News Human Rights

Child Abduction for Adoption: Poverty and Privilege Clash as a Child’s Return to Guatemala is Blocked

Karen Smith Rotabi

Being one of many stories of force, fraud, and coercion, Loyda’s case is particularly compelling because all of the steps in the legal system have been followed. Still, there has been no justice.

Last year, a Guatemalan court ruled in favor of Loyda Rodriguez, who had asserted that her daughter had been kidnapped into child adoption, by ordering the that the child be returned to her biological family after five long years of searching. The excitement that followed included Loyda readying her home for the return of her daughter Anyeli, abducted at age two. The U.S. couple who Loyda believes ‘adopted’ her daughter remained silent.

However, it was quickly ascertained that they hired legal representation, including rumored consultation with the lawyer involved in the infamous Elian Gonzalez case. Even more telling was the employment of a public relations firm to manage case information favorably on their behalf. Then, in the fall of 2011, the U.S. couple made a public appearance on national news program and made their point loud and clear—they will not be sending Loyda’s daughter home and they believe they legally adopted the child in 2008. In fact, they questioned if Loyda was the mother even though they could quickly ascertain this with a DNA test. To date no DNA test has materialized.

Now, a year later, I wonder about Loyda and who will advocate for her rights in U.S. courts where this battle will likely continue to unfold. Yes, she has lawyers and a famous human rights defender in Guatemala working on her behalf, but if there ever was a David and Goliath story—this is it! And, being one of many stories of force, fraud, and coercion, Loyda’s case is particularly compelling because all of the steps in the legal system have been followed. Still, there has been no justice.

I am also left wondering about the child in question and how she will eventually reconcile her life story. Reunion between adoptees and their biological families is often complicated, especially when there is a great cultural and language divide. Added to the complications is a history of force, fraud, and coercion that casts such great sadness on this case—an abduction rather than an adoption according to Guatemalan courts. When such reunions have been facilitated, the need for psychological assistance is clear. The case history and trauma must be dealt with sensitively and the need for emotional support is unquestionable before, during, and after such reunions.

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Clearly, Loyda and her family have been cast aside by the U.S. family in question, but also by U.S. authorities that refuse to intervene and enforce the court order. As for the adoption agency implicated in this abduction for adoption—they hide behind confidentiality!

When will there be truth and reconciliation for Loyda and the other Guatemalan women and families who were taken advantage of during the Guatemalan adoption boom? At least two more women are also fighting for their daughter’s return as children abducted into adoption. And they are doing what any mother—regardless of their citizenship, economic capacity, and privilege—would do: fight for their rights and the return of their children!


For more about Guatemalan adoption fraud see www.findingfernanda.com and also see Karen Smith Rotabi’s new book, co-edited with Judith Gibbons, entitled Intercountry Adoption: Policies, Practices, and Outcomes (Ashgate Press, 2012).  In this book, the chapter written by Mónico and Rotabi sheds light on the history of search and reunion of children abducted into adoption. It is entitled: Truth, Reconciliation, and Searching for the Disappeared Children of Civil War: El Salvador’s Search and Reunion Model Defined. Also, Rotabi’s chapter on adoption fraud explores child abduction for adoption and it is entitled: Fraud in Intercountry Adoption: Child Sales and Abduction in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Guatemala.

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 www.findingfernanda.com.

Analysis Family

Child Abduction for Adoption and the Tangled Web of Deceit in Guatemala: A Review of Erin Siegal’s “Finding Fernanda”

Karen Smith Rotabi

Because much of my research has focused on reforming intercountry adoption and most especially Guatemala, I opened Siegal’s “Finding Fernanda” cautiously. By the end of this captivating read, it is impossible to see Alvarado as anything but a strong and resilient woman who is determined to fight circumstances of poverty and oppression.

Because much of my research has focused on reforming intercountry adoption and most especially Guatemala, I opened Siegal’s “Finding Fernanda” cautiously. She began the story by capturing the meager life of a determined mother, Mildred Alvarado, and her children living on poverty’s bitter edge. 

By the end of this captivating read, it is impossible to see Alvarado as anything but a strong and resilient woman who is determined to fight circumstances of poverty and oppression–its impact on human dignity and the destruction of her family.

This main thread of the story makes Alvarado not only an interesting woman, but the underdog that everyone must hope for the ‘right thing’ to happen in the end.

However, when Alvarado and many other women’s stories of child abduction for adoption went ‘public’ it seemed everyone in the intercountry adoption community was routing against ‘the truth.’ It was unthinkable that some [1] of the beautiful children who had been adopted from Guatemala came to their adoptive families from sinister pathways. ‘Orphan’ adoption is viewed by most as an honorable act and to suggest that children are not truly orphans (and may be trafficking victims) is more than impolite to most people. Unfortunately the historical context and story of Guatemala is far too complicated for such fantasized notions about ‘orphans’ to always be true and when interrogates the facts, a grotesque reality unfolds.

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Siegal pulls together many of the facts in her book, often allowing them to speak for themselves. The villain, an executive director of a notoriously bad adoption agency in Florida, gives the reader some insight into the inner workings of a ‘Christian’ woman who uses faith to manipulate her clients as needed. Then, there is the more subtle manipulation of the US Government, ranging from the US Department of State to the many Senators and Congressmen who demand that their constituent’s adoptions be completed—regardless of fears of fraud, coercion, and abduction of children for adoption.

Siegal rightly identifies that one should follow the money! [2] I am left wondering how an executive director of an adoption agency can make in the range of $250,000 annually with six figure bonuses for her husband (with little documentation for ‘why’ such a payment is legitimate). How can the IRS allow such ridiculous money management of a ‘non-profit’ agency? Further, some suspect that this agency director’s home and vehicle are paid for by the organization. While these allegations are not substantiated, the suspicion is telling.

Then there are the hopeful families who pay outrageous sums to adoption agencies, sometimes ranging upwards to $50,000 USD. How is it really possible that these families honestly believe that such a sum is anything other than the fuel that fed the fires of graft and greed in Guatemala? This is a nation where the average worker makes $2 daily and extreme poverty is almost an understatement.

Then there is the corruption of Guatemalan officials, all captured well by Siegal while the reader is left with questions about corruption of US officials including our diplomats serving in the Central American nation—again Siegal challenges our own assumptions about honesty and integrity. If US officials were enriched is a question that will likely go unanswered, but we know that hundreds of people in the US and Guatemala became adoption millionaires during this era. The majority of them were the adoption attorneys in Guatemala.

Some of the Guatemalan-based villains include the Bran family who appear to be low-medium level actors in a large pyramid of organized crime. Abducting the children of poor women was only the first step and this family that developed a system feeding children into a larger scheme under the guise of child adoption. This was only possible in a nation in which civil society is essentially non-existent, law enforcement is impotent, and violence against women is endemic.

Siegal touches on femicide in the nation where two women die daily as a result of the crime. Siegal even briefly mentions a theory that illegal adoptions underlie some of these brutal murders of women. I wish that Siegal had taken that thread farther as I am convinced that a significant percentage of the killing of women over the past decade were connected to and motivated by human trafficking, including child abductions for adoption. As Siegal documents, Alvarado narrowly escaped her own death at the hands of the Bran family and their associates. Then she persevered through endless death threats. Mildred herself recognized the fact that her own life being spared was a miracle. How many other women were less fortunate as they fought find their abducted children? How many women desperately begged for their children to be returned only to be met with extreme violence and even death to silence them? That is a convenient scenario to truly make a child an ‘orphan’.

As we come to the happy conclusion of “Finding Fernanda” we are relieved that Alvarado and her two daughters are reunited. We also learn more about the US-based woman who had hoped to adopt Fernanda. Following her gut instinct to connect the dots and ultimately provided needed information make the reunion possible, Betsy Emanuel was one of the few who acted ultimately with integrity. Again, this act of ‘truth telling’ was not without risk and with the great criticism of the families hoping to adopt from Guatemala—many of whom saw Emanuel’s intervention as risking the future of pending adoptions. 

The reader is left to wonder about the other mothers who are still fighting for their children to return to their families after being abducted for adoption. As the years go on, chances diminish but there is some hope that a recent Guatemalan court ruling in July 2011 will yield the return of one child. Unfortunately, to date, the Missouri family who adopted the child in question has resisted the court order. However, some members of the Bran family and their associates are now serving jail sentences including a well-connected Guatemalan adoption attorney. However, the Americans involved in the force, fraud, and coercion of child abduction remain above the law—including the aforementioned adoption agency director—as legal pursuit of these individuals is just too time consuming and difficult for prosecutors in Guatemala. Ultimately there are larger and more pressing issues of narco-trafficking, human trafficking for sex and servitude, and the aforementioned murder rate of women.

While there have been criminal prosecutions in the nation, the future of these abduction cases in terms mother-child reunions has many unknowns and one certainty. The unknowns are related to the political environment in Guatemala and the will of the US government to do the right thing—which has yet to be done thus far. With a newly elected president in Guatemala, one known to be directly connected to genocide orders during the civil war, the country is in transition. These are tenuous times for a nation that has suffered the longest civil war in the Americas and lack of civil society today. However, one constant is Norma Cruz the human rights defender who stood by Mildred and pushed her case forward at every corner. Known by many as simply “Norma,” she has become a national hero. I am fortunate to call her a friend and colleague. As Norma has taken these cases to the US public in her requests for justice, I have accompanied her including one American University Law School presentation in which top State Department officials were in attendance. I can say with all certainty that she will fight for these women and the return of their children until her final breath. For these cases of child abduction for adoption have come to symbolize what is wrong in Guatemala, a country seized by greed, corruption, and the desperation of poverty so deep that the selling of its citizenry into human trafficking schemes is far too common. And, as a US citizen, I am embarrassed to say that the exploitation is all too often for the sake of the U.S. dollar!

As a social worker, I would have never thought that such a seedy story could emerge from the very important social intervention of child adoption. When I began my own research on the underlying problems of adoption fraud in Guatemala, dating back to the year 2000, consistent and solid evidence of abduction was not yet clear. However, over time if became obvious that some unknown number of adoptions were touched by many different forms of force, fraud, and coercion. And, Siegal has captured it in one woman’s story.

Finally, because I personally know a number of the individuals identified, quoted, and sourced in this book, I can say that Siegal has captured much the same oral history that I have been told. [3] I would take only one minor dispute with Siegal. I applaud Siegal for writing the book and I am amazed by the details that she documented. To travel in a country with extreme violence against women and investigate organized crime is not for the faint of heart. I thank Siegal for her courage to give voice to women like Mildred Alvarado for they are often the voiceless and misunderstood, but when they seek justice they are often marginalized. Now, we are moving forward in setting the record straight.


Footnotes:

[1] Not all child adoptions from Guatemala were illegitimate or corrupt. However,there were enough problems that human rights defenders and some scholarshave asserted that birth mother payments were relatively frequent andabductions also occurred. Learn more and view reports here.
[2] The idea of ‘follow the money’ has been asserted in various ways by many scholars and advocates who observe private child adoptions. Adam Pertman (2011) captures the issues well in his book Adoption Nation and Mirah Riben’s book The Stork Market: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry.
[3] The idea of ‘follow the money’ has been asserted in various ways by many scholars and advocates who observe private child adoptions. Adam Pertman (2011) captures the issues well in his book Adoption Nation and Mirah Riben’s book The Stork Market: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry.