exposing the dark side of adoption
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Kidnapped Child Colombia


On the night of December 9, 1992, Nancy Apraez Coral was kidnapped with her 11-month-old son, Carlos Alberto, from the home of her son's father in Popayan, a town in the district of Cauca in southern Colombia. The kidnappers were later identified as members of UNASE (Unidad Antiextorcion y Secuestro), an anti-kidnapping unit connected with Colombian state security forces in Popayan. They were apparently searching for the father of Nancy's child, who himself was suspected of involvement in a recent kidnapping. When they did not find him, they took Nancy and her infant son instead.

Nancy was killed some time in the next 8 days. In the early morning of December 16, her baby boy was left, dressed warmly and with a bottle of milk, on a street in Pasto, a town about 300 miles south of Popayan, in the Andes near the Ecuadorian border. The child's cries were heard by Cecilia and Conrado Espana, who took him in and later that morning notified the Colombian child welfare department, ICBF (Institute Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar). According to a subsequent Colombian newspaper story, "[H]e was a precious child, swarthy [trigueno], robust, acceptably clothed and had a little white poncho" (Calvache 1995:12A). The child was picked up that evening by welfare officials, and subsequently placed in a foster home pending location of his family or a legal declaration of abandonment. The local newspaper, Diario del Sur, published his picture on its front page the following day, along with an account of his discovery by local residents (Calvache 1992:1).

Colombian law requires that efforts be made to locate a "lost" or "abandoned" child's family by placing a notice in the local or national mass media. If no family member appears to claim him, the child becomes available for domestic or international adoption. In this case, apart from the report in Diario del Sur, the effort to locate Carlos Alberto's family consisted of announcements on the local (Pasto) radio station on January 14, 15, and 18. When there was no response to these notices, he was declared legally abandoned on February 4, 1993, and was named Omar Conrado Espana, after the family who found him. Two months later, a Swedish couple was selected by ICBF as adoptive parents for the child, and on June 4, 1993, the adoption was completed in Colombia. The child left for Sweden with his new parents, and his adoption was officially recognized by the Swedish government on August 4, 1993. His new parents named him Omar Konrad Vernersson, retaining in his new legal identity the traces of the violent displacements that had shaped his brief life.

In September 1993, three months after the adoption of Omar Conrado and nine months after the kidnapping, the baby's maternal grandmother received an anonymous phone call telling her that her grandson had been abandoned at the town plaza in Pasto. When she arrived there and found no baby, she went from door to door with a picture of the child and eventually located the Espana family, who sent her to the ICBF. There she was told bv the director of child welfare that her grandchild had been legally adopted, the adoption was final, and the record of the adoption was sealed, thus there was no possibility of locating the child (Calvache 1995:12a,1b).18

The grandmother hired a lawyer, who filed an appeal with the Pasto Superior Court to have the record opened, and the appeal was approved in February 1994. On June 9, 1995, the adoption was overturned by a Colombian court, which ordered the Colombian authorities (ICBF) and the adoptive family to return the child to his maternal grandparents. Sweden, however (representing the position of the Adoption Centre, which arranged for the adoption, and of NIA, the Swedish State Board for International Adoptions) did not recognize this action, arguing that since the child was now a Swedish citizen, a Colombian court decree could not affect his legal relationship to his Swedish adoptive parents. In Sweden, according to the Adoption Centre, "adoptions cannot be undone."

The child's grandmother visited Sweden in June 1995, with the assistance of Colombia's ASFADDES (Association of the Family Members of the Disappeared) and Nor-way's Council of Political Refugees. The Adoption Centre, under pressure because of widespread media publicity in both Colombia and Sweden, received the grandmother at its office in Stockholm, and facilitated a meeting between the grandmother, her grandson, and his adoptive parents. No agreement was reached, however, about the child's return, and the Colombian government said that it lacked the resources to pursue the case in Sweden.

In 1996, Amnesty International intervened on the grandmother's behalf by providing a lawyer for her, and she made a second trip to Sweden, where she visited her grandson and his adoptive parents at their home. During this visit, an unofficial agreement regarding visitation and the child's education was drawn up and eventually (in 1997) signed by the adoptive parents and the grandmother. The agreement specifies that the child is to remain with his adoptive parents, that his grandmother has visitation rights once a year, that the child is to take Spanish classes, and that when it is "suitable," the adoptive family will visit Colombia. These terms satisfied the Adoption Centre, which continued to affirm its position that it was in the best interest of the child (now six years old) to remain with his adoptive parents-"He has no other parents"-but conceded that "the biological maternal grandparents should continue to be the child's grandparents." This concession by adoption officials, together with the signed agreement between the parents and grandparents, blurs the concept of adoption as a "clean-break" process and tacitly contributes to the official endorsement of a model of family that is heterotopic (Foucault 1973), in that it suggests forms of belonging that disrupt the orders, divisions, and groupings of blood kinship and of exclusive national identities.19

This story illuminates the complications of any simple interpretation of parental "abandonment" of a child. It demonstrates the embeddedness of physical abandonment in the violence of the state and in the "pull" of international agreements and understandings (such as those that underpin intercountry adoptions from Colombia to Sweden). Physical abandonment and the legal erasures that follow (and may provoke) this abandonment are central to the commodification of the adoptable child. While the routinization in processing that is implied by this story is not necessarily characteristic of other Colombian adoptions, it is nonetheless revealing of the erasures of belonging-the effacement of traces that would link the child to a specific social, cultural, and political surround-that have accompanied the emergence of adoption as a practice for creating families among infertile couples of the north and for managing a political or economic "excess" of children in the south.


2002 Jan 1