Date: 1996-08-02

Akron Beacon Journal (OH)


Author: JIM QUINN, Beacon Journal staff writer

The search for stolen children is leading investigators to Northeast Ohio, where hundreds of families adopted children during the Salvadoran civil war.

"I think parents have a valid reason to be concerned," said Tom Craig, whose adopted daughter Gina was discovered by her biological parents. "It's especially valid in this area because the Cleveland diocese was so involved in El Salvador."

Pat Burns, a spokeswoman for the Kent-based group that arranged local Salvadoran adoptions, said she has already heard from parents alarmed by what happened to the Craigs. "It's taking me some time to absorb all this," Burns said. "I feel certain that the vast majority of parents have nothing to worry about."

U.S. records show that Americans adopted 2,354 Salvadoran children during the war. There are no records on how many wound up in Northeast Ohio. Burns said her group, Concern for Children, helped arrange 400 to 500 local adoptions beginning in 1979. Most of the children came from El Salvador, although after 1985 local parents began adopting children from Colombia and Honduras.

"In the early days, parents called us because they wanted to help the Salvadoran kids who lost their homes in the war," said Burns, who adopted two Salvadoran children. "Now that foreign adoptions have become more common, many of the parents call us because they see this as a valid way to expand their families."

Ohio's main link to El Salvador is the Rev. Kenneth C. Myers, the Cleveland priest who went there before the war, established a mission, and operates a parish there today. Myers said he warned U.S. officials that Americans were adopting stolen babies.

"I told them, 'You don't investigate. You know darned well the papers aren't telling the truth.' They didn't feel any moral responsibility to correct the situation," he said.

Officials in both countries told the Boston Globe that the U.S.-backed military was stealing children from rebel families, and the U.S. diplomats took no action because they feared the children would be treated worse if they remained in El Salvador. One former soldier even claimed that the kidnappings were justified because it prevented rebel parents from raising children "contaminated by Marxism."

"Those kids who were 5, 6, 7 years old that we brought into the army, they didn't have these ideas yet. We were able to save them," said Alberto de Jesus Quijada, a former army sergeant.

Burns said she knew there were dangers involved in adopting children in war-torn El Salvador. "We were not naive," she said.

She said her group knew unscrupulous lawyers and private agencies operated in El Salvador. "We always worked through public orphanages," she said. "We have faith in the people we worked with in the court and in the embassy."


Ken and Jan McHenry of Tallmadge adopted two children from El Salvador after learning that they were unable to have children of their own. "If I was 10 years younger, I'd do it again," Jan McHenry said.

They flew to El Salvador in 1981 to adopt a newborn boy, going again in 1984 to adopt a newborn girl. Unlike the Craigs, the McHenrys came home with a thick file of information that included the names of the biological parents along with statements that they were voluntarily giving up the children.

"We have all their records. We have their names, birthdays, passports -- everything," McHenry said. "After all the paperwork we went through, I can't imagine anyone could have smuggled out a stolen baby," Ken McHenry said.

The idea horrifies Jan McHenry. "I would be devastated," she said. "But if that happened, who would you blame? Both governments said these were legal adoptions."

News of the Craig case was so upsetting to one Akron family that they would discuss it only on the condition they not be identified. "I don't want to make it any easier for somebody in El Salvador to find us," the mother said.

"What am I supposed to tell my daughter about this?" she asked. "It's hard enough being a teen-ager without having to worry that somebody in another country might be digging through your private adoption records and trying to track you down."


There's no easy way to determine how many stolen babies wound up in American homes.

"It's hard to say, but we think it might be anywhere from 20 to 30 a year from 1982 through 1986 or 1987," said Rafael Calles, investigations coordinator for the Association in Search of Disappeared Children, based in San Salvador. "It seems that the majority of children who were adopted were adopted into the United States."

Sharon Hamilton, a U.S. Embassy nurse who worked with displaced children in 1982-83, said embassy workers knew Americans were adopting stolen children.

"We knew. But, I mean, there wasn't any way to find their parents. What could we do? The consular section was giving out visas to Americans who were coming down and taking little babies back. I really feel badly now that these kids were taken from their parents, but nobody thought they would be going to a bad place. They were being adopted into nice families. They would be well-taken care of."

Tom Craig said he understands how he wound up adopting a stolen child. But admissions like Hamilton's astonish him. "That is the one thing that makes my blood boil," said Craig.

"I understand that El Salvador was a country in chaos. But how could our own diplomats make a decision like that? Who were they to allow this to happen?"

Although Gina Craig is the first American to be tracked down by biological parents in El Salvador, the Association in Search of Disappeared Children has found 30 other children who were stolen. Most were adopted by families in El Salvador, and some became "mascots" for soldiers at Salvadoran military bases. Many have been re-united with relatives.

U.S. State Department spokesman Nyda Budig said this week that the problem of stolen children continues today. Budig said kidnappers in Guatemala are taking babies, arranging to sell them to Americans, then showing up at the U.S. Embassy to claim they are giving up their own babies.

"We have been forced to require that these people take DNA tests that prove parentage," Budig said.

"The law is very clear on this. Normally, the embassy staffs are very conscientious. They would make sure no adoption visa is approved until everything is OK.

"But nothing is perfect."


Primary links

Pound Pup Legacy