Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-border Search for the Truth
by Erin Siegal
Book review by Mirah Riben
Finding Fernanda is a riveting, powerful, excruciatingly detailed view of the underbelly of international adoption, particularly in – but not limited to – Guatemala. It is investigative reporting at its finest, deserving of a Pulitzer…and at the same time is a heartfelt drama that makes damn good reading as a real life mystery (which tops any fiction). The author’s passion and writing skill puts the reader right in the midst of every scene of this high stake tale of kidnapping, gray/black market adoption, and international child trafficking.
Despite the title, it is really the story of one mother and her two children taken from her by criminals and her unwavering battle against disbelief, accusations against her, bureaucracy, incompetence, and death threats. Mildred Alvarado is a young mother who lived in a middle class Guatemalan neighborhood with her common-law husband and 3 children. Becoming pregnant again and leaving her cheating man, thrusts the uneducated and easily manipulated Mildred into poverty and makes her the perfect victim of the baby broking adoption pimps who exploit ignorance and poverty for a living. She is at once quite and shy and an extraordinarily brave woman of “fierce dignity” and unwavering determination who at 34 refuses to put on makeup to go to court because her father would “kill her” if he ever knew.
The other mother in the title is a brave American named Betsie Emanuel who – in stark contrast to all other adoptive parents in the book – stands up to the corruption and helps solve the case of Mildred’s two missing daughters from her home computer in Gallatin, Tennessee. Betsie is a stand-out whistle blowing exception to all the other mothers she befriended along what was to be the adoption of her sixth child (including three non-adopted). Others saw the same red flashing lights, the bribery, the lies, the changed names and dates of birth, the duplicate photos of children…and made a choice to ignore it out of “fear” not of retribution, but that they would loose out on obtaining the brass ring they sought. “No one wanted to anger [Hedberg] or risk the chance of losing a referral.” They wanted a child, no matter what the cost or what ethics or laws were bent or broken to obtain their goal.
The other characters in the book are the bible-toting, Jesus-quoting, holier than thou, Sue Hedberg, CEO of Celebrate Children International (CCI) a Christian International adoption agency in Florida and a crew of her Guatemalan “contacts,” lawyers, physicians, intermediaries, and baby finders that comprise a chain of “not me” criminals, the majority of whom – including Hedberg – have gone scot free to continue selling children. Hedberg earned a salary $209,750 doing “God’s work” and “saving” babies in 2004 with CCI netting $2.5 million. The following year, 2005, the net revenue reached of $4.5 million, and in 2006 Hedberg’s salary was over $250 thousand. CCI currently has adoption programs in Ethiopia and is setting one up in the Republic of the Congo, inasmuch as Guatemala is closed to US adopters. Shame for the baby brokers and child traffickers, as it’s a country of known for criminal impunity and no law against child selling. On the upside for CCI is the Hague Convention on International Adoption's failure to prevent signatory countries from adopting from non-signatory countries making Ethiopia and the Congo prime targets for agencies like CCI which failed its Hague accreditation.
CCI has been investigated by the State of Florida three times, with 19 complaints filed since 2005. DFC, which has a 3,000 plus page report on their investigation of the agency has no authority in Guatemala and nothing but Hedberg’s total denials to go on.
Whatever CCI knew or didn’t know about Mildred Alvarado’s children or any other questionable adoptions such as that of Karen Abigial are among the “murky” unknown facts washed clean by the laundering of children through a massive chain of unscrupulous and occasionally naive characters. In nations as poor as Guatemala there is a pervasive see no evil attitude toward making a buck.
Other players of note for those within the adoption community include, in no particular order: Susana Luarca, the website GuatAdopt.com, Lauryn Galindo, kidnap victim Karen Abigail adopted by the Monahans of Missouri, the Joint Council on International Adoption, Marvin Bran Galino, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, Guatemalan Judges and government agencies both Guatemalan and American. An entire chapter (6) sidesteps the story-line to detail the depth of the corruption in Guatemalan adoption.
Between 2008 and 2010, CICGI [the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala] found 90 percent of all children who left Guatemala in adoption had been relinquished, and in many cases, illegitimately so. Some relinquishments were not made voluntarily, one CICIG investigator said, or had been made by women who were not the true biological mothers. More that 60 percent of the transition adoptions contained abnormalities, including “theft and illegal purchase or sale of children, threats and deception to biological mothers, forgery of documents to carry out ‘adoption processes…’” Guatemala’s participation in international adoption in 2008-2010 was a “lucrative form of human trafficking,” CICIG noted…
If ninety percent were relinquished, that leaves 10% abandoned, taken by the state, or truly orphaned. And with a 60% rate of abnormalities, one is very hard pressed to find substantiation to the “anomaly” or “rare” claims of the pro-adoptionist profiteers.
Spoiler alter beyond this point:
Mildred is among a very small handful of Guatemalan mothers whose kidnapped children were miraculously found and returned because they were located before being sent to the US for adoption. However, the majority of the criminals involved have not been charged nor have Mildred and her children been given any compensation for their year-and-a-half ordeal during which the children report being hit and were left with long-term damages. No one in jail, no adoption agency closing, despite the very clear fact that an alleged relinquishment was dated a full month after Mildred had filed missing persons reports for her girls.
This book should be required reading for anyone considering international adoption. And three facts need to be recognized: 1) there is no line between gray and black market adoptions and perfectly legal ones; 2) ethical, reputable adoption agencies can - and do - all too easily unknowingly place children who have been obtained illegally; 3) these atrocities are not limited to Guatemala, which has currently closed adoptions to the US. Any internationally adopted child could be a kidnap victim! With child trafficking for adoption documented in India, Nepal, Vietnam, China, Ethiopia and elesewhere, prospective adopters need to think long and hard if they want to risk being the recipient of a stolen child.
For more see: FindingFernanda.com