Facebook posts, later deleted, on a page for international adoption from the DRCAt least one U.S. citizen —and possibly more—has been implicated in a child-trafficking scandal in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) while allegedly trying to smuggle kids out of the African country for the purpose of adoption, according to local press reports.
Radio Okapi reported this week that Congolese authorities have implicated a U.S. citizen identified as M. Samuel Jessy in an attempt to illegally smuggle seven children —six girls and one boy, ages 2-8 — across the DRC’s southern border into Zambia in an attempt to expedite their delivery to families in the United States. It's not clear whether the American has been detained. A Congolese citizen who lives in the U.S. and two women in the capital city of Kinshasa were also reportedly involved in the smuggling operation.
The children who were being smuggled are thought to be in custody of the Congolese government.
U.S. authorities won't confirm the reports. “Due to privacy considerations, we are unable to share further information at this time,” a U.S. State Department official said.
An after-hours call to the DRC’s Direction Générale de Migration was not immediately returned.
The illicit practice of smuggling children across the DRC's borders has reportedly been going on for years, sources tell Fusion.
“It's a word-of-mouth referral system,” an adoptive parent told Fusion on the condition of anonymity. “The [Americans] have the children brought through Lubumbashi instead of Kinshasa. It's $2,500 for fees and services, and a $750 donation… They do it in groups of four…. there was another trip scheduled for this Sunday, but because of the bust, they’re postponing trips until December.”
She added, “Nobody's willing to talk publicly about it. No one wants to be the one to shut down adoptions forever from the DRC."
Adoption advocates are concerned that the recent scandal could bring unwanted attention to the cross-border smuggling network. During a private conference call on the morning of Sept. 17, an adoption lobbying group warned adoptive American families to keep their mouths shut and maintain "absolute discretion" about adoptions in the DRC.
According to one adoptive parent on the call, the group's spokeswoman warned that talking to the press about the situation might trigger a cascade of “radioactive” publicity similar to what happened in 2010, when American Laura Silsby and eight others were caught smuggling 33 children out of Haiti.
Fusion reached out to the organization for comment, but calls were not returned by press time.
It's unclear if the Congolese government will attempt to question the American families that were trying to adopt the children. Radio Okapti reports that authorities are trying to determine which American families are linked to the seven children.
“We were not advised, consulted, informed nor participants in any way,” Kelly Carmody, director of the adoption agency A Love Beyond Borders, told Fusion. She would not confirm if the Americans involved in the smuggling scandal had been matched with Congolese children through her agency.
“It can happen easily that an agency doesn't know when a family does something foolish, shortsighted, selfish and illegal," she said. "A family might just go underground, off the radar and they lie to the agency and others to cover their trail.“
Over the past few years, the popularity of adopting Congolese children has surged in the United States. Between 2010 and 2013, the U.S Department of State reports that adoptions from the DRC increased by 645 percent.
The boom has led to problems. Last April, the DRC informed the U.S State Department that five U.S. families had illegally removed children from the DRC without exit permits. The State Department advised Americans that the DRC would be applying a greater levels of scrutiny to international adoptions.
Congolese authorities say they've received reports of “many” American families breaking Congolese law by trying to adopt more than three Congolese children simultaneously, and of Americans removing children from the DRC without attending all required court hearings.
Screenshot of EACI.org website advertising Congolese children, taken Sept. 19, 2014
Still, many U.S agencies have continued to encourage the adoption of Congolese children even after the ban.
“No one would take responsibility for stopping this when it should have been stopped,” said Gina Pollock, former president of the U.S. advocacy organization Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform. She says rumors of Americans “sneaking kids out” of the DRC have circulated for years.