This section is continued from part three of this story. Please see the link below to read part three.
Lon Kennard stands trial on charges of child rape. Photo courtesy of Chris Detrick/The Salt Lake Tribune.
Difficult to believe
It was difficult for many of the citizens of Kersa Elawa to resolve what they were hearing from Utah about Kennard with the kind man they thought they knew.
“The people here, they all like Lon,” said villager Milkessa Gemedi Sero. “They believe he is a good man. The things they say he has done, these are not expected of a man of his stature, so it is difficult to believe.”
Abero Chala, a government development officer and native of Kersa Elawa said Kennard “was a good man and a good helper. He really did a lot of good things for our community.”
Dureti Hussen thinks Kennard’s crimes are outweighed by the good he did: “Everybody make mistakes… I still love him.”
But Dan Alger, who helped found the Village of Hope’s Foresight program—that helped farmers get more out of their fields—sees Kennard’s philanthropy as simply prelude to his sexual predation. “I don’t doubt where Lon’s head was going,” Alger said.
For a time, Alger said, it wasn’t certain that the program could survive the scandal. And even after it became clear that the Village of Hope would continue its work, the program stopped growing.
“We’re not a good candidate under [the name] Village of Hope to go out and grow this program with new donors, because if you go do a Google search for ‘Village of Hope’ you don’t learn a lot of good stuff about Village of Hope,” Alger said. “You’re more likely to hear about Lon and his activities up in Heber.”
Today, the Village of Hope complex in Kersa Elawa is a ghost of its past. A guard keeps watch over the property. Inside locked gates, a swing set is overgrown with grass. Domed huts, once intended for clinics, protect a recent potato harvest.
And the domed structure in which Kennard often stayed is gone—a large, round imprint in the dirt is the only physical evidence of his presence. But the impact of Kennard’s transgressions don’t end in this small village.
We are placing less children
For the better part of a decade, Ethiopia had been one of the easiest places for American parents to adopt a child from overseas. By the time Kennard was convicted of sexual abuse crimes in the fall of 2011, that had drastically changed.
Standing before 4th District Court Judge Derek Pullan, Kennard—then 70 years old— trembled, sobbed and begged for his family to forgive him. “I need a family,” he cried. “It’s horrible to be without a family.”
At the same time Kennard was begging for mercy, Ethiopian government officials were cracking down on lenient policies that had allowed thousands of fast adoptions.
Now, most families must make multiple trips to Ethiopia to secure their adopted children. The Ministry of Women’s, Children and Youth Affairs has significantly slowed the number of adoption files it reviews each week, adding additional checks to the process.
Most of all, government officials say they have focused support on orphanages that provide long-term care for the nation’s children. Still, most orphanages remain overcrowded. In one government orphanage in Addis Ababa, for instance, babies are crowded into rows and rows of bassinets. The flies are thick in the fetid air. Workers say they try to hold each child a few times a day.
An adoption official from the Women’s Affairs Ministry said her agency fully understands the over-crowded orphanages are not ideal, but abusive adoptive parents like Kennard have left the ministry no choice.
The official said the Kennard matter “was something we were aware of—very much—when it became clear there needed to be changes in the system to protect our children from exploitation and predatory people.”
She described Kennard as “a sick monster.” And, she worried, “There are more.”
Gorfe, the veteran adoption agency official in Addis Ababa, said most of the changes are positive—particularly given that only a very small number of Ethiopia’s children (those who enter the system as relatively healthy infants) stand much of a chance of being adopted out of country.
But the changes also slowed down a system that was, in the overwhelming majority of cases, placing children of great need with families of great means.
“The numbers have gone down over the last three years; definitely we are placing less children then we did,” said Marquita Thompson, an international adoptions coordinator with the Washington state-based Adoption Advocates International.
At one time, her agency was placing about 300 Ethiopian children a year. “And I think last year we placed 106,” she said.
Among the changes, the Women’s Affairs Ministry has made a cutback on the number of children any family may adopt. “They think large families aren’t good,” Thompson said, relating a recent conversation she had with an official from the women’s ministry. “Maybe they don’t have enough energy for each child or enough attention.” Or maybe, she said, it’s because “some of the bigger child abuse cases that they’ve seen have been in larger families.”
Who I Really Am
It’s either the depth of his denial, or the boundlessness of his hopes, but Kennard believes he will someday return to Ethiopia.
Told of the admiration many people in Kersa Elawa still express for him, Kennard’s eyes become distant. “That is because they know who I really am.”
Kennard also says the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, when it considers his case years from now, will recognize his actions in Ethiopia were humanitarian, not predatory.
But he will never convince Jensen, his daughter.
“My father was always looking for more compliant victims,” she says. “He was a coward and he was looking for the most powerless people he could to manipulate and abuse. And one day he realized there was a place a long way from here where he could have exactly what he wanted—and that they would welcome him with open hearts.” And so, in a land of hunger, disease and anguish, a story is told of a man who came to a place of despair and created a village of hope.
A good man. An honest man. A hero. A saint.
And, like many stories in that land, Jensen says, it is nothing more than a myth.
Matthew D. LaPlante is an assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University, where Mackinzie Hamilton is an undergraduate student in the Department of Journalism and Communication. This article was reported during trips to Ethiopia in 2011 and 2012