How Esther was saved from stolen baby trade

Date: 2008-08-02

How Esther was saved from stolen baby trade

August 02, 2008

For 14 months, Ana Escobar studied the tiny fingers of every passing baby, searching for a girl with pinkies that curved gracefully outward, just like those of her missing daughter.

Then one day she saw her, in the arms of a foster mother helping process her adoption by an Indiana couple: A straight-haired toddler who appeared to be a stranger, except for her unmistakable fingers.

"I was in shock. I could not move. I could not do anything," Escobar said.

DNA tests eventually proved what Escobar already knew: the girl was her daughter, taken at gunpoint in March 2007, when she was just six months old.

Esther Sulamita was the first stolen Guatemalan baby found through a challenge of the mother-and-child DNA test results that are supposed to guarantee the legitimacy of each adoption.

It is likely she won't be the last. Jorge Meng, spokesman for the attorney-general's office, said officials suspect more cases will be found because the lawyers in Esther's case have vouched for documents in dozens of other pending adoptions, as well as many more involving children now growing up as Americans.

Authorities issued arrest warrants for a doctor, two lawyers and two others in Esther's case. Authorities suspect they could find more than a dozen other stolen babies in their review of 2286 pending US adoptions.

Even some completed adoptions are being questioned: At least two are under investigation to determine if the children - now growing up as American citizens - were stolen, said Jaime Tecu, a former prosecutor who is leading the Guatemalan National Adoption Council's review.

"After this, we are ordering DNA tests for all children whose mothers present credible indications that they were abducted, and we are asking parents of those two babies in the US to voluntarily submit DNA tests of their adoptive children," said Elizabeth Hernandez, council president.

Authorities have long believed that some of the nearly 5000 Guatemalan babies adopted by US couples each year were stolen and sold to baby-brokers who worked with doctors and lawyers to create false identities for the children.

Guatemalan adoption officials say there is no evidence the Indiana couple knew the baby they were trying to adopt was stolen. Their attorney, Charlie Rice, said the two had already travelled to Guatemala and spent time caring for the girl.

"These people are absolutely devastated, absolutely horrified over the idea that a child was stolen from a mother," Rice said. "There is grief over the loss of the child, but absolute joy that the mother has been found."

Authorities have said adoptive US families - many of whom spend US$30,000 [$41,000] or more for what they were told are legitimately surrendered babies - are also victims of the corrupt old system, which is now being replaced.

At least two other stolen children have been found in nurseries that handled international adoptions - one with a fake identity - although neither had officially been put up for adoption yet, Tecu said.

Escobar's nightmare began the morning of March 26, 2007. She was tending her family's small shoe store in a poor neighbourhood just north of Guatemala City when a gunman and three others arrived and locked her in a storage room.

When she finally got out, the baby and a few pairs of shoes were missing.

She immediately began searching hospitals, orphanages, police stations, obsessed with finding her daughter. When the baby's father did little to help, she accused him of being involved somehow. Prosecutors investigated, but found no evidence.

The couple eventually separated and closed the shoe shop. Escobar moved in with her mother and lost touch with Esther's father. She no longer thinks he was involved and says her accusations were fuelled by anger.

With few answers and only her mother's support, she pushed on.

As Guatemala's reform efforts gained momentum in August with a high-profile police raid of the Casa Quivira adoption agency, Escobar demanded to see the babies, armed with a tattered picture of her daughter. She found nothing, but as the fraud scandal grew, she became more active, haunting agencies and government offices.

Guatemalan lawmakers imposed a tough new adoption process this year, but agreed under US pressure to grandfather in the cases initiated under the old, corrupt system. Then, signs of fraud abounding, the Adoptions Council decided to freeze these adoptions and take another close look at each case.

Escobar sat in the council's lobby, studying the babies as they were brought in. On the second day, she saw Esther in the arms of a foster mother.

She asked if she could hold the child. The foster mother handed her the girl, and Escobar studied her hands. The woman soon left with the girl but by then Escobar was convinced - and persuaded prosecutors to order her to bring the child back in.

At that time, Esther was officially Susy Amarilis Fernandez Molina. Her case file showed no evidence of fraud, and she was only weeks away from being handed over to the Indiana couple.

After the girl's DNA matched Escobar's, arrest warrants were issued against five Guatemalans: the woman listed as the birth mother; foster mother Juana Elizabeth Perez Estrada; Dr Feliciano Hernandez Citan; the lawyer brokering the adoption, Jorge Mario Sum Santiago; and the lawyer representing the US couple, Otto Rene Galvez Abril.

Four immediately disappeared. The doctor was arrested and then released on US$400 bail.

From hiding, Sum Santiago told AP that he had no reason to suspect the case was fraudulent and plans to sue the woman who posed as the birth mother.

Knowing she finally had her daughter back was the happiest moment of Escobar's life, but there are cruel reminders of everything she lost. She still has almost no information about what happened to her child for more than a year.

She suspects Esther may have been abused and investigators are looking for any evidence of that.

"She will not take toys and when you lift your hand, she cowers and runs away," Escobar said.

- AP

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