Analysis Human Rights

The Deeply Troubled Past and Present of Inter-country Adoptions from Nations in Conflict and Chaos

Karen Smith Rotabi

Stories abound of children stolen from their families in countries of conflict and chaos. Beware of countries with a history of atrocities and don’t become complicit: The "blinders" are quite profound once you enter the adoption process and become committed to a child.

On July 5, 2012 Argentinean General Jorge Rafael Videla was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his role in crimes against humanity during the “Dirty War,” (1976-1984) including illegal child adoptions. The seven year conflict resulted in the deaths of at least 30,000 people. The grotesque history includes the forcible disappearance of pregnant women who were believed to be political dissidents. Upon giving birth, the mothers were executed and their babies were adopted by families connected to military and government leadership. Many children unknowingly grew up in military families only to later learn the horrifying truth. These children have been called the “living disappeared” and, in time and with the technology of DNA tests, some of these young adults have been reunited with their extended families.

Abuelas of the Plaza Mayo is an activist group of grandmothers (abuelas) who have protested in the Plaza Mayo of Buenos Aires for many years. They have persisted in seeking justice and truth in the names of their children who were executed and their infant grandchildren who disappeared during the conflict. The Abuelas cause is known worldwide for effective and persistent human rights activism; some of the grandmothers are now in their 80s and 90s and they continue to press on for truth and family reunion. Slowly but surely, the grandmothers have not only linked families lost from each other, but they have also advocated for the legal prosecution of war criminals implicated in these crimes. To date, General Rafael Videla is the highest ranking official to finally be sentenced appropriately for role in the atrocities. In fact, symbolically this is a huge win as Rafael Videla was the defacto president of the nation from 1976-1981.

This conviction occurs after a number of legal victories in recent years. In 2008 there was another high profile case in which an adoptee charged her adoptive parents with kidnapping. Maria Eugenia Sampallo’s case against her ‘adoptive parents’ gained international press attention when her ‘parents’ were sentenced to seven-eight years for the illegal adoption. The military officer involved in the case received a ten-year sentence.  To this day, other cases continue to garner attention in the media.

Truth and reconciliation is a complicated matter after mass disappearances. Sadly, El Salvador shares a similar history and the reunification of adopted children with their biological families is ongoing today through the work of Pro-Busqueda, a small non-governmental organization dedicated to search-and-find of the living disappeared children. Some of these children were adopted by families in other countries such as the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. Pro-Busqueda has reunited hundreds of adoptees with their families in El Salvador. Other countries, such as Guatemala, also have a similar history of seeking the truth for children adopted during the war years.

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While there have been celebrations for family reunion, too many families still do not know what became of the living disappeared. However, in Argentina there is cause for a sign of relief as the General spends the rest of his life incarcerated for these crimes.  Now, the question is whether lessons from the past will inform the future of adoption practices in the context of chaos and conflict.

I worry about the Congo where inter-country adoption programs are now beginning to blossom. The bloody conflict in this nation (as well as other conflicts and chaos in Africa) require that adoptions must be processed with the greatest of care. I caution any individual or couple looking to adopt from a conflict or post-conflict nation. The unique dynamics of child sales in Africa are quite complicated — including current problems in Ethiopia. Beware of the history of atrocities and don’t become complicit because the “blinders” are quite profound once you enter the adoption process and become committed to a child. It is quite a difficult scenario.

Other families caught in the middle of adoption fraud have found themselves implicated in unthinkable crimes when they thought they were involved in rescuing a child. This is true for some families who adopted from Cambodia. The problems were so bad there that arrests and convictions of some adoption agency personnel took place in the United States. Prosecutions are a rare occurrence, and this case, entitled “Operation Broken Hearts,” illustrates the risks involved in inter-country adoption from conflict nations.

As recently as 2008, a child left post-conflict Guatemala as an ‘adoptee’ and in 2011 a Guatemalan court has ruled for the return of the child as a victim of abduction for adoption. That case remains in limbo as the U.S. adoptive family refuses to comply with a foreign court order. And, a Guatemalan family desperately awaits the return of their daughter. It is all very sad. Ultimately one can only imagine the pain that this young girl will experience as she becomes of age and learns of her own history of abduction, adoption, and the need for a personal search for the truth. For more about child abduction in Guatemala, see

Commentary Media

‘Philomena,’ A Must-See Film About the Magdalene Laundries and Forced Adoptions

Karen Smith Rotabi

Philomena is another reminder of the vast inequalities between those who adopt children and birth mothers.

Philomena, starring Judi Dench and directed by Stephen Frears, received four Oscar nominations last week. The film is based on a true story chronicled in Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search. Captured is a little known piece of adoption history—the forcible removal of Irish children from their unwed mothers and then adoption by U.S. families. This extraordinary story illustrates the grave injustices of the Magdalene Laundries that were operated under the authority of the Catholic Church. Irish girls and women were forced into slave labor, working long hours cleaning in the laundries. The labor took place in hot, crowded, and generally miserable conditions.

The slavery that took place resulted in a recent legal agreement: The Irish government will now pay €58 million (nearly $79 million) to hundreds of the Magdalene Laundry survivors. Many of the survivors were adolescent girls who were sent to work while pregnant—sent to the Catholic sisters for repentance and remediation. The atrocities were such that Ireland’s prime minister, Enda Kenny, made an emotional apology. “Choking back tears,” he said, “This is a national shame, for which I again say, I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies.” To date, no such apology or financial settlement has yet to be made by the Catholic Church.

As the film adaptation of Philomena documents, the forced labor in the laundries was deemed necessary to pay for room and board as well as other expenses, such as the medical costs of childbirth. Because the documentation was poor and much of it was intentionally destroyed by the guilty nuns—who set fire to some of the records—various facts have been conveniently lost. As a result, the absolute numbers of children sent into illegal adoptions within and from Ireland to the United States and elsewhere is unknown today. However, the evidence is damning, as Magdalene survivors seek justice and document their histories, including their humiliating living conditions. Part of that evidence is being preserved historically while grave markers document the young women who did not survive the harsh treatment of slavery, poor medical care, and heartbreak of forced child removal and adoptions.

Philomena captures how force and fraud interfaced in illicit adoptions from Ireland to the United States, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Spain also has a scandal of child sales into adoption, orchestrated by members of the Catholic Church. Some of these Spanish children were also destined to the United States, and search and reunions are taking place in a handful of cases. In the case of Philomena, the main character’s reunion with her lost son has several twists that create suspense. Then there is the sadness of lost love, and it is undeniable.

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Philomena is another reminder of the vast inequalities between those who adopt children and birth mothers. Globally, this is a largely untold story in which some birth mothers have been exploited for reasons of poverty, social exclusion, and stigma. This has been true in South KoreaIndiaGuatemalaEl Salvador, and elsewhere, using a variety of child abduction techniques, and the consequences have been profound.

As Philomena illustrates, child abduction takes on many forms, and often those involved in the crime present themselves as “saviors” who are above reproach. Almost always those involved in the illicit practices are financially enriched while receiving applause for the “rescue” of a child. All the while, the birth families are left behind mourning for their loss and, in time, many adoptees as well as birth mothers begin a search. In doing so, they risk intensifying the sense of loss, or they may benefit from ultimately “knowing.”

Even if one has not been personally touched by adoption, the story captures the theme of rebirth of the human spirit, contrasted against the entrapments of daily living in which deeper satisfactions are often overlooked. The film also looks at cynicism versus humor; taking a positive approach to living is most certainly a theme of Philomena. While some may dismiss this as just another feel-good movie, the contrasts and contradictions keep the story real in its intensity.

Audiences are presented with a complicated and true story, told elegantly, while exposing the imperfections of the human experience. Philomena is transnational, adding a dimension of a culture lost, and a birth mother’s yearning to understand the differences while unconditionally accepting the results of her search. Human emotion and the need to reconcile are presented head-on. It is impossible for the audience to leave unaffected. Fundamentally, the act of forgiveness is profound—presenting a clearly developed story line about the challenge of acceptance versus justice that inevitably emerges in the truth and reconciliation of past human rights abuses.

Surprisingly, you will laugh before you cry, and both emotions are well warranted. The networks of social relationships are astonishing, reminding the audience of just how close we may be to someone we have lost and yearn to find. Dench’s character in Philomena is a portrait of how finding happiness and acceptance is very much in how you look at life.

Moviegoers will be left to think more about healing and reproductive injustices of the past, underscoring the mean-spiritedness of some who stand in moral judgment of others. And then there is greed—another dimension of the illicit behaviors and practices of those who have scripted these crimes. Philomena boasts a superb cast supporting Dench.

For more information about the Magdalene Laundries, there are a variety of sources online documenting the lives of women who suffered and survived, as well as those who are deceased; oral histories, photographs, and other artifacts are being collected and appropriate ways in which to honor the women are being considered in terms of museums and other celebrations of their lives and losses. Also, other countries are now investigating their own laundries and survivors, as is the case in Australia. In sum, an astounding social movement for truth and justice is clearly underway, and one way to honor the laundry survivors is hearing their stories. For the act of witnessing is sometimes the only thing that we can do as the story unfolds.

Philomena will be available on DVD March 4.

Analysis Human Rights

Case Records of Children ‘Disappeared’ Into Adoption Destroyed in El Salvador Attack

Karen Smith Rotabi

Recently, the investigation files on children forcefully disappeared during the 13-year civil war in El Salvador were destroyed in an attack on the offices of Asociación Pro-Búsqueda—seemingly part of an orchestrated campaign to destroy evidence related to the genocidal acts committed during the civil war.

Recently, the investigation files on children forcefully disappeared during the 13-year civil war in El Salvador were destroyed in an attack on the offices of Asociación Pro-Búsqueda (Pro-Search Association) in San Salvador. This attack seems to be the continuation of an orchestrated campaign to destroy evidence related to the genocidal acts committed during the civil war. This particular act of destruction is part of a long history of child abduction in Latin American and the prevalence of what has been called a culture of impunity preventing due justice for the cases of children disappeared during civil wars in various Latin American countries.

The forced separation of children from their parents who were identified and persecuted as insurgents during civil war has a repetitive history in Latin America. The atrocities in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-1984) are notorious, and in July of 2012 Argentinean General Jorge Rafael Videla was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his role in crimes against humanity during that war. Among those crimes that featured prominently in his recent trail were illegal child adoptions—infants entered into illegal adoptions after their mothers were systematically executed. Many applauded this conviction as an important step in accountability, and trials like Videla’s help in confronting the past atrocities of a war in which at least 30,000 Argentineans died. Prosecuting such a high-ranking military official for war crimes is remarkable in a region known for amnesty and impunity.

Guatemala’s civil war (1966-1996) resulted in at least 200,000 deaths and countless other individuals disappeared as a result of genocide. Testimony indicates that an unknown number of children entered into illegal adoptions internally, while others were sent overseas as adoptees. That country’s recent attempts to hold former dictator General Rios Montt accountable have been unsuccessful thus far, but he too is implicated in many war crimes. While Montt’s case is very complicated and we don’t want to over-simplify here, evidence in recent court hearings included a full day of testimony from rape victims. Montt is also believed to have been involved in illegal adoptions.

Sadly, neighboring El Salvador shares a similar history of civil war (1979-1992). This particular conflict resulted in the deaths of at least 75,000 people, while a half million others were internally displaced and nearly one million Salvadorans sought refuge in other countries. Amidst death and displacement was the loss of family life—some children were forcibly removed from families as an act of reprisal. Other children were spared death as their adult family members were executed, while some children were simply lost from their families during the chaos. An unknown number of children entered into adoption; some children were adopted by military and other elite families in El Salvador while other children were sent into overseas adoptions in the United States, Europe, Canada, and elsewhere. Some of these international adoptions cost as much as $10,000, underscoring the human trafficking element of such illicit adoptions.

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Today, a movement to reunite the lost children of Salvador’s civil war has resulted in the momentum of Pro-Búsqueda. A powerful force in truth and reconciliation, Pro-Búsqueda has reunited hundreds of now adult children with their lost family members in El Salvador. The organization provides support services to those in the search and reunion process, including the counseling necessary when individuals learn the truth about their loss of family life during civil conflict.

To aid in reuniting Salvadoran families, expert organizations, such as the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley have developed a DNA database so that the lost individuals and families may be matched using modern technology. Each success story is not only profoundly emotional, but in the telling of the social history the dark past of El Salvador’s disappearances continue to come to light some 20 years after the war ended.

Pro-Búsqueda serves as a powerful advocacy organization, bringing the difficult subject of disappearance during civil war into contemporary discourse. Among the accomplishments is the organizational history of bringing cases before various courts, including the Inter-American Human Rights Court (IACHR). Also, since October 2007, Pro-Búsqueda has filed habeas corpus (constitutional right of protection of rights and liberty) recourses in over a dozen cases in national courts. Their voice is loud and effective.

Pro-Búsqueda’s work in the policy arena resulted in major steps forward when, during the 137 Period of Sessions of the IACHR, the Salvadoran government committed to establishing a special commission to search for the disappeared children, including the creation of the publicly funded DNA bank. In January 2010, on occasion of the Peace Accords anniversary, in addition to asking for forgiveness for human right violations, the government announced a new commission to investigate the disappeared children.

In memory of those who disappeared during the civil war, the organization is in the practice of keeping meticulous records of their investigations, including testimony of survivors looking for lost loved ones. In fact, documentation is one area of Pro-Búsqueda’s expertise, and their search and reunion process depends on first-person accounts of the crimes that led to family-child separation.

In the early morning hours of November 14, Pro-Búsqueda’s offices were ransacked by armed men who set a fire to paper records. The organization’s computers were also stolen. The destruction of records from past and present cases is not only stunning, but the attack leads to the obvious question: Who was so threatened by the case files of Salvadoran families attempting to search for the whereabouts of their missing children?

In a tweet from Pro-Búsqueda Director Ester Alvarenga, it was clear that the organization considers the events to be a terrorist act. Notably, the incident comes after the September closing of Tutela Legal, the main office collecting this type of evidence for the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation established in the post-war phase of documentation. The Constitutional Court recently agreed to consider the petition for cancellation of an important amnesty law.

The act of document destruction can also be characterized as further victimization of the families whose children were forcibly disappeared and “adopted.” Alvarenga expressed her indignation because, in addition to destroying the case files, the perpetrators also destroyed the pictures of Jon Cortina, one of few survivor Jesuit priests who helped the searching families establish the association. This act seems to aim at shooting down the “voices of the voiceless”—the children and families torn apart due to child abduction into adoption.

Other human rights defenders also link the destruction of records to a decision made by the Supreme Court to accept a case that will challenge the constitutionality of El Salvador’s 1993 Amnesty Law. The Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador (CISPES) reports that this law has “protected top former government and military officials from prosecution for war crimes and grave human rights violations.” CISPES also raised concern about the protection of other war crime records, which has been called into question as the major archive previously in oversight of Tutela Legal, and now in possession of the Catholic Church Archdiocese.