In the Land of Lost Children

Five years ago, Guatemala halted international adoptions after years of reports of baby-selling and fraud. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Guatemalan children were growing up happy in the United States. Investigative reporter Erin Siegal decided to find out what was really going on.

A child in a Guatemala City orphanage. Photo by Erin Siegal.

Interview by Christa Hillstrom

On September 7, 2006, Mildred Alvarado woke up in Guatemala City, disoriented after an impromptu operation the night before: “The walls were pale blue, and morning light filtered in through a set of blinds. Her head pounded as she tried to lift her chin. It was the medical clinic; she was in a hospital room. A sharp pain spidered across her waistline. Glancing down, she realized she was no longer pregnant. Surgical tape bound her hands and feet to the bed frame. ‘What’s going on?’ she called out weakly as a nurse in blue limped past. ‘Where’s my baby?’”

It’s a question that Mildred, and countless other mothers throughout Guatemala, ask throughout the pages of photojournalist and investigative reporter Erin Siegal’s remarkable first book, Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth. Mildred asked doctors, lawyers, government officials, the media, NGOs, and even the black market “baby launderers” who first befriended her and then kidnapped two of her children—one straight from the womb—attempting to sell them on the international adoption market. Answers would come, but not before the story exposed a troubling underside to the bright and booming adoption system that brought thousands of children to U.S. homes over the last three decades—until adoptions were closed in late 2007 when Guatemala’s ratification of the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption went into effect.

With both compassion and discernment toward a highly controversial topic, Siegal fuses the dramatic tension of a novel with thorough investigative research on the crime and corruption that long proliferated the relationship between Guatemala and the United States in relation to adoption.  She tracks the converging narratives of Mildred, distraught in her search for daughters Maria Fernanda and Ana Cristina, and Tennessee mother Betsy Emanuel, whose quest to adopt Fernanda brought on surprising twists that would eventually lead her to help recover both girls. Both women would bump up against frustrating bureaucracies, ineffective regulation, gross negligence, and straight-up corruption, from the Florida agency that facilitated Fernanda’s attempted adoption right down to the doctors, lawyers, and criminal child recruiters involved in her kidnapping.

By the mid-2000′s—between 2003 and 2008—a full 20 percent of the 100,000 children adopted into the United States came from Guatemala. The swiftness of the process here and its proximity to the U.S. encouraged  prospective parents to look to the small Central American nation as an attractive source country for children. As other countries like Nepal and Vietnam gradually closed their borders due to an inability to properly monitor the process, interest in Guatemala grew. Though plenty of U.S. families have raised happy Guatemalan children who were orphaned or, more commonly, relinquished—voluntarily given up for adoption by their birth mothers—a lack of transparency throughout the procurement line has raised questions about how—and why—adoption has been practiced.

Typically, American agencies contracted private Guatemalan lawyers who were paid considerable fees to facilitate the process on the ground—from the paperwork ensuring a mother’s willingness to give up her child, to the DNA tests confirming she was actually the birth mother. The problem was not that there was no system, but that the system lacked appropriate safeguards against those who would, of course, abuse it to get at the large sums of money propping it up.

Loyda Rodriguez has been searching for her daughter, Anyeli, for five years. Photo by Erin Siegal.

The spike in adoptions in the ’90s meant a staggering inflow of cash to a tiny country still healing from decades of gruesome civil war. As in other globalized trades and regions where trafficking has become endemic, lax enforcement of existing regulations, extreme poverty—especially in rural areas—and a complicated, opaque procurement process inevitably bred fraud.

It is ugly to liken children to tin, diamonds, or other resources plied from the soil, rocks, and forests of the Global South and appropriated for Western markets.  And indeed, the story Siegal tells is different than those from the mines of the Congo or the fields of Uzbekistan. In Siegal’s account, children end up not as slaves but as cherished sons and daughters.

Yet the complexity—and vulnerability—of the U.S./Guatemala system bears similarities to trades often compromised when money from wealthier countries sustains a demand for materials from impoverished, ill-regulated, and often war-torn nations. Western money fuels slavery and atrocities in Africa. U.S. drug markets support Latin American cartels that are even now diversifying their criminal portfolios to embrace human trafficking. And for all of the well-intentioned adoptive parents and agencies who work hard to unite legitimately eligible children with loving families, the sheer overall volume of money involved—as high as $50,000 per child, according to a 2009 U.S. Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks—invites corruption in a country where the average annual salary per capita was $2,680 in 2008. Which is why, Siegal concludes, firm regulations are not optional.

The world of international adoption has always occupied a gray area. As long as a much-needed, fair, and functioning system is beyond reach, reality may be grim for some abandoned and orphaned children. Minus a comprehensive overhaul of economic policy, gender inequalities, geo-political meddling, and numerous other poverty-inducing issues that compel Guatemalan families to relinquish their children in the first place (a topic worthy of a whole other book), many children could miss the chance of finding a stable home.

Mildred’s tenacity was finally rewarded when both daughters were restored to her. Even Betsy Emanuel celebrated, in faraway Tennessee where she lives with her eight children—including Emily Belle, the Guatemalan toddler she was able to bring home.

Mildred embraced Fernanda and Ana Cristina on the steps outside the court that returned them to her. Several other mothers, some of them from distant rural villages, looked on supportively, and quietly held placards with photos of their own missing children, wondering if their turn would someday come, too.

This week, Siegal released The U.S. Embassy Cables: Adoption Fraud in Guatemala—a 700-plus page volume of documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. She received the information three years after filing her request, too late to be included in Finding Fernanda. Instead, Siegal offers this second work aimed at policymakers and others interested in U.S. involvement in—and knowledge about—Guatemalan adoptions. “I find it so interesting because it’s such disturbing stuff,” she said, “talking about birth mothers being murdered who are trying to get their babies back … Hopefully it will help policymakers who have a vested interest in understanding the process or why or how corruption persisted.”

Christa Hillstrom: There’s a whole world with many levels—some of them quite shadowy and nefarious, others quite joyful—when it comes to international adoption. Can you give us a glimpse of what this whole intricately linked world looks like?  Where does Guatemala fit into the picture?

Erin Siegal

Erin Siegal: Guatemala was a place a lot of Americans adopted from because it’s relatively close, and the adoption process there was relatively fast compared to other sending countries. At the industry’s peak, an adoption from start to finish could take as little as four months. That was in part because the system was privatized and it was run by lawyers in Guatemala, and there weren’t a whole lot of checks and balances in place when it came to finding children. That’s problematic in a lot of ways when it comes to corruption, because without safeguards in place nobody knows where children are coming from, and it can be hard to understand that. So in terms of Guatemala being placed internationally as a sending country, it was really popular through the 2000s, outsending much larger coutnies like Russia, and even China at one point.

Christa Hillstrom: The media, of course, like to sensationalize stories, and much of the mainstream coverage of this issue has had quite a dramatic flavor—like Dateline‘s “To Catch a Baby Broker.” As an in-depth, investigative reporter wanting to find out what’s really going on, did you approach the topic with some skepticism?

Erin Siegal: I did have a lot of skepticism. One of the reasons I became a journalist was because I am one of those people who’s sort of disillusioned with the media, and I’m drawn to context.  Reading about adoption in Guatemala, there was sensational story after sensational story. But the sensational aspects went both ways—there were the negative stories about kidnapping, and then there were the stories of super happy families adopting with nothing bad happening. There wasn’t a whole lot of gray.

So when I started researching the issue, obviously a certain amount of corruption was in the process. But no one had really figured out how much or the depth of the corruption. And so I knew something had to be there and it was a lofty idea to try to analyze the level, but it also seemed necessary. No government had really done it, and there weren’t any other institutions or organizations working retroactively to do that work.

So I set out thinking, this is going to be a project about legislative efforts to reform the industry, and why reform hasn’t happened. It evolved once I started actually talking to people involved in the industry, talking to adoptive parents, and a whole lot of people just had these very odd experiences. Even people who had had adoptions they thought were clean and simple and easy, there were sort of little red flags that stuck up in the process.

For example, I spoke to one woman who adopted a baby whose name had changed partway through the process, and no one really had an explanation as to why the baby’s name had changed. Some of the documents had one name on them, some of them had another name. And she never looked into it because she was afraid to. She wanted to adopt, and was frankly terrified of finding out if there was something bad that had happened in the case. There are lots of examples like that where people don’t really know if something bad did occur.

Betsy Emanuel’s experience was so compelling and parts of it felt very universal. When I started to corroborate her account and met Mildred Alvarado, the Guatemalan mother, I thought—this deserves a book-length treatment. It’s so compelling as a story, but also, because a lot of the news media will cover corruption in adoption stories after something has happened, but there’s never a lot of context or meaning about how could this happen and why.

Guatemala is not engaged in adoption today. The industry stopped when the country ratified the Hague Convention and there haven’t been any new cases since December 31, 2007. That’s when they closed the doors. When Guatemala stopped sending children, that was an order to set up new safeguards and a better system with better recordkeeping, and to create a brand new institution that was supposed to oversee all adoptions. Since then, people have asked, when is Guatemala reopening? It could happen today, it could happen next year, it could happen in five years—and it’s been already five years at this point.

Hogar Luz de Maria, where Fernanda and her sister Ana Cristina lived from August, 2007, until February, 2008. Photo by Erin Siegal.

Christa Hillstrom: It is, as you say, a gray area. This gets into the quite nuanced and complicated issue of money in adoption. There are insane amounts of money flowing into international adoptions—amounts that become even more inflated when flushed into poor countries like Guatemala. Regardless of the number of people legitimately facilitating with admirable motives, any time you make so much money available in a new way, entrepreneurial criminal networks create ways to get it. You see it all over the world, including here on Wall Street. Why such large amounts of money? And is it possible to regulate it?

Erin Siegal: It’s the old adage, money corrupts people. And it’s so true—when there’s corruption you can trace it back to money. With the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption—the international treaty that sets up guidelines for good practices in adoption for both sending and receiving countries—some of those guidelines do call for greater tracking in terms of money, keeping records of who gets paid what and when, all down the chain of adoptions. That can help.

The U.S. government was concerned about the money in adoption in Guatemala since the industry began in the late ’80s. I filed a FOIA with the State Department, and the over 2,000 documents I got back pretty much lay out the history of the embassy’s worries about fraud in adoption from the 1980s up to 2010. Back in the early ’90s, they were talking about these lawyers, their incentive—their motives for working in adoption is the money. They know they can get rich quick if they do a certain number of adoptions per year. People got paid per child—so the more children they were able to bring through the network, the better. That’s problematic too. The money in adoption is a driver.

Excerpted Embassy cable from the newly released, The U.S. Embassy Cables: Adoption Fraud in Guatemala.

Christa Hillstrom: The Hague Convention sets out quite clear provisions to be made for regulations around adoption that respect human rights. On the other hand, if the implementation of such an agreement is completely out of the question for very poor countries, it would prevent legitimately unwanted children from finding a home elsewhere.

Sue Hedberg, the head of Celebrate Children International (CCI), the controversial agency that referred Fernanda, said, “Now that adoptions are closed, many children are going to die.” The U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia, responding to the initiation of adoptions there, said, “It’s naïve to think children aren’t going to be bought and sold. You have to plan for it.” There are both sides: Adoption does help children who might otherwise die, but you really can’t do it in an unregulated way.

Erin Siegal: Definitely. That was one of my motivations for doing this book. Without having a full understanding of how even one case of corruption happened, it’s really hard to prevent it. All the bad stuff that happened in Guatemala—as well as in Nepal, Ethiopia, China, India, Vietnam, Cambodia—all these places have struggled with adoption corruption, and it’s because no one has figured out how can we do this in a way that protects both children and their parents and looks out for everyone involved. Adoption is such a noble, beautiful thing, and it’s tragic that it has been corrupted in so many ways. But without a deep understanding of how it has been corrupted, I think it’s impossible to facilitate such a process in a way that’s on the up and up.

Christa Hillstrom: I really like that you approach it with a drive to give context. Because in stories centered on corruption or trafficking, it’s easy to villainize—whether it’s the kidnappers or the women supposedly selling their children. If you look more closely at the matrix of factors that influence decisions to traffic or sell one’s own children, it’s not so black and white. Mildred’s daughters were kidnapped—Ana Cristina actually cut out of her womb—but many accused her of selling them. After researching so many angles with so many ethical and economic dimensions to them, what do you hope people could start to understand or at least question about why this trend is happening, when babies do get sold? Of course, this is related to a lot of issues, from women’s rights to political history to foreign policy from the North.

Erin Siegal: There have been reports done by governments and NGOs, [indicating] that women were selling their children in Guatemala for years. That wasn’t new. And so in these U.S. Embassy cables [from the FOIA request], they knew that children were being sold for the purpose of adoption back in the early ’90s. The problem was if the government of Guatemala didn’t catch that as a crime—and it wasn’t a crime at that time—there was nothing they could do about it. Once Guatemala decided legally that a child was an orphan, it’s not the U.S. government’s role to question that decision. There are issues of sovereignty there.

And so women did sell their children, and that gets to a bigger question of, should you be able to sell a child, should a person be sold? Those kinds of questions are open to interpretation, I guess.  According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—no, children should definitely not be bought and sold.

Excerpted from The U.S. Embassy Cables: Adoption Fraud in Guatemala.

So in Guatemala, I think mothers and families were driven to sell children because they were so incredibly poor. It’s a country where most of the population lives in poverty by global standards. It’s horrific, it’s terrible. Guatemala is a postwar country that struggles with poverty in every level of government. There are not strong social institutions set up to care for children when families can’t care for them. So in cases, the choice to sell a child could save that child or save that family’s other children from starving.

There were a whole host of motivators at play here. But on the flip side there were also examples that sources told me about, where a mother would sell a child so she could buy a cell phone or a TV. There are so many different cases, it’s hard to paint it as black or white. It’s a gray area. But you know you can boil it down to, should children be bought and sold? And I think most developed countries, governments would say no.

Christa Hillstrom: It struck me that some of the questions that arose surrounding accountability are reminiscent of the basic ways consumers are beginning to question corporate accountability across the board—how materials are sourced, how they’re mined, how the workers are treated, etc. The goods economy is working through these different levels of contractors, and that’s essentially happening in adoption as well where the main agency is contracting lawyers—who then contract others—and is perhaps not that aware about where children are coming from. Should they be held accountable?

Erin Siegal: It’s a really good question. Adoption agencies (for example, CCI in Florida) are licensed by the Department of Children and Families, which is a government agency. The problem is that DCF’s regulations are 20 years old, and the world of international adoption has changed so much since then. Twenty years ago, adoptions from Guatemala were a trickle at best. So when you’re trying to figure out how to regulate something, antiquated legislation doesn’t serve anyone. When it came to assigning blame for what happened in the Alvarado/Emanuel case, CCI was found innocent of everything. There were no criminal statutes broken. There was nothing even to pull their license. It’s interesting, when it comes to the level of contractors and money that gets passed from one person to another to another to another, without even a written contract in some cases, it’s really hard to pin accountability to who’s responsible for what. So without updated code, there are no laws to be breaking really.

Federal authorities don’t monitor adoption agencies, it’s all state level. The problem is that they have the power to regulate agencies that have become Hague accredited. Adoption agencies have to apply for this process and it’s expensive. Most of them have passed Hague accreditation, and just a handful have failed. CCI is one of those agencies. And so that means that no one else is watching what they do in terms of business practices, except for their local licensing authority, whose codes are pretty lax and outdated. So it’s a kind of Wild West.

Christa Hillstrom: I had a love-hate reaction to the parents in the book. While I appreciated how sincere they were, I found myself easily frustrated by the culture around acquiring new children.  The Hague Convention discourages showing children’s pictures online, and agencies seemed to be clear with prospective parents that referrals were by no means guaranteed, advising them to not get prematurely attached. And yet the parents seem to become quickly very emotionally attached to specific children. It seems dangerously problematic for emotions to outrun the regulatory process.

Erin Siegal: Emotions definitely colored the process. For a lot of the adoptive parents I spoke to, there was an instant bond they felt from a photograph from the Internet. And they did consider children they had never met before, and in some cases never would meet, their own children. It’s difficult because that kind of bond really stymied some parents’ ability to question what was happening in a case, whether out of fear or just a general urge not to trouble the waters.

Where CCI was concerned, I spoke to many, many clients who had positive experiences and negative experiences and everything in between. A lot of those folks said, I was afraid to ask questions, I didn’t want to make anyone angry or ask questions that would bring attention to my case in case there was something wrong. There was some willful turning a blind eye to certain questions. At the same time, there are other adoptive parents who tackled those questions head on.

For example, Jennifer Hemsley used Adoption Blessings Worldwide. She was adopting a child and was in Guatemala taking care of this child, Hazel. She was told Hazel passed her DNA test on a certain date, which was a date in which Jennifer had custody, so she knew someone had fudged those papers. She said, hang on, I can’t move forward with this—I need to figure out what is going on.

So she did speak out, and to this day Hazel’s still in Guatemala. It left her in a really difficult situation in that the child is now growing up in foster care. Jennifer stopped the adoption, trying to do the right thing, but sometimes there is no “right” thing.

At least in the book, Betsy and Mildred both followed their hearts and did what they felt was right, and I think it was the best possible outcome. But in a lot of cases it’s not that simple.

Christa Hillstrom: That’s a good takeaway—that there’s not always a clear right answer. On the one hand, these parents can offer a lot to children. On the other, some, like UNICEF, believe raising a child in his or her native country is preferable. What does it mean when people call UNICEF “anti-adoption”?

Erin Siegal: When I started researching this topic, I was flabbergasted by the idea that’s carried by some adoptive parents that UNICEF is the bad guy. That comes from the fact that UNICEF advocates for children to grow up in their own culture whenever possible, and they advocate for children to grow up with extended family if that’s possible before turning to international adoption. International adoption is viewed as farther down the list of the best interests of the child, which frankly isn’t something that some parents want to hear.

Mildred Alvarado with her daughter. Villa Nueva, Guatemala, 2010. Photo by Erin Siegal.

Christa Hillstrom: What’s the next big sourcing country when it comes to international adoptions? I was horrified to learn that CCI was exploring options in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In terms of unregulated nightmares, that seems like one of the worst.

Erin Siegal: Ethiopia was the country that sort of filled Guatemala’s place. In terms of timing, when Guatemala closed to new adoptions, a lot of agencies (including CCI) had been in the process of setting up Ethiopian adoption programs.  And so the number of children leaving Ethiopia in international adoptions spiked pretty dramatically between 2004 and 2008—six times the number of children in a span of four years.

I spoke to the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia, some adoption agency staffers, and journalists that are based in Addis Ababa, and they said, “There are troubles here, this is a poor country.” Transparency International has ranked Ethiopia as even more corrupt than Guatemala. So it’s not surprising that some similar issues have cropped up there.

The Ethiopian government this past year has ramped up efforts to combat corruption (so it seems), and over 20 orphanages have been closed down this past summer for various reasons, including allegations about child trafficking and child-selling. They’ve scaled back on the amount of adoptions that are able to happen there.

And so, as to the next country, it’s anyone’s guess.


For more on Erin Siegal’s work and to purchase Finding Fernanda or The U.S. Embassy Cables: Adoption Fraud in Guatemala, visit

Christa Hillstrom is the editor of Human Goods. She has reported in the U.S. and India on social justice and global health and development, and is interested in understanding how power and language drive global trends of exploitation that commodify people.  She currently lives in Seattle.

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