Last week, the U.S. State Department announced that it would not return a girl adopted from Guatemala in 2008, even though courts there found that she had been kidnapped. The child’s mother, working with Fundación Sobreviventes (a feminist group that works on femicide, child sexual abuse, and children lost to adoptions) has said that she will travel to Missouri to ask a court there to return custody of her daughter to her. The child’s adoptive parents, Timothy and Jennifer Monahan, have consistently said that they have a complete and valid adoption, and, after an appearance on the CBS Early Show in 2010, have hired a publicity firm and refused to speak to anyone about the case.
According to Erin Siegel, a journalist who has done some of the best U.S.-based reporting on adoption from Guatemala, the child, Anyelí Hernández Rodríguez, was 2 years old when disappeared from the patio of the family’s home in San Miguel Petapa, a small community outside Guatemala City, while her mother was bringing in groceries. Although the family searched for her–putting up posters, contacting the police, and attempting to visit orphanages, Anyelí was offered for adoption to the Monahans in 2007. A DNA test found that the supposed birth mother who was relinquishing Anyelí was fraudulent. According to emails published by Siegel, Sue Hedberg, the director of the Christian adoption agency, Celebrate Children International, told Jennifer Monahan that although increased scrutiny had made it much more difficult for the company involved, LabCorp, to “bury” the DNA test, Monahan might be offered the child again under a different name. Subsequently, Hedberg made “Karen Abigail” available to the Monahans for adoption, a child of the same age who was allegedly abandoned. When Anyelí’s birthparents got access to adoption records in Guatemala with the help of Sobreviventes, they identified “Karen Abigail” as their daughter from the photo on the birth certificate. By then, however, she had already left the country with the Monahans, on her way to Liberty, Mo., with the help of Susana Luarca a Guatemalan lawyer notorious in human rights circles, and identified in the US press as a participant in abusive adoption practices at least six years earlier.
I’m always afraid people think I’m making stuff up when I write about adoption from Guatemala, but this case has published documents and multiple convictions of people involved. It’s also a lot like other cases I wrote about in Somebody’s Children.
Anyeli’s mother, Loyda Rodríguez, participated in the 2008 Sobreviventeshunger strike that finally led to the halting of most adoptions from Guatemala to the US (as most other nations had long since stopped them). As she continued to pursue the case, through activism and the courts, Rodríguez also faced stepped up harassment: her sister was abducted (although she escaped), and she was followed by strange cars. Finally, Rodríguez took her three children and fled the Guatemala City area in terror.
The manifest unhelpfulness of the U.S. State Department, the Guatemalan police and government agencies that Rodríguez turned to for help, and the fact that she has been harassed and terrorized should not surprise us. Adoption from Guatemala to the United States became a huge money-making enterprise carried out by courts, lawyers, and government agencies together with criminal mafias in the 90s and first decade after 2000. Before that, disappearing children was a practice carried out by militaries and paramilitaries to terrorize their supposed enemies on the political Left. As the human rights groups Todos por el Reencuentro has documented, thousands of children were disappeared during the civil war in Guatemala, beginning with a vengeance in the 1980s. This story, along with the attempted genocide of indigenous people there, has been thoroughly ignored in the United States. Most of these children were adopted within Guatemala, but some made their way into adoption to the US, Canada, and Western Europe. By 1994, when the Peace Accords were signed, adoption had become a very lucrative enterprise. As the war to defeat Communism in Guatemala was ending, members of the military and others began engaging in a particularly spectacular form of neoliberal capitalism: the disappearance and sale of children for up to $30,000 each in adoption “fees.” The worst was that most of it was all perfectly legal, a fact that hindered the efficacy of international human rights activism against “trafficking” or “illegal” adoption.
Fortunately for Anyelí’s mother, there were actual crimes committed in her case: a falsified birth certificate, a documented abduction. Whether the Missouri courts will find those issues relevant remains to be seen. But for thousands of Guatemalans–as for Salvadorans and Argentines–one of the legacies of the wars and their aftermath is children disappeared, alive, and still unaccounted for, or known to be raised by other families.
But when Guatemalan and other Central American survivors of the civil wars and US proxy wars in the region in the 1980s and 90s arrive in the United States, they encounter other “security” forces that prosecute them for the crime of fleeing without the visas the US refused (and refuses) to grant them. Sometimes, they also take their children away here.
For example, in a case that has received widespread attention, Encarnación Bail Romero, one of 136 immigrant detained in a workplace raid of poultry processing plant in Missouri in April 2007, had parental rights to her six month old son terminated as a result. Hers was among the first raids the Department of Homeland Security pursued as part of a campaign they called “Operation Return to Sender,” which promised to aggressively prosecute “crimes” related to false identification, to sentence and hold people on those crimes, to conduct workplace raids, and to deport people whose status was suspect. So Bail was charged with possessing a fake ID, and served a year and a half in jail for that crime, waiting to be deported after she had served her sentence.
At first, her baby, Carlos, stayed with two aunts. But they were sharing a tiny apartment with six of their own children, and had very little money. When a teacher’s aid at one of their children’s school offered to find someone else to care for Carlos, they agreed. Three months later, the aid visited Encarnación in jail, saying a couple with land and a beautiful house wanted to adopt Carlos. She said no. A few weeks later, an adoption petition arrived at the jail, in English. Encarnación was not literate in Spanish, never mind English. Still, with the help of Mexican cellmate, a guard, and a bilingual Guatemalan visitor, she prepared a response to the court: “I do not want my son to be adopted by anyone,” she wrote on a piece of notebook paper. “I would prefer that he be placed in foster care until I am not in jail any longer. I would like to have visitation with my son.” Although she repeatedly asked judges and lawyers for help, it was a year before she found a lawyer who would take the case. By then, it was too late. The couple caring for Carlos complained that she had sent no money for his support and had not contacted him. A year and a half after she went to jail, a judge terminated her parental rights and permitted the other couple to adopt him. “Her lifestyle, that of smuggling herself into the country illegally and committing crimes in this country,” Judge Dally wrote, referring to the false ID, “is not a lifestyle that can provide stability for a child. A child cannot be educated this way, always in hiding or on the run.”
In another closely watched case, María Luis, a Guatemalan, a Maya-Kiché woman in Grand Isle, Nebraska (the site of another large workplace raid, although Luis had come to the attention of authorities earlier) had her parental rights terminated as well, following her arrest for lying to the police and subsequent deportation. María had taken her one-year old daughter, Angelica, to the doctor for a respiratory infection. Although she was a Kiché-speaker, the doctors instructed her in Spanish about how to care for the child. When she failed to arrive for a follow-up appointment, social services went to her house with the police. When asked if she was her children’s mother, María, frightened that she would be in trouble because of her immigration status, said she was the babysitter. The police arrested her on a criminal charge for falsely identifying herself, and she was deported. Angelica and Daniel, 7, went to foster care, and state social services began proceedings to terminate her parental rights. Federal immigration officials gave her no opportunity to participate in those proceedings, and she lost the children. In April, 2009, four years after the children were originally sent to foster care, the Nebraska Supreme Court restored her parental rights, saying that federal immigration officials had denied her due process rights in interfering with her ability to participate in the state proceedings, and that state officials had never provided her with an interpreter, never explained the process through which she could seek custody of the children, and never made any effort to reunify the family, largely because social service workers “thought the children would be better off staying in the United States.”
Stories like these are unusual, in that the mothers finally were able to obtain effective counsel and were able to contest the state social services efforts. National organizations sent out press releases; the cases were publicized in national media and on the Internet. More commonly, no one hears about these cases except the people who know the family and the officials involved. The Urban Institute, in two recent reports, has suggested that there may be hundreds of thousands of children affected by federal immigrant deportations, an unknown number of whom may also be caught in state social welfare cases. An estimated 4.5 million children in the United States in 2005 had at least one undocumented parent.
Although there is no organized campaign to separate immigrant parents from Guatemala or elsewhere from their children, it is a consequence of workplace raids, criminalization of undocumented status, the absence of civil rights in immigrant detention (including the right to make a phone call to notify people of your whereabouts, or finding out what’s happened to your children), and stepped-up anti-immigrant attacks. In October, when Alabama’s harsh anti-immigration law was passed, a mother told the UK Guardian that she was drawing up power-of-attorney papers to allow her niece to assume custody of her U.S. citizen children if she were detained by immigration officials. She described her concerns in exactly these terms: “I’m afraid I could disappear without anyone knowing what’s happened to me,” she said, “who knows what would happen to me in jail.”
Nearly two decades after the end of the civil wars in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America, mothers and children are still being disappeared, some of them in the United States.
Laura Briggs is Chair of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption and Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. She blogs at somebodyschildren.com.