A South Carolina couple are free after paying a paltry fine in the East African nation of Uganda after being accused of torturing their foster child after he was found to be sleeping on a wooden slab, left to wander around naked and eating only frozen food, authorities said.
Nicholas and Mackenzie Spencer were living close to the Ugandan capital of Kampala when they were first arrested back in December 2022. A nanny who worked for the couple told authorities about how their Ugandan-native foster child was being treated.
The initial charges facing the couple included aggravated child torture and aggravated child trafficking, the latter of which can carry the death penalty in Uganda.
The Spencers were able to come a plea agreement with prosecutors which saw them pay fines amounting to around $28,000 after pleading guilty to child cruelty and degrading treatment charges.
Activist Proscovia Najjumba called the agreement a mockery of justice.
‘How can a couple who admitted to having beaten and mistreated a child, deprived him of food and water and made him stay in a cold room without clothes be given a light sentence, to pay a fine and… to leave?,’ Najjumba told AFP.
Nicholas Spencer and his wife, Mackenzie Leigh Mathias Spencer, sit in the courtroom as the verdict was read out in a Kampala court on Tuesday
Nicholas Spencer, Mackenzie Leigh Mathias Spencer and their foster children. The pair are accused of trafficking and torturing one of the children
The pair also pleaded to breaking Uganda’s visa laws by working and by staying in the country without documentation. They had been living in Africa since 2017.
‘The child was in need of help and support, having lost his father and having been abandoned by his own mother. Unfortunately, the accused persons failed to manage his peculiar behaviors,’ High Court Judge Alice Kyomuhangi said.
Speaking to Reuters, the couple’s lawyer David Mpanga said that his clients were merely trying to discipline and deal with the child who was difficult to manage due to psychological problems.
‘Perhaps they went to fire,’ Mpanga conceded. The attorney cited the pair’s lack of experience as parents as the reason for their missteps. The couple began fostering the child in 2018, a year after moving to the country. In total, they had three children in their care.
Since the arrest of his parents, he has been placed in the care of the state. Around $13,000 of the fines will to go him.
The pair were freed on bail in March with prosecutors at the time accusing them of of having recruited, transported and kept the child through ‘abuse of position of vulnerability for purposes of exploitation.’
The couple were being held in the Luzira maximum security prison.
Mackenzie Spencer was shown to have a leg injury during her appearance in court
The couple’s lawyer, David Mpanga, shown here, told Reuters the boy had psychiatric problems, including aggressive and anti-social behaviour, and that the couple was trying to manage a difficult child
Before moving to Africa, Nicholas worked as a staffer for former Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy
It is unclear what kind of humanitarian roles Mackenzie held. Online, she claimed to be focused on ‘women’s empowerment and education’
The view from the Spencers’ apartment in Kampala, where they fostered three kids. Someone who worked in the home reported them
Before moving to Uganda in 2017, Nicholas worked as an assistant to former Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy.
Gowdy left office in 2019 after representing South Carolina’s 4th congressional district for eight years.
Nicholas worked as a press and legislative assistant for him for six years.
His wife, Mackenzie, claimed in a 2019 GoFundMe that they moved to Africa to focus on ‘women’s empowerment and education’.
‘We are also foster parents to 3 incredible children,’ she wrote in her appeal.
She asked for $28,000 to pay for surgery to her spine, claiming that because she and her husband no longer lived in the US, they were not entitled to medical insurance.
Mackenzie received just less than $5,000 in donations, but claimed online that the hospital agreed to cover her entire ‘$46,000 bill’.
She flew back to Spartanburg, South Carolina, for the surgery, leaving her husband and three foster kids in the US.
Luzira, where the couple were being held, is Uganda’s only maximum security prison, housing both male and female inmates.
It is well known for its competitive football league, where some of the death row inmates play alongside those convicted or accused of lesser crimes.
In 2020, the US government filed criminal charges and imposed economic sanctions against a US-based adoption ring that placed Ugandan children, who weren’t orphans, with families in the United States.