Fernanda's story: The dark side of the Guatemalan baby trade

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 10 Apr 2012 12:15 GMT
Author: Tiziana Barhini
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New York, (TrustLaw) – The tale seemed too touching to be true. But, instead of dismissing it, investigative journalist Erin Siegal decided to pursue it and spent three years uncovering an even more remarkable and heart-wrenching story.

 The result is “Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child and a Cross-Border Search for Truth (Cathexis Press 2011).” It is the first-time author’s chronicle of the terrible personal cost to two families ensnared in the corruption and human trafficking that fueled the Guatemala’s booming adoption industry until 2008. The book received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 Robert Spiers Benjamin Award for Best Reporting on Latin America by the Overseas Press Club of America.

 Siegal was a student at New York’s Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism when she first heard the story of Fernanda, a Guatemalan child illegally put up for adoption.

 Stolen through deception from her natural mother Mildred Alvarado, Fernanda was promised in adoption to a U.S. woman, Elizabeth Emanuel, but never made it to the United States. When Emanuel discovered that Fernanda, far from being an abandoned girl, had a mother desperately seeking for her, she started a process that eventually successfully reunited the mother and child.

Through Siegal’s careful documentation, bolstered by four trips to Guatemala and hours of interviews, Fernanda’s story paints a compelling portrait of the decades of abuse and corruption that were the hallmarks of Guatemala’s adoption industry.

Between 1998 and 2008 around 30,000 Guatemalan children were adopted by U.S citizens through an industry mainly driven by profits and apparently willing to ignore basic human rights to satisfy the growing demand for children by wealthier countries.

  A 2010 report by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or Commission Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala  (CICIG),  estimated that in 2007 alone the revenues of the adoption industry were around 200 million U.S. dollars.

There is no way to know how many of these adoptions really placed abandoned children into new and loving families and how many cases, dictated by greed and speculation, simply gave criminals an opportunity to profit from child trafficking. International research indicates that abuses were widespread and, as a consequence, the Guatemalan government froze international adoptions in 2008.

For years, people were increasingly aware of the fraud and criminality rife within the adoption landscape. For example, a Special Rapporteur sent by the U.N. to Guatemala in 1999 and quoted by Siegal told the story of a woman who had relinquished 33 children for adoption in three years pretending to be the biological mother of all of them. However, “no one had been able to tell the scope and the depth of the problem,” Siegal said. Her investigation helped change that.

“If adoptions were to reopen in Guatemala and if the U.S. were to participate in that industry again I think some steps need to be taken, because so much information has passed along,” she told TrustLaw during an interview in Reuters’ New York office.

At the start of 2012, Siegal, currently a fellow at The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, published another book related to the Guatemalan adoption industry: “The U.S. Embassy Cables: Adoption Fraud in Guatemala, 1987 – 2010.”  Produced as a paperback and as an eBook in three volumes by Cathexis Press, the book presents 718 pages of internal memos, email and cables from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala obtained by Siegal through dozens of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed with the U.S. State Department.

Arranged in chronological order, the material documents the extent of the knowledge American officials had of the dubious legality associated with some Guatemalan adoptions, as well as their efforts deal with American families anxious to adopt while ascertaining the limits of their ability to intervene.

During more than two decades, “the embassy was in a very tough position’’ because it had no authority to interfere with Guatemala’s sovereignty in deciding who was and who was not an orphan. But, Siegal said she was shocked to discover what the people working there had known.

 “They knew there were some problems of fraud. They sort of tried in different ways to thwart frauds,” she said, adding that it is difficult for her to express a judgment.  “I guess it would be a subjective opinion to say whether or not they did enough. Anyone who reads the book of cables can decide this on their own”.

The debate remains far from academic. Siegal currently is closely following the case of Karen Abigail, a Guatemalan girl adopted in 2008 by a U.S. couple in Missouri. In Guatemala, it is believed that Abigail’s real identity is Anyeli Rodriguez, a child kidnapped in November 2006.

In 2011 a Guatemalan court ruled that she should be returned to her biological family. In March 2012 Susana Luarca, the lawyer who facilitated the adoption, was held in prison on charges of trafficking in persons, forging documents and illegal association.  It is heartbreaking for the family, for the child, and the adopting parents as well. She spent years with (adoptive) parents in Missouri, years with her biological mother and  years with (other) people taking care of her,” Siegal said.

As Siegal’s story of Fernanda illustrates, adoption is a life-changing experience for children and adults. To ensure that it does not become a nightmare, there are steps that aspiring parents should take before choosing an adoption agency, Siegal said. People should check records with the state licensing agency, the Better Business Bureau or with parents’ associations.

Her recommendation: Do not be sorry, be informed.