Liberian children are being sold for adoption in dubious circumstances and others are living in sub-standard orphanages, according to rights groups in the West African nation.
Some institutions, while purporting to help orphans, are charging huge sums of money for adoptions, the National Child Rights Observation Group (NACROG), said in a report this week.
NACROG, comprising representatives of local and international NGOs, civil society, and several ministries, is asking the government to investigate three orphanages and calling for a halt to all adoptions from Liberia.
“There are enough facts also that orphanages are profiteering from this venture against the will of children,” NACROG head Jerolinmek Piah told IRIN. “Suspicion that most of these homes are involved with trafficking of children is very serious and thus demands an investigation….From our findings thus far, most of the adoption homes are agents and or facilitators of child trafficking.”
Meanwhile the human rights section of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) expressed concern about conditions for orphans in a January report, saying that poor administration in many orphanages exposed children to abuse. “Record keeping of children residing in the orphanages is generally poor…the lack of records increases the vulnerability of the children to abuse and trafficking,” the report said.
UNMIL also denounced harsh and unsanitary conditions in many orphanages, and said some are operating illegally. The Liberian government has acknowledged problems and said some children’s homes could be shut down.
But administrators of the three orphanages pinpointed by NACROG denied the trafficking accusations and said their adoption programmes were government-approved.
Eric Sewa, country director of the Acres of Hope, told IRIN that “there is nothing illegal we are doing and all of our operations are legal and approved by the Liberian government.
“There is no iota of truth in this accusation.”
Vivian Cherue, Liberia’s deputy health minister in charge of social welfare overseeing all orphanages, could not confirm any case of child trafficking. “All adoption papers that passed through [the] office are from the court and duly signed by the respective parties and it is difficult for me to prove any case of child trafficking through adoption.”
The UNMIL report said it evaluated 78 orphanages - housing more than 5,000 children - and concluded that most have orphans living in difficult conditions and some are operating without a government permit. “Most orphanages were found to be in very poor condition, lacking basic requirements for the protection of children’s emotional and physical well-being.”
Sanitary conditions in some of the orphanage homes are alarming, UNMIL said. It cited a case of an orphanage in the capital, Monrovia, where seven boys slept in one tiny room with no beds and no access to toilets. The boys were forced to urinate and defecate in their living space.
Bettie Stewart, a Liberian social worker specialising in children’s issues, blamed the government for not doing enough to go after delinquent orphanages. “It is indeed down-heartening to see a majority of our orphanages in a deplorable state, sometimes the children in there can not afford a square meal per day, while the government sits and watches the situation,” she told IRIN.
Stewart also accused orphanages of exploiting children’s plight. “[Some] are using their orphanages to solicit charities abroad like clothing, food and money and the children mostly do not benefit from those charities.”
Deputy health minister Cherue said the government plans to shut down orphanages found to be offenders, once an ongoing evaluation is finished. In a previous phase of the assessment the government found 35 orphanages to be operating below standard, she said. “They do not have proper care for the children and some of them were found to be operating illegally.”
But Reverend Stephen Enoch, owner of an orphanage in Monrovia that houses 65 children, told IRIN that in this war-wounded country, children’s homes had done an invaluable job. “Right now, we do not have any subsidy from government and people insult us of being thieves [using funds meant for] children which is not true. Most the homes are operating without funds and we are serving humanity by giving hope to destitute and orphan children.”