By Tom Esslemont
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Emily and Matt Knudsen began the lengthy process of adopting a child from Africa, they believed they would be saving an orphan in distress.
"Our biggest desire was to meet a need, to adopt a child who truly had no other options," said Emily, at the family's home near San Francisco, California.
Motivated by their Christian faith, the couple signed up with one of more than 200 adoption agencies specializing in matching Americans with children in developing countries.
The agency, Little Miracles, told them about Uganda, where faith-based orphanages and child care institutions have proliferated amid rampant poverty.
The agency, which says it has carried out 31 successful international adoptions of Ugandan children, presented the couple with opportunities to help African children orphaned by, and infected with, HIV.
"We prayed and researched what we thought we could handle and what kind of special needs we thought we were equipped to care for," said full-time mother Emily, 33.
"After lots of research we knew how manageable HIV could be - especially in the U.S." she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.
However, after receiving details about the first child from the agency, the Knudsens quickly became skeptical.
"We ultimately had to say no to [the first] referral, [a baby girl] because we didn't seem to think the information we got matched up," Emily said.
The couple also had to decline the second child they were offered because a member of the child's biological family in Uganda came forward to protest.
The third referral the Knudsens were matched with was a 2-year-old HIV-positive boy, who was in a children's home.
"We were told that he was from a part of the country that was hard to travel to, that his family was poor and could not afford to care for [the boy]," said Emily.
In its response, Little Miracles (LMI) denied the allegations, adding that client confidentiality prevented it from discussing the details of specific cases.
"The first child referred to [the Knudsens] was successfully and without issue adopted subsequently by [another] family," said Lori Scott, executive director of Little Miracles.
Little Miracles said it was unable to disclose the details of the second case, adding it had provided the Knudsens with full information.
After signing the contract with the agency for the third attempt to adopt, the Knudsens said they paid $15,000 in adoption fees. As they received more information about the boy's background, they detected inconsistencies.
"This is false," said Little Miracles' Scott, adding that the agency had a record of the payments it received. "We do not know where this number originates but this is absolutely not the amount paid to LMI for services," she said.
"Many facts presented by the agency differed from what ended up being true, the most important one being that the boy's mother actually, desperately, wanted to keep her son," Emily Knudsen said.
"The biggest thing that got our wheels turning was when [the agency] told us that 'for reasons they couldn't get into' our adoption process was going to be on hold for a while," she said.
"[Little Miracles] told us they had hit some road blocks. When I asked further questions they wouldn't give any straight answers," said Emily Knudsen.
Scott denied the adoption was ever put 'on hold' and said all queries raised by the family were documented and answered.
"The child was no longer eligible for placement, due to circumstances we cannot discuss due to confidentiality," she said.
"We have no context as to what the family is referencing here. We had regular, documented communication with the family until they requested to close out their case with LMI," said Scott.
The Knudsens said some of the money they paid went to the lawyer working on behalf of the agency in Uganda.
The lawyer, Dorah Mirembe, "basically took our money and didn't pay us back anything," Emily said.
Mirembe told the Thomson Reuters Foundation she was paid $2,300. "We had done part of our work," she said.
"[Dorah Mirembe] was essentially helping us adopt a child who had been trafficked and should never have been placed for adoption," said Emily.
Disputing this, Scott said "birth parents do have a right to change their mind, within the laws of that country, for whatever reason."
Denying trafficking was an issue in this case, Mirembe said all the paperwork, including a child welfare report, was in place when she met the birth parents of the child.
"I talked to them about the intended placement for their child and explained to them the implications of legal guardianship," she said, adding this was a mandatory procedure.
"This particular family (mother and father) seemed to know the implications of the intended placement," said Mirembe.
At this stage the Knudsens decided they couldn't continue with the adoption process and hired an investigator in Uganda to help reunite the boy with his biological mother.
"Of course, the agency was livid. They threatened us, telling us they wouldn't work with us any more and wouldn't pay us back any of our fees," Emily said.
Scott said Little Miracles' documentation does not show that it was 'livid' about the Knudsens' withdrawal.
"We received an email with their decision, we confirmed receipt of their email, and wrote back that we would close out their case," said Scott.
The Knudsens said Little Miracles mainly communicated with them by phone.
The family, who have four children, two of whom are adopted from Guatemala, said they have learned much with the benefit of hindsight.
"At the end of the day adoption is a lucrative business," said Emily Knudsen.
"It is sad that people have corrupted the adoption world and made it all about themselves," she said.
Scott said families are informed of the risks involved in adoption. "If a biological relative ... makes a decision that they no longer wish to continue an adoption plan for their child, this will take precedence over the adoption process," she added.
Emily and Matt Knudsen said they continue to support the Ugandan boy and his mother. They say there needs to be more emphasis on assisting families, rather than intercountry adoption.
"There are many families who even act in God's name ... who want that cute little black baby, even at the expense of tearing a birth family apart," Emily said.
"That's why I think there needs to be greater checks and balances. I would never want this to happen to another family - neither the one adopting nor the birth family," she said.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen and Tim Pearce)