Guatemalan judge rules six-year-old girl should be returned to birth mother, but Missouri couple insist adoption was legal
By Jo Tuckman in Mexico City and Ewen MacAskill in Washington
The US government is caught up in an emotional legal battle over a six-year-old girl said to have been kidnapped from Guatemala in 2006 and later adopted by an American couple.
A Guatemalan court has ordered that Anyelí Liseth Hernández Rodríguez should be returned to the country, after a lengthy fight by the woman who claims to be her birth mother. A judge ruled that if she were not returned within two months Interpol would be asked to intervene.
But the American couple, Timothy and Jennifer Monahan, of Kansas City, Missouri, said that, in 2008, they had legally adopted the girl, now known as Karen Abigal Monahan.
In an interview with the Guardian, the Guatemalan woman, Loyda Rodríguez Morales, 26, said she did not feel anger towards the American family. "I don't know if they knew she was stolen. All I would like to say to them is that they return my little girl," she said.
Morales said that in 2006 she had been returning from a supermarket with her three children, two sons and a daughter. "I went into the building with my kids behind me. I went into my flat and then straight away I realised my little girl wasn't there," she said. "We looked everywhere but there was no sign of her. People who had seen what happened told us that a woman took her and went off in a taxi that was waiting."
She said she and her husband, a construction worker, went to the police, put up posters round the neighbourhood and visited orphanages, but without success.
With the help of the human rights group Survivors Foundation, Morales found her daughter on the files of an adoption agency, listed as being in an orphanage in March 2009. But it was too late: according to court records, Anyelí had left the country in December the previous year.
Morales said: "All I want is to be with my daughter again. It has been almost five years and that is what I want. It has been very hard, like very hard blows to the heart." She rejected some people's suggestions that her daughter would be "better off" in the US. "I can give my children a good life with the affection and love that they need. We live off what my husband earns and are OK. I will do all I can to see they have a good life."
The Monahans have issued a statement through a Washington-based public relations firm, Peter Mirijanian Public Affairs, which indicated that they would not give the child up without a fight. It said they would continue to seek the safety and best interests of "their legally adopted child", adding: "They remain committed to protecting their daughter from additional trauma as they pursue the truth of her past through appropriate legal channels."
The couple taped a message to their door asking reporters to respect their privacy at a "difficult and confusing time".
The case has provoked strong opinions within Guatemala and the US, with sympathies split, some saying that any "kidnapped child" should be returned, and others thinking that the child, after a period of four years and knowing little of life other than that in the US, would be harmed by being wrenched from her adoptive family. The situation poses a dilemma for the US government, caught between its international legal obligations to comply with the Guatemalan court order and its concern for the American couple and child, who is now a US citizen.
Morales is reported have taken a DNA test, which established her as the biological mother, but the US could ask for that to be repeated and also challenge other aspects of the case, in court in Guatemala. The US government is likely to ask the child herself if she wants to return to Guatemala; it would be reluctant to force a US citizen to leave.
Agencies dealing with adoption cases, such as the US-based National Council for Adoption, said they could not recall an incident where the government faced such an order from a foreign court.
Chuck Johnson, president of the National Council for Adoption, expressed sympathy for the biological mother, the adoptive parents and Anyelí. "This is a no-win situation," he said.
A US justice department spokeswoman, Alisa Finelli, refused to comment of whether steps were being taken to send the child back to Guatemala. "The department declines to comment," said Finelli.