September 6, 2023 –A Kenyan hospital employee who was caught by the BBC selling a baby on the black market has been convicted of child trafficking.
Fred Leparan, who worked at Nairobi’s Mama Lucy Kibaki hospital, was filmed accepting $2,500 (£2,000) to sell a baby boy under the hospital’s care.
He was arrested in 2020 following a BBC Africa Eye investigation.
Leparan was charged alongside another hospital employee, Selina Awour, with child theft.
Awuor was convicted of three counts of child neglect but was acquitted of child trafficking.
The pair will be sentenced on 26 September.
An Africa Eye reporter initially approached Leparan posing as a potential buyer, after hearing from a source that the senior clinical social worker was involved in illegal child trafficking from the government-run hospital.
A meeting was arranged at the hospital, where Leparan asked the undercover reporter, who said she and her husband had struggled to conceive, only cursory questions about their situation before agreeing to sell the baby boy.
On the day the baby boy was supposed to be transferred from the hospital to a government-run children’s home, along with two other children, Leparan was filmed falsifying the transfer paperwork so that the home would expect two children rather than three.
The BBC team ensured that all three children were delivered directly to the children’s home, but filmed Leparan amending the paperwork and informing them that the child was now theirs to take away.
Despite the evidence against him, the case dragged on for more than two years. Leparan was able to retain one of the best legal defences in Kenya, but his witness testimony on the stand was inconsistent and evasive.
Forced to acknowledge that it was him in the undercover footage, he attempted to claim the voice belonged to someone else, even as his mouth moved along with the words. Later, he admitted some of the words were his own.
Leparan also claimed that he did not recognise various parts of the hospital where he had worked for three years, as footage was shown to the court of Leparan secretly arranging the theft and transfer of the baby boy.
The BBC investigation captured the illegal sale of one child from Mama Lucy, but a former employee who spoke to Africa Eye on condition of anonymity said that he was aware of 12 children under the care of the hospital who went missing in just two months.
“So many people are corrupt. Once they are given something small they keep quiet and never talk,” he said, referring to bribes given to staff.
Demand for stolen children remains significant in Kenya, driven by a cultural stigma around infertility and adoption as well as an unwieldy legal adoption process.
The hospital scam operated by Leparan represents only one aspect of this complex problem. Africa Eye also filmed traffickers arranging the purchase and sale of babies in illegal street clinics, and the brazen theft and sale of babies from vulnerable, homeless mothers living on the city’s streets.
Mary Auma, who ran a clinic where vulnerable mothers gave birth and sold their babies to her, so she could sell them on for a profit, disappeared after she was filmed by our undercover team. On a recent return to Nairobi, we found no sign of Auma, and her clinic was shuttered.
But babies are still being stolen in Nairobi. Close to the steps of the shuttered clinic, a woman approached us holding a flyer that bore the picture of her five-year-old granddaughter, Chelsea Akinye.
Chelsea had been snatched from the street a year and six days earlier, said her grandmother, Rosemary. She said she had been searching for Chelsea every day since, posting her flyers around the neighbourhood and beyond.
She described the five-year-old as a happy girl and a promising student.
“When she came from school, she would get anyone close to her to help her with homework before she would go out to play,” Rosemary said.
“I have searched for Chelsea all the way to Busia. Since that day, I leave very early in the morning, sometimes at 4am, to search for her.”
Like other parents or grandparents who have been subjected to the terrible ordeal of having a child being snatched, Rosemary sometimes longs for closure in any form.
“I imagine someone would have abandoned her somewhere, or she has been killed and left somewhere. And I go and bury her, and it leaves my heart,” she said.
There are few reliable statistics on the extent of child trafficking in Kenya. According to the country’s Labour and Social Protection Cabinet Secretary Florence Bore, 6,841 children were reported missing between July 2022 and May 2023. Only 1,296 have been reunited with their families.
Mueni Mutisya, from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations Child Trafficking Unit, told the BBC that the unit currently gets on average around five new child abduction cases a week. The majority affect the lowest income families, Ms Mueni said.
The day after our initial investigation was published, in 2020, Kenya’s then minister for labour and social protection, Simon Chelugui pledged tough government action to combat the trade in stolen children, promising that culprits would face “the full force of the law”.
New laws did come into effect last year that strengthened child protections in Kenya, but according to Ms Mueni more still needs to be done. She called for new laws that would oblige members of the public to report suspicions that a child may have been abused or abducted.
“Let us have a common goal of protecting children,” she said.
The most vulnerable children are still those being raised by the poorest families, according to Maryana Munyendo, the head of charity Missing Child Kenya, which operates a toll-free line for people to report abductions.
“Within Nairobi, we still get a lot of cases from the slum areas,” Ms Munyendo said. She said her phone line still received three missing child reports every day on average.