Illinois-Based Charity Targeted in Lawsuit Alleging Orphanage Trafficking in Kenya

CHICAGO–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Today an Illinois-based charity was sued under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, claiming the non-profit, First Love International Ministries, and its partner, Loving InDeed, stripped Kenyan children from or failed to return them to their homes to create “profit orphanages,” designed to attract donations from well-meaning contributors and donors in the United States.

“Not only does First Love cast itself as a savior of children while actively removing them from their families and communities, it simultaneously defrauds innocent donors and volunteers who think they’re helping children in need.”

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“In Kenya, these orphanages are referred to as Charitable Children’s Institutions or children’s homes,” said Elizabeth Fegan, founding partner and managing member of FeganScott. “In reality, some of these are nothing more than for-profit orphanages that exploit the growing voluntourism industry by falsifying the identities of children, claiming the children have no living family members, and taking advantage of well-meaning donors.”

The complaint alleges that First Love built a rich but deceptive tapestry of children in need, claiming Kenyan children are in hopeless situations and have been “orphaned through AIDS, disease, violence, or simply been abandoned by their parents.” However, according to the complaint, First Love utilizes a practice condemned as orphanage trafficking, where recruiters target poor Kenyan families, offering their children a better life, when in fact, the children are worse off.

First Love and its network of similar corporations, such as Loving InDeed and other children’s homes, keep the children at their homes for years without promoting or ensuring family reunification. They then use the children’s likenesses and presence to increase donations from churches and donors.

“Despite the fact that many of these children have one or both living parents or extended family members, the children are instructed to claim they are orphans when interacting with the revolving door of tourist volunteers, ostensibly to make the volunteers more willing to contribute to the profit orphanage,” Fegan added.

According to the complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, once the children reach 18 years of age, they are expelled from the orphanage, often without any attempt to reunite them with their families and without the skills necessary to integrate back into society.

“The extent to which the defendants utilize the symbolism and tenets of Christianity to hide their malicious intent is hypocritical at best and downright criminal at worst,” said Fegan. “Not only does First Love cast itself as a savior of children while actively removing them from their families and communities, it simultaneously defrauds innocent donors and volunteers who think they’re helping children in need.”

In the United States and across international borders, the institutionalization of children has almost completely stopped. In fact, it is universally recognized that the placement of children in institutions should only occur as a last result, and then, only on a temporary, short-term basis.

“The Kenyan government has been leading the way in making important reforms for children, which includes strengthening families and preventing separation, as well as increasing the availability of family-based alternatives to orphanages and decreasing the reliance on institutional care,” said Michelle Oliel, executive director and co-founder of the Stahili Foundation, a non-profit that combats child exploitation and poverty in Kenya. “But organizations like First Love continue to find ways to subvert the important work of the government, violate laws, and cause undue harm to children and donors.”

Despite this international consensus, according to the complaint, First Love continued to traffic children, using various illicit methods to obfuscate the truth and otherwise demand the children perform for American voluntourists. In addition to these violations, the suit notes that First Love used financial and material poverty as justification for the removal of children from parental or family care, often exploiting them by forcing them to lie to voluntourists and exposing them to short, emotionally traumatic visits, which can further exacerbate the children’s trauma.

“First Love actively coordinated an elaborate network of self-fed organizations with the explicit intent to deceive donors and raise millions of dollars for their own enterprise,” Fegan said. “The organization is focused on utilizing children as pawns in an ill-gotten scheme of their own design—ultimately preying on the good intentions of American donors.”

When the plaintiff, a long-term donor and voluntourist who donated her services as a social worker to First Love’s children’s homes, initially voiced concerns to First Love about the care of the children and the distribution of funds, the suit alleges that the organization and its board members used intimidation and threats to prevent the plaintiff from sharing her allegations and providing evidence to governmental authorities.

“This whole experience has been devastating, I have always pledged to be of service to those who are most in need, and now I feel betrayed by the very organization that promised to support me,” said Katherine Calavan, the plaintiff in the proposed class action. “As a social worker, this is especially heart-wrenching because personally and professionally, my mission is to advocate for those in need. This suit is giving me and others like me the chance to do the right thing by shedding light on the harm to children from First Love’s practices.”

The suit attempts to hold First Love for RICO Act violations including raising money to enrich themselves or their organization through activities that violate international norms and Kenyan standards, exploiting children, misleading voluntourists and donors, and harassing and threatening class members from reporting or disclosing allegations.

The 70-page document names a number of instances of deceptive and misleading marketing that were developed to target donors, knowing that the monetary support was not helping the children as the donors would have expected.

“The intricacy of First Love’s dishonesty is rooted in its ability to wield Christian values to avoid retribution from donors who caught on — and they’re not alone in manufacturing this kind of deceit,” Fegan said. “This is an unconscionable practice that weaponizes faith and harms people who are truly trying to make a difference in the lives of others – we need to expose the inner workings of this system and demand accountability for those who have been caught in its fraudulent grasp.”

The suit seeks compensation and punitive damages on behalf of all persons who donated money or time to First Love or members of the First Love Solicitation Enterprise. It also seeks to expel and return the defendant’s wrongful profits and revenue.