Last year, American families adopted more than 11,000 children from abroad. More than half came from either China or Ethiopia; but as recently as 2007, the country that sent the most children to the U.S. was the Central American nation of Guatemala. Between 1999 and 2010, more than 26,000 Guatemalan children were adopted by U.S. parents.
Today, however, an advisory on the State Department's website warns: “The United States is not currently processing adoptions from Cambodia or Guatemala.”
What happened? The answer?which involves cross-border corruption, kidnapping and finally a crackdown?is revealed in Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child and a Cross-Border Search for the Truth, a new book by investigative journalist Erin Siegal.
Siegal began looking into Guatemalan adoptions when she was a fellow at the Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. After emailing a woman who had posted about problems with an adoption on a listserv, Siegal found herself thrown into an opaque world of child-trafficking, unscrupulous attorneys and American parents left in the dark about the circumstances that brought their new sons and daughters to their homes.
The Crime Report spoke with Siegal from her home in Mexico.
The Crime Report: You describe corruption at every turn in the adoption industry in Guatemala, from fake DNA test results and forged paperwork to bribery and outright kidnapping. Were you surprised to learn the scope of the illegality?
Erin Siegal: I don't know if I can say I was surprised because before I got into this investigation I read Francisco Goldman's classic Guatemalan book, The Art of Political Murder. The book lays out corruption in the judicial system and corruption within the Guatemalan government, so it was really instrumental in my thinking about how Guatemala works, as opposed to a place like the United States.
I went into this investigation with a base level of understanding around general corruption. It's not just adoptions. In Guatemala you can bribe anyone for anything. You can arrange a hit, a murder, for practically the price of a Happy Meal. So when I started learning about everything that happens in adoptions, I think the bigger surprise was that American adoptive parents were so misinformed and had so little access to true information. Who would be telling them what was really going on? There was no incentive for anyone to do that in most cases.
TCR: If people are willing to throw $20,000 or $30,000 at an industry like that, can anything really be done to make it more legitimate?
ES: That's the big question. In the Guatemalan adoption industry there were so many intermediaries. American money would initially be handed off to an adoption agency [in the U.S.] that was accredited by a state licensing agency, but after that…they didn't know [where it went]… And that's the crux of the problem: there's no oversight in countries that haven't signed the Hague Convention treaty.
TCR: Tell me about the Hague Convention.
ES: The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption sets up guidelines for countries that send children and that receive children. The Hague suggests we need to track money in adoptions, people need to be accountable for who they work with, and there needs to be very strict record keeping. And that's all good and wonderful, but it does have a major failing, which is that adoption agencies that don't pass Hague accreditation here in the U.S. are still allowed to operate; they just can't operate in Hague signatory countries. It's a pretty glaring hole.
TCR: What role did American adoption agencies play in perpetuating corruption in the system of Guatemalan adoptions?
ES: There were no incentives for American agents to do any kind of backgrounding on the people that they worked with. In a case like Celebrate Children International (CCI), the agency in my book, they repeatedly worked with folks that engaged in some pretty shady practices. CCI clients told me that they kind of understood that things weren't exactly on the up and up—they had a lot of suspicions but for them it was impossible to find out the truth. Whereas you'd think the [agency itself] would have a responsibility to know what their partners were doing, and know where the children they were placing actually came from.
Yet if you look at the local and state statutes, nothing in the code mandates that an adoption agency working internationally has to know where the children they place are coming from. The children just have to be deemed legally adoptable by the other country. And obviously in a place like Guatemala, that can happen in many different ways that aren't exactly legitimate.
TCR: Have any American adoption agents been indicted for their practices?
ES: There was actually a really high profile case that happened a couple years ago with a woman named Lauryn Galindo who was basically the go-to person for Cambodian adoptions. She had handled something like 700 adoptions, including for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. She was convicted in U.S. court on federal charges of money laundering and visa fraud. I believe [she's] free today. The federal government has had some luck in going after folks for immigration fraud. But it hasn't happened a lot.
Another big case was the Mary Bonn case. She is a Florida woman who smuggled a Guatemalan girl into the U.S. using fake documents. There was a big investigation and they eventually found the child in her house.
TCR: You write that as far back as 1990, U.S. embassy officials in Guatemala were warning the U.S. government that adoptions from Guatemala often involved fraud, but it wasn't until the end of 2007 that adoptions between the two countries stopped. Why was this allowed to go on so long?
ES: There are a lot of forces at play in the Guatemalan adoption industry. The adoption lobby in Guatemala and the U.S. was pretty powerful. In such a poor country, the folks that were the puppeteers of the industry were private lawyers, and lawyers in Guatemala are in general upper class citizens. They have political clout… Guatemala tried to pass reform efforts for a while and at every turn reform efforts failed.
In the U.S., adoption lobbying groups like the Joint Council on International Children‘s Services (JCICS) were invited to steer Congress on adoption issues. They would provide data at Congressional hearings. It's kind of tricky, because in the early 2000s and up until a couple of years ago, their core constituency, their membership, was mostly made up of adoption agencies who had a financial interest in maintaining a flow of children from countries like Guatemala. So there wasn't really an incentive for things to change.
And the embassy's role isn't to be a regulator. The embassy's role is to oversee American interests. So if a large part of American interest in the country is in adopting, they're there to facilitate things—and to make sure they don't get caught up in child trafficking scandals.
TCR: When did adoptions between Guatemala and the U.S. stop?
ES: December 31, 2007. It wasn't an American decision. It was Guatemala's decision to ratify the Hague. But the change only related to new adoptions, so the rules took effect and around 3,000 kids were caught in limbo. And today, there are still 300 adoptions that are in progress.
TCT: There are families in the U.S. who began the adoption process in 2007 and they're still waiting?
ES: Yes. When Guatemala ratified the Hague, regulations were put in place that allowed these cases to move forward under transition rules. They weren't necessarily Hague-compliant cases, but they weren't being processed under the old system—they were in between… In 2010, [an independent group called Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala] released a report that was an analysis of how the cases were processed, and they found that in 60 percent of the cases there were “irregularities”–which is a catch-all phrase attached to an adoption case that has some kind of fraud. Maybe the paperwork isn't exactly correct, or the paperwork is doctored, or something as egregious as alleged kidnapping.
That number was pretty staggering to people who read the report… American pressure to get those cases moved throughout this process has been really enormous. You have really concerned adoptive parents, who are concerned for good reason. They feel like they love the kids they're going to adopt and they want the best for them; they don't want them stuck in orphanages. So they write to their Senators and their Representatives and those politicians put pressure on the embassy in Guatemala to try to get the cases moving. It's a really delicate diplomatic issue because Guatemalan prosecutors are trying to unravel which cases are legitimate and where each of these children is from. That takes a lot of energy and resources to do that they don't necessarily have.
A new human trafficking unit was actually created in Guatemala's Ministerio Público in November 2007, and most of their caseload even today is dealing with adoption. It's a very slow process, and really difficult situation because these kids are stuck in purgatory and there's no easy way out.
TCR: Are there other countries that American parents should be wary of adopting from?
ES: Ethiopia has sort of filled the void left by Guatemala in fulfilling the demand for adoptable children. The numbers there have skyrocketed over the past decade. It's the same thing that happened in Guatemala, Cambodia and Vietnam. When adoption economies begin to snowball in a sending country, the demand [in the U.S.] snowballs. In Ethiopia, orphanages open and immediately sign contracts with America agencies. Getting a child from Ethiopia is relatively fast and simple compared to lots of countries–especially countries like Russia that have lots of regulation now, and where the adoption process can take years. Adopting from Ethiopia, on the other hand, can take as little as six to eight months.
Julia Dahl, former deputy managing editor of The Crime Report, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She currently writes for Crimesider, CBSNews.com’s crime blog. You can read her other articles at www.juliadahl.com. She welcomes comments from readers.