American mother caught in Pakistani child trafficking nightmare

What would you do for a child you didn’t even know?

By Nicholas Nehamas

Nancy hugs Marina at an orphanage in Islamabad. (Nancy Baney)

When Nancy Baney arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad on October 14th, 2009, she thought she was there for a routine meeting to finalize the adoption of a Pakistani baby, Marina Grace.

Instead, police officers took Marina away and arrested the owner of the local adoption agency that had brought Nancy and the three-month-old girl together.

As it turned out, Marina’s birth certificate and her mother’s death certificate had been forged by the agency, Global Adoption Services. Police accused the man who ran it, Sadeem Shargeel, of child trafficking.

“I was stunned,” says Baney. “Here I am, a normal, middle-class person from Oklahoma. I haven’t gotten a speeding ticket in the last 15 years, and now I’m thrown into this very serious child trafficking situation.”

According to Pakistani law, only orphans and legally abandoned children can be adopted or, technically, taken under the guardianship of new parents, since Islamic law does not recognize full adoption. But Marina’s birth parents — members of Pakistan’s Christian minority — were alive and it’s not clear if they gave her up legally.

“The police told me I had 30 minutes with Marina,” says Nancy, who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “That’s when I crumbled. I fell to my knees and cried . . . I fed her a bottle and changed her diaper and I rocked her to sleep. Then a woman took her out of my arms and took her away.”

Nancy says embassy staff hustled her onto a plane to America before Pakistan could issue a warrant for her arrest too. It was the last time she would see Marina for nearly two years.

The wild west of adoption

Not many Pakistani children are adopted by Americans — only 404 in the last 15 years — but Marina’s case reveals wider problems in parts of the adoption industry where fly-by-night operators can take advantage of trusting parents.

One of the biggest problems is Pakistan hasn’t yet signed the Hague Convention, a global treaty that regulates inter-country adoption. That means American parents are on their own when they try to adopt Pakistani children.

Under the Hague Convention, says Irene Steffas, a lawyer from Georgia who specializes in international adoption, foreign countries must provide parents with the information they need to conduct a legal adoption.

“With Hague adoption,” Steffas explains, “there is a point person, a bureaucrat, who can tell you, ‘What is the law? Is this legal?’ That’s a big advantage: accountability, knowing who to go to. The process is more rigorous. When you’re dealing with a non-Hague country, it’s not as clear.”

And a lack of accountability can be dangerous in countries like Pakistan where child trafficking is a “serious problem,” according to Izmiat Ahmed, who works for the Pakistani children’s charity SPARC. Ahmed says that parents sometimes sell their children to strangers because they need money, and the government hasn’t done a good job of combating the problem.

An under-regulated industry?

When Nancy decided to adopt in 2008, she turned to Lighthouse Adoptions, a small agency in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Friends spoke highly of Lighthouse. In the adoption world, that’s pretty much the best reference you can get.

“It’s not like there’s a ‘better business bureau,’” Nancy explains. “An agency can be great one year and then within a few months something catastrophic can happen and the parent might not know that.”

Marina Grace smiles for the camera. (Nancy Baney)

Nancy had adopted her first child, Nicholas, from Russia in 2004. But Lorien Wenger, Lighthouse’s owner, suggested Pakistan would be less expensive and more straightforward than Russia, where tensions with the U.S. over adoption were running high. Lighthouse had no boots-on-the-ground in Pakistan, so Lorien told Nancy she would have to work with a local agency or “facilitator.”

That turned out to be Sadeem Shargeel.

“Lighthouse absolutely did its due diligence, the same due diligence I’ve done on our Russian programs,” Lorien explains. “What would have happened if I had traveled to Pakistan and met Sadeem? Would I have been able to tell his faults just by meeting him? Would you? Absolutely not.”

But a State Department official not authorized to talk on the record says agencies should “meet [their facilitators] and run an in-person check. Ideally, they should have someone on the ground who can monitor their activities . . . If there is no monitoring, that’s when things can quickly get out of hand.”

Nancy is now suing Lighthouse for failing to properly vet Sadeem.

The potential dangers of non-Hague adoption aren’t a niche issue. Last year, over 4,000 children were adopted from Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea and Ukraine, the most popular non-Hague destinations for American parents. Congress is currently considering a bipartisan bill that would compel agencies working in non-Hague countries to gain Hague accreditation through the State Department.

In a statement to Latitude News, Sen. John Kerry, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, called the legislation a “common sense reform that improves the integrity of the international adoption process.”

Irene Steffas, the adoption lawyer, isn’t so sure. “Going through the process of accreditation is an excellent thing,” she says. “But do I think that in and of itself [this bill] will prevent fraud internationally? No.”

Lorien has since eliminated her Pakistani adoption program.

A long flight home

After Nancy returned to the U.S. without the daughter she had been promised, it took several months for Pakistani authorities to clear her of involvement in child trafficking.

In the meantime, the police had placed Marina in an orphanage in Islamabad.

Nancy, who is Christian, says she never gave up hope of being reunited: “My faith told me, this is a child that needs you. She needs somebody to advocate for her. And you can’t just leave her behind. I didn’t know where she would take me, but I said, ‘Okay, God, you’ve called me for a reason.’”

The life Marina might have had: girls eat at an orphanage in Pakistan. (Reuters)

In January 2011, she returned to Islamabad.

“Marina was extremely malnourished, very sick,” Nancy remembers. “She had a 104 degree temperature . . .and horrible scarring on her legs, so bad I thought she had been burned.”

It turned out to be scabies. Doctors also diagnosed Marina with hydrocephalus, a dangerous condition that causes swelling of the brain. Nancy, desperate to get Marina better medical care in America, received legal guardianship from a Pakistani court on January 19th.

Meanwhile, after 12 months on trial for child trafficking, Sadeem Shargeel was released without being convicted — even though his agency, Global Adoption Services, had forged Marina’s documentation. In an e-mail to Lorien Wenger, Sadeem said an associate fabricated the paperwork without his knowledge.

Pakistan’s Federal Investigative Agency, the country’s equivalent of the FBI, had arrested Sadeem and brought the charges against him. But Naveed Tareen, Deputy Director of the FIA, tells Latitude News that a court found Marina’s birth parents “willingly handed over Marina to Sadeem without any monetary benefits.”

On the Internet, Sadeem still claims  to run an adoption service and an orphanage for Christian children in Faisalabad (in Pakistan, non-Muslims are not allowed to adopt Muslim children). He did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Barred from the U.S.

Once she became Marina’s legal guardian in January, 2011, Nancy assumed her long nightmare was over. Coming home would be easy.

It was anything but.

First it took 18 hearings for a Pakistani court to amend Marina’s guardianship order to the satisfaction of American immigration law. Then the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) denied Marina permission to immigrate to America. Nancy’s appeal of that decision was rejected too.

“Dealing with the U.S. government was a test of perseverance,” Nancy says. “I learned a lot about our government and it scares me as an American citizen because they can really tie you up for no reason.”

The USCIS does not comment on individual cases. But a USCIS document obtained by Latitude News suggests the U.S. was not satisfied that Marina met the legal definition of an orphan. The agency ruled that “a relinquishment or release by the parents . . . for a specific adoption does not constitute abandonment” under American law.

In other words, USCIS was worried that Marina’s parents had given her directly to Nancy instead of first placing her in an orphanage, as required by law. Nancy says she hired a team of Pakistani barristers to make sure Marina’s parents legally vacated their parental rights.

“I was not in it to take a child away from their parents,” Nancy says. “They gave Marina up to the orphanage.”

While all this was going on, Nancy came back to America just once, visiting her son for Christmas. She also lost her job in Tulsa, having spent a total of 16 months in Pakistan. Nancy’s mother and cousin took care of Nicholas in her absence. She and her son Skyped twice a day, but it wasn’t easy on the boy, who turns 10 in December.

“I had a really hard time being away from him,” Nancy says, “but for him it was even worse. So much worse. The physical absence of a parent is huge on a young child.”

Back in Islamabad, Nancy despaired. Pakistan was happy to let Marina leave — but the U.S. didn’t want to take her.

Marina’s last chance

Then, in September 2011, one of Nancy’s American lawyers recommended applying for a “humanitarian parole” on medical grounds for Marina. According to the USCIS, humanitarian paroles are “for use in emergency situations and allow temporary residence here for someone who wouldn’t normally be admitted to the U.S.”

The Baney family, together again, home at last. (Nancy Baney)

This April, the application was approved. On May 21st, Nancy and Marina finally came home to Tulsa. Now Nancy is applying to adopt Marina officially. She expects to have a court date in January or February.

“Out of all us,” Nancy says, “she’s doing the best, just being a happy little toddler. After we got her healthy, she flourished.”

If the court denies the adoption request, Marina — who’s now three years old — will have to leave the country.

Nancy isn’t worried.

“I know we’re only half-way there,” she says, “but I’d do anything for Marina. She’s my daughter.”