International Adoption or Child Trafficking?

January 6, 2012

As "Finding Fernanda" documents, Guatemala's adoption system has been the most corrupt in the world for over a decade.

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.


Pound Pup Legacy