Guatemala may re-open stalled foreign adoptions as poverty stakes remain high

Christa Hillstrom – WNN Features

Guatemalan mother and child in the city of Antigua
A grandmother and child walk outside the San Francisco Church in the city of Antigua, Guatemala June 1, 2006. Women suffering under extreme poverty are often those who are the most vulnerable to infant kidnapping in cases where children disappear with little legal recourse. Journalist Erin Siegal's book "Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross Border Search for Truth" Image: Cathy Stanley-Erickson

WNN story update May 2012: As worry for some mothers in Guatemala might be increasing, permissions for stalled U.S. adoptions, filed before 2007, are moving to re-open up again in the country. Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina made a recent April 5, 2012 promise to work to “speed up” cases that have been legally blocked on what may count as 350 stalled cases of U.S. adoption.

(WNN/HG) Guatemala City, GUATEMALA: On September 7, 2006, Mildred Alvarado woke up in Guatemala City, disoriented after an impromptu operation the night before: “The walls were pale blue, and morning light filtered in through a set of blinds. Her head pounded as she tried to lift her chin. It was the medical clinic; she was in a hospital room. A sharp pain spidered across her waistline. Glancing down, she realized she was no longer pregnant. Surgical tape bound her hands and feet to the bed frame. ‘What’s going on?’ she called out weakly as a nurse in blue limped past. ‘Where’s my baby?’”

It’s a question that Mildred, and countless other mothers throughout Guatemala, ask throughout the pages of photojournalist and investigative reporter Erin Siegal’s remarkable first book, Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth. Mildred asked doctors, lawyers, government officials, the media, NGOs, and even the black market “baby launderers” who first befriended her and then kidnapped two of her children–one straight from the womb–attempting to sell them on the international adoption market. Answers would come, but not before the story exposed a troubling underside to the bright and booming adoption system that brought thousands of children to U.S. homes over the last three decades–until adoptions were closed in late 2007 when Guatemala’s ratification of the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption went into effect.

With both compassion and discernment toward a highly controversial topic, Siegal fuses the dramatic tension of a novel with thorough investigative research on the crime and corruption that long proliferated the relationship between Guatemala and the United States in relation to adoption.  She tracks the converging narratives of Mildred, distraught in her search for daughters Maria Fernanda and Ana Cristina, and Tennessee mother Betsy Emanuel, whose quest to adopt Fernanda brought on surprising twists that would eventually lead her to help recover both girls. Both women would bump up against frustrating bureaucracies, ineffective regulation, gross negligence and straight-up corruption from the Florida agency that facilitated Fernanda’s attempted adoption, right down to the doctors, lawyers, and criminal child recruiters involved in her kidnapping.

By the mid-2000′s–between 2003 and 2008–a full 20 percent of the 100,000 children adopted into the United States came from Guatemala. The swiftness of the process here and its proximity to the U.S. encouraged  prospective parents to look to the small Central American nation as an attractive source country for children. As other countries like Nepal and Vietnam gradually closed their borders due to an inability to properly monitor the process, interest in Guatemala grew. Though plenty of U.S. families have raised happy Guatemalan children who were orphaned or, more commonly, relinquished–voluntarily given up for adoption by their birth mothers—a lack of transparency throughout the procurement line has raised questions about how–and why–adoption has been practiced.

Typically American agencies contracted private Guatemalan lawyers who were paid considerable fees to facilitate the process on the ground–from the paperwork ensuring a mother’s willingness to give up her child, to the DNA tests confirming she was actually the birth mother. The problem was not that there was no system, but that the system lacked appropriate safeguards against those who would, of course, abuse it to get at the large sums of money propping it up.

The spike in adoptions in the 1990s meant a staggering inflow of cash to a tiny country still healing from decades of gruesome civil war. As in other globalized trades and regions where trafficking has become endemic, lax enforcement of existing regulations, extreme poverty–especially in rural areas–and a complicated, opaque procurement process inevitably bred fraud.

It is ugly to compare children to exports–tin, diamonds, or other resources plied from the soil, rocks, and forests of the Global South and appropriated for Western markets.  And indeed, the story Siegal tells is different than those from the mines of the Congo or the fields of Uzbekistan. In Siegal’s account, children end up not as slaves but as cherished sons and daughters.

Yet the complexity–and vulnerability–of the U.S./Guatemala system bears similarities to trades often compromised when money from wealthier countries sustains a demand for materials from impoverished, ill-regulated and often war-torn nations. Western money fuels slavery and atrocities in Africa. U.S. drug markets support Latin American cartels that are even now diversifying their criminal portfolios to embrace human trafficking. And for all of the well-intentioned adoptive parents and agencies who work hard to unite legitimately eligible children with loving families, the sheer overall volume of money involved–as high as $50,000 per child, according to a 2009 U.S. Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks–invites corruption in a country where the average annual salary per capita was $2,680 in 2008. Which is why, Siegal concludes, firm regulations are not optional.

The world of international adoption has always occupied a gray area. As long as a much-needed, fair, and functioning system is beyond reach, reality may be grim for some abandoned and orphaned children. Minus a comprehensive overhaul of economic policy, gender inequalities, geo-political meddling, and numerous other poverty-inducing issues that compel Guatemalan families to relinquish their children in the first place (a topic worthy of a whole other book), many children could miss the chance of finding a stable home.

Mildred’s tenacity was finally rewarded when both daughters were restored to her. Even Betsy Emanuel celebrated, in faraway Tennessee where she lives with her eight children–including Emily Belle, the Guatemalan toddler she was able to bring home.

Mildred embraced Fernanda and Ana Cristina on the steps outside the court that returned them to her. Several other mothers, some of them from distant rural villages, looked on supportively and quietly held placards with photos of their own missing children, wondering if their turn would someday come too.

In February 2012 Siegal released The U.S. Embassy Cables: Adoption Fraud in Guatemala to the public–a 700-plus page volume of documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. She received the information three years after filing her request, too late to be included in Finding Fernanda. Instead Siegal offers this second work aimed at policymakers and others interested in U.S. involvement in—and knowledge about—Guatemalan adoptions. “I find it so interesting because it’s such disturbing stuff,” she said, “talking about birth mothers being murdered who are trying to get their babies back … Hopefully it will help policymakers who have a vested interest in understanding the process or why or how corruption persisted.”



Christa Hillstrom: There’s a whole world with many levels–some of them quite shadowy and nefarious, others quite joyful–when it comes to international adoption. Can you give us a glimpse of what this whole intricately linked world looks like?  Where does Guatemala fit into the picture?

Erin Siegal: Guatemala was a place a lot of Americans adopted from because it’s relatively close, and the adoption process there was relatively fast compared to other sending countries. At the industry’s peak, an adoption from start to finish could take as little as four months. That was in part because the system was privatized and it was run by lawyers in Guatemala, and there weren’t a whole lot of checks and balances in place when it came to finding children. That’s problematic in a lot of ways when it comes to corruption, because without safeguards in place nobody knows where children are coming from, and it can be hard to understand that. So in terms of Guatemala being placed internationally as a sending country, it was really popular through the 2000s, out-sending much larger countries like Russia, and even China at one point.

Christa Hillstrom: The media, of course, like to sensationalize stories, and much of the mainstream coverage of this issue has had quite a dramatic flavor—like Dateline‘s “To Catch a Baby Broker.” As an in-depth, investigative reporter wanting to find out what’s really going on, did you approach the topic with some skepticism?

Erin Siegal: I did have a lot of skepticism. One of the reasons I became a journalist was because I am one of those people who’s sort of disillusioned with the media, and I’m drawn to context.  Reading about adoption in Guatemala, there was sensational story after sensational story. But the sensational aspects went both ways—there were the negative stories about kidnapping, and then there were the stories of super happy families adopting with nothing bad happening. There wasn’t a whole lot of gray.

So when I started researching the issue, obviously a certain amount of corruption was in the process. But no one had really figured out how much or the depth of the corruption. And so I knew something had to be there and it was a lofty idea to try to analyze the level, but it also seemed necessary. No government had really done it, and there weren’t any other institutions or organizations working retroactively to do that work.

So I set out thinking, this is going to be a project about legislative efforts to reform the industry, and why reform hasn’t happened. It evolved once I started actually talking to people involved in the industry, talking to adoptive parents, and a whole lot of people just had these very odd experiences. Even people who had had adoptions they thought were clean and simple and easy, there were sort of little red flags that stuck up in the process.

For example, I spoke to one woman who adopted a baby whose name had changed partway through the process, and no one really had an explanation as to why the baby’s name had changed. Some of the documents had one name on them, some of them had another name. And she never looked into it because she was afraid to. She wanted to adopt, and was frankly terrified of finding out if there was something bad that had happened in the case. There are lots of examples like that where people don’t really know if something bad did occur.

Betsy Emanuel’s experience was so compelling and parts of it felt very universal. When I started to corroborate her account and met Mildred Alvarado, the Guatemalan mother, I thought–this deserves a book-length treatment. It’s so compelling as a story, but also, because a lot of the news media will cover corruption in adoption stories after something has happened, but there’s never a lot of context or meaning about how could this happen and why.

Guatemala is not engaged in adoption today. The industry stopped when the country ratified the Hague Convention and there haven’t been any new cases since December 31, 2007. That’s when they closed the doors. When Guatemala stopped sending children, that was an order to set up new safeguards and a better system with better record keeping, and to create a brand new institution that was supposed to oversee all adoptions. Since then, people have asked, when is Guatemala reopening? It could happen today, it could happen next year, it could happen in five years–and it’s been already five years at this point.

Christa Hillstrom: It is, as you say, a gray area. This gets into the quite nuanced and complicated issue of money in adoption. There are insane amounts of money flowing into international adoptions–amounts that become even more inflated when flushed into poor countries like Guatemala. Regardless of the number of people legitimately facilitating with admirable motives, any time you make so much money available in a new way, entrepreneurial criminal networks create ways to get it. You see it all over the world, including here on Wall Street. Why such large amounts of money? And is it possible to regulate it?

Erin Siegal: It’s the old adage, money corrupts people. And it’s so true–when there’s corruption you can trace it back to money. With the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption–the international treaty that sets up guidelines for good practices in adoption for both sending and receiving countries–some of those guidelines do call for greater tracking in terms of money, keeping records of who gets paid what and when, all down the chain of adoptions. That can help.

The U.S. government was concerned about the money in adoption in Guatemala since the industry began in the late 1980s. I filed a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act[ with the [U.S.] State Department, and the over 2,000 documents I got back pretty much lay out the history of the embassy’s worries about fraud in adoption from the 1980s up to 2010. Back in the early 1990s, they were talking about these lawyers, their incentive–their motives for working in adoption is the money. They know they can get rich quick if they do a certain number of adoptions per year. People got paid per child–so the more children they were able to bring through the network, the better. That’s problematic too. The money in adoption is a driver.

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