An American couple moved to Uganda to become foster parents. They could now face death in a child torture case


In 2017 Nicholas and Mackenzie Spencer, both 32, left their lives in Washington DC and moved to Uganda.

Mr Spencer, then a congressman, and his wife, a former health care consultant, left their jobs in America to become adoptive parents and begin their “humanitarian work” in the East African country.

Five years later, they would make international headlines – not for their activism – but for their arrest on charges of aggravated torture and aggravated child trafficking. The couple, currently being held in a Ugandan maximum-security prison, are accused of subjecting their adopted 10-year-old child to cruel punishment on the grounds that he was “stubborn, hyperactive and mentally unstable”, according to Ugandan police.

Ugandan prosecutors said the Spencers deprived the boy, who is believed to be HIV-positive, of clothing, education, hot food and a bed. Authorities added that the adoptive parents, who initially retained custody of the children in the town of Jinja before moving to the capital, had kept the boy by “abuse of a position of vulnerability for the purpose of exploitation. “. Daily monitor reports.

If convicted of child trafficking, the couple could face the death penalty, the district attorney said during a hearing on Wednesday. A lawyer for the couple dismissed the charges, telling local media the case was a “fishing expedition” by prosecutors, according to Reuters.

The alleged torture

The Spencers, from South Carolina, have been held in Luzira prison since December 9, after a housekeeper alerted authorities to allegations of torture taking place in their home.

“I wanted to quit work, but I knew that if I left without doing anything, the torture would continue,” the woman told the Monitor on condition of anonymity.

She claimed the Spencers only punished the 10-year-old boy for being “stubborn and hyperactive…[and] Mentally unstable.”

The victim’s neighbors and teachers have since come forward with similar allegations of child torture, Ugandan police said in a statement.

According to authorities, investigators found that the Spencers kept the boy barefoot and bare throughout the day and “sometimes made him squat in an awkward position with his head turned to the ground and his hands spread wide apart.”

The boy was reportedly forced to sleep on a wooden platform, without a mattress, and “he was served cold meals from the refrigerator”.

Filings Obtained by the Monitor claim that a camera was placed inside the room where the boy was being held in order to monitor his movements.

The outlet also reported that the victim was forced to stay home and not attend school for four months. According to police, he was a student at Dawn’s Children’s Center in Ntinda, a division of Kampala.

The alleged abuse took place between 2020 and the Spencers’ arrest earlier this month, police said.

The Spencers, from South Carolina, have been held in Luzira prison since December 9 (Reuters)

The Spencers, from South Carolina, have been held in Luzira prison since December 9 (Reuters)

A host family

When the young couple moved to Uganda in 2017, Mr. Specer first worked as a supply chain manager at AKOLA Project, a jewelry company in Jinja, a town in southern Uganda.

In Washington, he had worked as a press and legislative aide for a congressman, according to his LinkedIn.

A year after the Spencers moved, they began to take in three children from the foster ministry before moving to Kampala, the capital.

But in 2019 Ms Spencer, who is believed to be suffering from a debilitating condition that affects her joints and spine, had to travel to the US to have surgery for her health issues.

The disease previously affected Ms Spencer’s mobility before life-saving surgery when she was 18, according to a Washington Post report from 2014. She then graduated from the University of South Carolina upstate and was hired as a health care consultant in DC, according to the report.

Seven spine surgeries later and while she was living in Uganda as a new adoptive mother, the disease returned, Ms Spencer wrote in a GoFundMe to raise money for her medical bills. Back in the US for another operation, Ms Spencer wrote about the challenge of being separated from her family and how technology had helped them.

“Nick and the kids are doing very well and have great support from our Ugandan family,” she wrote in the fundraiser description. “We are very grateful for the technology that allows us to video chat twice a day. It has been incredibly helpful for all of our hearts during this difficult time!

Ms Spencer raised nearly $5,000 on the page and also welcomed donations to her Target and Amazon records for “items we need to bring back with us, including items for kids, home, personal care and other items that we do not have access to in Uganda. .”

A friend of hers, she writes, also organized an “adoption shower”.

After Mrs. Spencer returned to Uganda, her husband took a job with a design services firm as a market leader.

The Spencers in court on Wednesday (Reuters)

The Spencers in court on Wednesday (Reuters)

Accusations of torture and child trafficking

Following the arrests, Ugandan police reminded local authorities to closely monitor adoptive parents in the area, saying the alleged torture against the victim could have been avoided.

“We would like to thank the neighbours, the teachers and the victim, for taking the courage to stand up against the acts of torture of children,” the statement said. “We also call on all probation offices and social workers to continuously monitor the well-being of children placed in foster homes, to guard against the handing over of vulnerable children to abusive adoptive parents or other forms of harm.”

On Wednesday, the Spencers were charged with aggravated child trafficking, a felony that carries a maximum death penalty.

They were not allowed to enter a plea because their case can only be heard by the High Court, prosecutors told Reuters.

The children are currently in a temporary foster home pending final placement.

It is unclear what legal representation the Spencers have retained. The Independent has contacted the US Embassy in Uganda for comment.

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