The ‘orphan’ I adopted from Uganda already had a family

Updated 10:42 PM EDT, Fri October 13, 2017
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Jessica Davis: After the adoption, we realized her mother was tricked into giving her up

The corrupt practices of international adoption agencies that allowed this must end, she writes

Editor’s Note: Jessica Davis is a photographer who lives in Ohio with her husband (and best friend) of 16 years and her four children. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

I’ve always hoped to make a difference in this world. To bring goodness, peace or healing to a world that often seems inundated with loss, hardship and a vast array of obstacles that make life difficult for so many. When it came to the decision to adopt, it seemed like a no-brainer.

I thought this was one way to make a difference, at least for one child. My husband, Adam, and I would open our home and our hearts to a child in need.

Jessica Davis with her husband and Mata
PHOTO: Courtesy Jessica Davis
Jessica Davis with her husband and Mata

What I didn’t realize when I began this journey was that adoption was so much more than just these things. I didn’t expect it to be all sunshine and rainbows, but neither did I realize the depth of heartache and loss adoption can entail, not only for adoptive parents, but even more so for the adopted children, like the one we were about to meet and welcome into our lives.

RELATED: Kids for sale: ‘My mom was tricked’

Adam and I thoroughly researched at each step of the process in the hopes of ensuring a proper and ethical adoption. You see, we were already parents to four biological children, so this was not about “having another child” or simply “growing our family.” For us, adopting was about sharing our abundance – our family, love and home with a child who lacked these basic necessities.

Not one part of this process was easy – even the decision to adopt internationally. We knew that there were American children, as well as children all over the world, in need of what we could offer. We eventually concluded (based on what we now see as a form of propaganda) that the greatest need was in many of the poorest countries.

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Mata gets ready to return home to Uganda.
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I remember reading that there are almost 3 million orphans in Uganda, and with that statistic in mind (and a bit more research), in October of 2013 we began the journey to adopt from there. We did piles of paperwork, got countless sets of fingerprints and spent tens of thousands of dollars. It took a little over a year to get through all the formalities, but I was driven to get to the best part of this process, meeting the needs of a child.

Eventually we got to that point. In 2015, we welcomed a beautiful, strong and brave 6-year-old girl named Namata into our home. There is no one blueprint when it comes to adoption, but I attempted to do my homework as thoroughly as any adoptive parent could – still, nothing could’ve prepared me for what happened next.

It took a little over a year and a half to realize the things “our” child was telling us were not adding up to the stories told within the paperwork and provided to us by our adoption agency, European Adoption Consultants, Inc.

(In December, the US State Department debarred the agency for three years, meaning it could no longer place children in homes. The State Department said it found “evidence of a pattern of serious, willful or grossly negligent failure to comply with the standards and of aggravating circumstances indicating that continued accreditation of EAC would not be in the best interests of the children and families concerned.”)

At first I wondered if the conflicting information Namata was sharing with us reflected her efforts to cope with the trauma of being relinquished and abused. But I came to realize that she was telling me something vastly different – and vastly more important.

At many points during that year and half, I had to suppress the compulsion to view the things she was telling me through my own lens, as all too often that lens is clouded by one’s own privilege and experiences. It was when I began to listen with this openness that I realized what she was so desperately trying to get me to understand.

The child we had struggled for years to adopt was not an orphan at all, and almost everything that was written in her paperwork and told to us about her background was not an accurate description of her life in Uganda.

More than that, we eventually uncovered that she had a very loving family from which she had been unlawfully taken, in order (we believe and are convinced) to provide an “orphan” to fulfill our application to adopt.

Devastated doesn’t even begin to explain what we felt once we realized what had transpired to bring Namata into our family. Namata’s mother was told only that Adam and I were going to care for her child while we provided her with an education, which is a central pathway to empowerment and opportunity in Uganda.

So when this supposed chance to be sponsored by a “wealthy” American couple was presented to her, she felt as if she and her daughter had been blessed. She never knowingly relinquished her rights as Namata’s mother, but once there was a verbal confirmation that we would adopt Namata, those on the ground in Uganda forged paperwork and placed Mata in an orphanage.

By the time Mata’s mother realized what was happening, that she was never going to see her child again, she was powerless to stop the wheels that were turning. After many months of uncovering the details in our case, I have also come to realize Mata’s mother’s experience is not uncommon within international adoption.

There are villages in Uganda and across the world where mothers, fathers, siblings and grandparents are desperate to be reunited with the children who were unlawfully separated from them through international adoption. It has been heartbreaking for me to realize that so beautiful and pure an act can be tainted with such evil. But as with so many beautiful things in this world, corruption and greed are a reality – one we can’t simply ignore.

International adoption must be reformed. Adopting parents and the governments involved in this process cannot plead ignorance anymore.