International Adoption or Child Trafficking?

Between 1998 and 2008, nearly 30,000 Guatemalan-born children (mostly infants and toddlers) were adopted by U.S. parents. In some years, that meant that an astonishing 1 out of 100 children born in Guatemala was adopted by an American family. For most of that time, everyone but the prospective adoptive parents knew—or in some cases actively chose to “unknow”—that the country's international adoption system was a cesspool of corruption and crime, and motivated by money. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and news organizations reported in detail, repeatedly, that the country's babies were systematically being bought, coerced, or even kidnapped away from families that wanted to raise them. But because healthy babies and toddlers kept on coming at a regular pace that kept up with demand in America, and because powerful Guatemalans were getting enormously rich off the baby trade, the system did not shut down until January 1, 2008.

Finding Fernanda is a true-crime page-turner about two mothers—Betsy Emanuel, an American, and Mildred Alvarado, a Guatemalan—accidentally united by a horrible adoption kidnapping. First-time author Erin Siegal uses the moving story to deliver investigative reportage at its finest, examining in tremendous detail exactly what happened to Betsy, to Mildred, and to the daughter that both of them lost. In doing so, Siegal writes the definitive book on the Guatemalan international adoption system's endemic difficulties. In documenting exactly how Mildred Alvarado’s two youngest children were stolen, and by tracing Alvarado's desperate search to regain them, Siegal exposes how Guatemalan crime rings and official corruption enabled children to cross borders and change identities without their families’ permission. And by showing how hard it was for Betsy Emanuel to find out what went wrong when she adopted Alvarado’s children, and how impossible it was for Florida to shut down Emanuel’s U.S. adoption agency, Celebrating Children—notorious for its involvement in suspect adoptions, and which Siegal definitively links to the Alvarado kidnapping—Siegal reveals the tremendous gaps in U.S. laws and regulations on international adoption.

Full disclosure: In 2009, soon after I published an article about troubling international adoptions, “The Lie We Love,” in Foreign Policy, Siegal called me to discuss her work. I was impressed by her thoroughness and courage for reporting this story from one of the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere. Every time we talked, Erin was chasing down some detail or character; as far as I could tell, she read every document and talked with every source or expert even remotely connected to her project. Deeply struck by her indefatigable reporting and ambition, we brought her on as an unpaid fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, where I was then associate director (and remain a senior fellow). I knew from listening to her that she would get the facts right. But since I never read her writing, I wondered whether Siegal could tell a story as well as she could unearth it.

Siegal can indeed tell a story, powerfully so. Finding Fernanda is an astonishing book, essential reading for anyone interested in Guatemala or in the ways international adoption can go wrong. She delivers clear, unsentimental, moving portraits of her real-life “characters.” In reporting on a July 1999 U.N. Special Rapporteur’s investigation of the Guatemalan adoption system, she explains that the Rapporteur found that:

… a single Guatemalan woman had successfully given up thirty-three children for adoption over the course of three years. They were all supposed to have been her own biological children. No one caught the error because the woman had relinquished two children per month, the legal limit. Since Guatemalan authorities usually didn’t save documentation on children who left the country in adoption … all thirty-three “orphans” had been successfully adopted into the United States.

Siegal exposes the many different systems used to separate women from their children, such as the social workers, doctors, nurses, midwives, and employers who insisted that poor young women relinquish their babies to pay a debt or who told young women that their children had died at birth. Her thoroughness makes it hard to refute when she writes, for instance, that “ultimately, any child could be declared an orphan if strategic bribes reached the correct hands, according to Guatemalan government authorities, adoption lawyers, and private investigators.”

What’s especially damning is how much the U.S. knew about the Guatemalan baby trade. Using documents that she received under the Freedom of Information Act (after years of effort), Siegal reveals that as far back as 1995, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala knew that birth mothers’ lives were threatened if they tried to reclaim their children. She quotes cables in which Embassy officials worry that they were becoming

tacit accomplices by ignoring what is often right in front of us…. Are we not morally (if not legally) obligated to prevent what is otherwise clearly reprehensible as well as criminal under any penal code—kidnapping, the illegal separation of biological parents from their children?

A decade later, little has changed. Siegal paraphrases and then quotes a 2008 U.S. Embassy memo:

For the whole country, just five police officers and one police vehicle were allocated to investigating human trafficking…. ‘The overall culture of impunity and violence and fear of reprisal discouraged victims and witnesses from testifying and filing legal action.”

If I could wish for one change in the book, it might be a little more perspective. In her steady “just the facts, ma’am” narrative, Siegal rarely pulls back to offer her interpretation of what it all means, leaving the accumulation of facts to speak for themselves. That’s pure investigative reporting. However, at times I wished for some explanatory journalism as well. While her portrait of the Guatemalan adoption system is appropriately damning—I honestly can’t imagine how it would be refuted and am curious about how it's being received by the community of Americans who have adopted from Guatemala—she doesn’t offer any sense of where Guatemala fits into the larger and more varied picture of international adoption. Or rather, if I read her right, she seems to think that Guatemala represents most other systems as well. I don't believe that's true.

In my own reporting on the subject, I found other countries whose international adoption systems were troubling, but none as rotten as Guatemala's over such a long period of time. In the past decade, perhaps only Cambodia’s and Vietnam’s came close. When Siegal points out that the U.S. adoption agency that she has damningly linked to Mildred Alvarado's stolen daughters, Celebrate Children, is now working in Ethiopia, she seems to imply that adoptions from Ethiopia will inevitably become as corrupt as Guatemala's were. Again, I'm not sure that's true. There have been some serious and apparently widespread lapses in Ethiopia, but I believe the insider sources who tell me that there are genuine efforts under way now to clean things up. And adoption systems in other countries—Eastern European countries, say—have quite different pitfalls and strengths. 

But these are small quibbles with an important and exciting book and author. Siegal gives a clear picture of a putatively humanitarian system when it is deeply distorted. I hope Finding Fernanda gets the attention it deserves. And I cannot wait to see what Siegal tackles next. 

Below: Maria Fernando Alvarado's profile when Celebrate Children offered her for adoption. Photo by Erin Siegal. 


As an adoptive parent from Guatemala who also advocates for ethical adoption, my reaction is that I wish that reporters, yourself included, would not paint everything with such a sweeping brush. First, if "everyone knew", why did Ms. Siegal have to file a FOIA to get the documents? Adoptions closed down in Guatemala for a time in 2003. When the re-opened, many, including adoptive parents, believed that the problems had been fixed. Adoptive parents like ourselves submitted literally hundreds of pages of documents to both the US government (Dept of State/Dept of Homeland Security/CIS) and the Guatemalan government,. The process took months, sometimes years. We placed our faith in the governments who administered this process and the agencies that we worked with (all state licensed and certified to do international adoptions). Shame on them, not on us. We now know the US government knew a lot more then they disclosed (hence the need for the FOIA). So did many agencies. And that is somehow the fault of the adoptive parents?
As for the media and other reports warning of fraud, it was never clear (I would argue even now) how extensive the fraud was. Critics described cases of kidnapping (of which there are in fact very few documented instances) in the same breath as cases of married birth mothers (a child was not eligible for adoption if the parents are married, even if both parents want to relinquish) as if both were equal instances of fraud. If an adoptive parent chose a reputable agency , submitted all the paperwork, had it all approved by two governments, it was very easy to assume that some fraud might be happening, but that one's own case was clean. There is now a growing community of adoptive families who have found and have ongoing contact with their children's birthmothers. The vast majority of those have verified that their cases were legitimate. So, however widespread the fraud, it was not universal.
All of this is not to deny that corruption existed. It clearly did. It is simply a plea for understanding from the adoptive parents' perspectives. I get very tired of us being painted as a group of greedy, evil, intentionally self-deluding idiots. That simply isn't true, for the majority.

SB, i can appreciate why you are a bit defensive about this issue, but this article makes no accusations about the US families who adopted these children. The very first paragraph says... 'For most of that time, everyone but the prospective adoptive parents knew—"

Two Sides to Every Story. I appreciate this article discussing the account of Finding Fernanda. However, I would like to note that there is more to the issue that needs to be discussed prior to allowing the audience to make the assumption, likely derived from this type of discussion, that the Guatemalan adoption system is one of trite and corruption. Firstly, as an international attorney with over four-years on the ground experience in Guatemala working with the issue of human trafficking, I can say that nothing is ever as it seems in Guatemala due to the lack of governance, holes in the legal system, biased media, and intense pressures (financial) from international organizations and governments with their own agendas. There is no question that illegal adoptions have occurred and still do within Guatemala with all the treachery discussed---disception, drugs, kidnapping, etc. But there is another side that the International Arena doesn't talk about; I like to consider the "underground railroad" of adoptions in Guatemala. This is a similarly common situation where women having 7+ children beg attorneys (in Guatemala you have to be an attorney to be a notary) to take the child to a better place (without the knowledge of their husband or family due to the major domestic violence/social pressure issues involved) or women who leave the babies in public bathrooms, street corners, turn requiring these "corrupt officials" to make a choice of whether to leave the children in an orphanage in Guatemala (from 1st hand experience I can assure you they are worse than jail!) or falsify documents to help the children have a better life. This issue is never discussed and there are many attorneys that were put in this position who are now being prosecuted by CICIG, without DNA proof that the child they put up for adoption and the parent arguing that the child is actually theirs, and sentenced to jail for 16+ years. Now as we stated above, there are really corrupt officials that do deserve to face justice, however, the injustice prosecutions that are ruining the lives of those who tried to help these mothers is truly unjust and should not be given the blanketed label without each individual story being told and verified in the court of law.

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