In this photo taken Tuesday May 21, 2013 a child plays with dolls at a play center at the Dube hostel in Soweto South Africa. The center is provided with educational toys from Cotlands, a local non-profit organization that promotes early learning opportunities for children. Cotlands first opened it's doors 77 years ago offering adoption services for abandoned babies. In 1996 it opened an HIV hospice to address the increased HIV birth rate which claimed 98 children in 2002. In the past three years no child has died leading to the closure of the HIV hospice and now prioritizes it's efforts into advocation for an improvement in early childhood education. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

Kampala - Ugandan families have been bribed, tricked or coerced into giving up their children to US citizens and other foreigners for adoption, a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation has found.

Leaked documents, court data and a series of exclusive interviews with officials, whistleblowers, victims and prospective adoptive parents have revealed:

* A culture of corruption in which children’s birth histories are at times manipulated to make them appear as orphans when they are not.

* A lucrative industry in which lawyers acting on behalf of foreign applicants receive large payments.

* A mushrooming network of unregistered childcare institutions through which children are primed for adoption.

* An absence of reliable court data to counteract allegations of negligence or fraud by probation officers involved in the adoption process.

Across Uganda, church-backed orphanages and private child care institutions are springing up. “Fifteen years ago there were just two dozen orphanages, now there are as many as 400 such institutions,” said Stella Ayo-Odongo, executive director of the Uganda Child Rights NGO Network.

“But this is steeped in problems. Intercountry adoptions constitute a booming industry in which child traffickers are profiteering,” she said.

According to Ugandan law, foreigners are required to spend at least three years in the country before adopting, but they can acquire a legal guardianship days after arriving and complete the process back home.

Data from the US State Department shows that 201 children were adopted from Uganda by US citizens in 2013/2014, making it the third biggest source country in Africa. In all, Americans adopted 6 441 children from around the world last year.

Uganda’s parliament is expected to pass tighter legislation that would ban legal guardianships, with a view to signing an international treaty, the Hague Adoption Convention, but corruption and bureaucracy have stalled the process, critics say.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Ethiopia, two of the biggest source countries for adopted African children last year, have taken steps to restrict overseas applications.

“Uganda must ratify the Hague Adoption Convention urgently,” said Ayo-Odongo. “It was previously not an issue, but now, with levels of child trafficking at such a high level, it should be a priority.”

Ugandan children regularly pass through Kampala’s Entebbe international airport.

On a given day they can be seen hand-in-hand with white adoptive parents at the departure gate.

Many of these adoptions will lead to successful unions between the child and his or her adoptive parents.

But others will never make it this far.

In Uganda, a lack of available documents makes it impossible to determine how many adoptions involve fraud, but four government officials told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the problem was widespread.

“Some lawyers lie about the birth history of the child,” said Stella Ogwang, an official in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, which oversees child welfare.

Another senior government official, who did not want to be named, described Uganda’s adoption system as “a racket”.

One of the lawyers, known for handling intercountry adoption cases, denied involvement in fraud, saying that the cases she handled involved orphans abandoned by their families.

Another lawyer, Peter Nyombi, said he was not aware of any fraud in the adoption cases he handled.

“We carry out extensive investigations into the background of the children,” said Nyombi, who is a former attorney general.

Data shows that a large proportion of the children put forward for adoption have surviving relatives.

A leaked study into foreign adoptions in Uganda, overseen by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, found only a fifth of all adopted children it surveyed were orphans who had lost both parents.

The report, funded by the UN children’s agency, Unicef and yet to be published, also found that biological parents and relatives gave up their children in the belief they would receive financial incentives from adoptive parents and children’s homes.

Many of them, the report finds, come to learn that their child’s identity has been changed fraudulently while in the institution, without their knowledge.

The report’s author, Hope Among, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that securing access to court files took several months and certain files were withheld by the judiciary. A court registrar, Muse Musimbi, declined to say why this was the case and said he could only discuss the matter with the court files in front of him.

“Before an application (for guardianship) comes to court, the child’s identity may have been changed several times by the lawyers or those acting for them in the child care institutions,” said the Ministry of Gender and Labour’s Ogwang.

Intercountry adoption is widely believed to be a lucrative business. Officials estimate a Ugandan lawyer can earn $30 000 (R360 000) during the adoption process.

Two lawyers involved in the process refused to comment on their earnings. Another lawyer, who did not want to be named, said he earns $4 000 for each case he handles.

Peter Nyombi said he earned less than $10 000 per legal guardianship.

“Thirty thousand dollars? I would be a very rich man if I were charging that amount,” said Nyombi, laughing.

Uganda’s per capita GNI (Gross National Income) was $600 in 2013, according to the World Bank, well below the average for sub-Saharan Africa. A former high court registrar said that some probation officers, on instruction from lawyers, were in the habit of fraudulently copying and pasting information from old documents to ensure the application would be rubber stamped.

“Some of our lawyers have gone to the extent of confusing parents and relatives of the victims to present forged information. They tell the parents to lie, to pretend to be dead, in return for small payments,” said Moses Binonga, co-ordinator of the anti-human trafficking task force at Uganda’s Interior Ministry.