An American couple living in Uganda since 2017 are facing the death penalty for alleged aggravated torture and trafficking one of their three foster children, according to multiple press reports.
Nicholas Spencer and Macenzie Leigh Mathias Spencer were taken into custody in Kampala on Dec. 9 after neighbors and a domestic worker sounded the alarm about the alleged abuse of their 10-year-old special needs foster son.
A court on Wednesday denied bail and heard that the boy, who is HIV positive, had been “constantly tortured” since 2020, allegedly forced to pose in “awkward positions” with his legs spread apart facing the floor.
A worker in the home also told police that the boy was kept naked and forced to eat only “cold food” from the fridge while the other children were served hot meals.
The couple’s lawyer Leila Saaliwulide denied the charges on behalf of the couple Wednesday, saying the charges amount to a “fishing expedition.” Also Wednesday, the couple was additionally charged with child trafficking, though details are scarce on what that means under Uganda law.
The worker also told investigators about a surveillance system that appears to be more sophisticated than a standard baby monitor, to watch the child. Police say they found CCTV footage that confirms the alleged abuse.
“Our team of investigators established that the couple kept the victim barefoot and naked throughout the day, would occasionally make him squat in an awkward position, with his head facing the floor and hands spread out widely, he spent his nights on a wooden platform, without a mattress or bedding and was served cold meals from the fridge,” the police statement said, according to the local newspaper Monitor. “We believe the victim could have endured more severe acts of torture, away from the camera.”
Spencer works for the NGO MOTIV Uganda and his wife worked with him, though she listed her occupation on social media as “empowering women.”
In 2019, she raised nearly $5,000 of a requested $35,000 for back surgery through a GoFundMe page in which she lists her hometown as Spartanburg, South Carolina.
“I moved to East Africa nearly 3 years ago with my husband, Nick, and we have been doing humanitarian work focused on women’s empowerment and education,” she wrote in the plea for funds. “We are also foster parents to 3 incredible children. Because we live abroad, we do not have health insurance in the US which means every medical expense for this surgery must be paid out of pocket.”
Investigators told the court that they had other reports of foster parents abusing local children and urged social workers to monitor foster families. “What happened to the victim in the last couple of years probably could have been prevented, if they had closely monitored the well-being of the foster children,” a police statement read in court stated.
Presiding Grade One Magistrate Sarah Tusiime Bashaija denied the couple bail on Wednesday, rejecting pleas by their lawyer that they needed special care—presumably for Mrs. Spencer’s back problems—that could not be provided in the Uganda prison system.
Bashaija quoted a caregiver who worked for the couple. “I wanted to leave the job, but I knew if I left without doing something about it, the torture would continue,” she said, according to local media. The caregiver added that they only abused the 10-year-old boy, who they believed was “stubborn and hyperactive” and “mentally unstable.”
It is unclear when the couple will appear next in court.