to new parents. When she was finally released, she was dealt another blow; her two-year-old son had been taken away and placed under the custody of foreigners.
Although adoption cannot take place where parents or family members have been located and have agreed to take care of the child, in some instances the Judiciary and government officials have looked the other way and granted such requests, mostly against poor families who cannot afford legal aid.
The cartels also work with particular children’s homes, judges and lawyers to sanitise the trade detectives believe has sucked in government officials who assist the syndicate to commercialise the adoption process.
Director of Criminal Investigations George Kinoti yesterday acknowledged the existence of the syndicate that is run by people he described as “vicious children merchants”.
“It is a massive syndicate,” he said.
The children are normally stolen when playing outside their homes and taken to particular police stations by “Good Samaritans”. At the police station, they are registered in the Occurrence Book (OB) as “lost” or “abandoned”. The “Good Samaritans” then collude with the police and the children are placed in particular children’s homes that have links to adoption societies.
That is how, in October 2012, a Juja family lost its twins (now 11 years old). Despite a lengthy social media campaign that has intrigued many, the children have never been found.
Since the law gives the adoption agencies a window of only six months to declare a child free for adoption, the cartels make sure that within that window, the children’s parents never trace them. Detectives now believe that thousands of children have been labelled as lost or abandoned when they are not.
A government report also blames police for making little effort to trace the parents of lost and abandoned children, thus giving cartels a free run. “There is no systemised way that parents and relatives of abandoned children are looked for,” notes the report, which assessed the legal process of adoption and found it wanting.
Although a moratorium was put in place in 2014 banning international adoption, the cartels have managed to circumvent the Executive Order and children are still being given out under the guise of foster care orders or guardianship, according to welfare officers.
Under the guardianship procedure, a child still retains his or her name and has no rights as a legal member of the guardian’s family. Although it is reversible, it has been used to fly many children out of the country since Section 105 (a) of the Children’s Act allows “any individual, where the child’s parents are no longer living or cannot be found”, and where the child has no guardian, to file for such an appointment in court.
Under current rules, the Director of Children’s Services and a manager of a charitable children’s institution can ‘legally’ put a child into ‘foster care’ since the law gives the supervision of the placement — to another family — to the manager of the home.
Also, the Children’s Act gives these homes powers to decide if a child in their area is in need of care and protection, and empowers them to take away the child without following the court process.
While children’s homes are supposed to inform the Director of Children Services within seven days that they have taken in a child, the child can only be taken to court “within 3 months”, which is deemed to be far too long.
Detectives investigating the Kenyan syndicate say that some senior officials of the Department of Children’s Services, who are supposed to offer independent reports on a child declared free for adoption, have been working closely with the adoption agencies and that some of them own some of the children’s homes.
A government report had previously warned that the “tight connection between adoption societies and children’s charities could… occasion cases of pre-selection of children for adoption, which is illegal”.
That report seems to have been right on the money, because these adoption societies are believed to scout for prospective adoptive parents both in Kenya and abroad who pay them hefty sums of money to get them suitable children.
“Some of these have rented apartments since a prospective parent must stay with the child for up to six months while the bonding process is monitored,” says a detective handling the matter. “They normally target healthy children and most of these homes will never take in children who are HIV-positive or have other ailments.”
By targeting desperate couples eager to adopt a child, the adoption agencies have created a multi-million-shilling industry where children are traded under the eyes of government agencies.
At the moment, Kenya has no tracking services for lost children, and apart from regular adverts placed by the government-run Child Welfare Society of Kenya, other agencies hardly look out for relatives of lost children.