Child Abduction for Adoption and the Tangled Web of Deceit in Guatemala: A Review of Erin Siegal’s “Finding Fernanda”

Because much of my research has focused on reforming intercountry adoption and most especially Guatemala, I opened Siegal’s “Finding Fernanda” cautiously. She began the story by capturing the meager life of a determined mother, Mildred Alvarado, and her children living on poverty’s bitter edge. 

By the end of this captivating read, it is impossible to see Alvarado as anything but a strong and resilient woman who is determined to fight circumstances of poverty and oppression–its impact on human dignity and the destruction of her family.

This main thread of the story makes Alvarado not only an interesting woman, but the underdog that everyone must hope for the ‘right thing’ to happen in the end.

However, when Alvarado and many other women’s stories of child abduction for adoption went ‘public’ it seemed everyone in the intercountry adoption community was routing against ‘the truth.’ It was unthinkable that some [1] of the beautiful children who had been adopted from Guatemala came to their adoptive families from sinister pathways. ‘Orphan’ adoption is viewed by most as an honorable act and to suggest that children are not truly orphans (and may be trafficking victims) is more than impolite to most people. Unfortunately the historical context and story of Guatemala is far too complicated for such fantasized notions about ‘orphans’ to always be true and when interrogates the facts, a grotesque reality unfolds.

Siegal pulls together many of the facts in her book, often allowing them to speak for themselves. The villain, an executive director of a notoriously bad adoption agency in Florida, gives the reader some insight into the inner workings of a ‘Christian’ woman who uses faith to manipulate her clients as needed. Then, there is the more subtle manipulation of the US Government, ranging from the US Department of State to the many Senators and Congressmen who demand that their constituent’s adoptions be completed—regardless of fears of fraud, coercion, and abduction of children for adoption.

Siegal rightly identifies that one should follow the money! [2] I am left wondering how an executive director of an adoption agency can make in the range of $250,000 annually with six figure bonuses for her husband (with little documentation for ‘why’ such a payment is legitimate). How can the IRS allow such ridiculous money management of a ‘non-profit’ agency? Further, some suspect that this agency director’s home and vehicle are paid for by the organization. While these allegations are not substantiated, the suspicion is telling.

Then there are the hopeful families who pay outrageous sums to adoption agencies, sometimes ranging upwards to $50,000 USD. How is it really possible that these families honestly believe that such a sum is anything other than the fuel that fed the fires of graft and greed in Guatemala? This is a nation where the average worker makes $2 daily and extreme poverty is almost an understatement.

Then there is the corruption of Guatemalan officials, all captured well by Siegal while the reader is left with questions about corruption of US officials including our diplomats serving in the Central American nation—again Siegal challenges our own assumptions about honesty and integrity. If US officials were enriched is a question that will likely go unanswered, but we know that hundreds of people in the US and Guatemala became adoption millionaires during this era. The majority of them were the adoption attorneys in Guatemala.

Some of the Guatemalan-based villains include the Bran family who appear to be low-medium level actors in a large pyramid of organized crime. Abducting the children of poor women was only the first step and this family that developed a system feeding children into a larger scheme under the guise of child adoption. This was only possible in a nation in which civil society is essentially non-existent, law enforcement is impotent, and violence against women is endemic.

Siegal touches on femicide in the nation where two women die daily as a result of the crime. Siegal even briefly mentions a theory that illegal adoptions underlie some of these brutal murders of women. I wish that Siegal had taken that thread farther as I am convinced that a significant percentage of the killing of women over the past decade were connected to and motivated by human trafficking, including child abductions for adoption. As Siegal documents, Alvarado narrowly escaped her own death at the hands of the Bran family and their associates. Then she persevered through endless death threats. Mildred herself recognized the fact that her own life being spared was a miracle. How many other women were less fortunate as they fought find their abducted children? How many women desperately begged for their children to be returned only to be met with extreme violence and even death to silence them? That is a convenient scenario to truly make a child an ‘orphan’.

As we come to the happy conclusion of “Finding Fernanda” we are relieved that Alvarado and her two daughters are reunited. We also learn more about the US-based woman who had hoped to adopt Fernanda. Following her gut instinct to connect the dots and ultimately provided needed information make the reunion possible, Betsy Emanuel was one of the few who acted ultimately with integrity. Again, this act of ‘truth telling’ was not without risk and with the great criticism of the families hoping to adopt from Guatemala—many of whom saw Emanuel’s intervention as risking the future of pending adoptions. 

The reader is left to wonder about the other mothers who are still fighting for their children to return to their families after being abducted for adoption. As the years go on, chances diminish but there is some hope that a recent Guatemalan court ruling in July 2011 will yield the return of one child. Unfortunately, to date, the Missouri family who adopted the child in question has resisted the court order. However, some members of the Bran family and their associates are now serving jail sentences including a well-connected Guatemalan adoption attorney. However, the Americans involved in the force, fraud, and coercion of child abduction remain above the law—including the aforementioned adoption agency director—as legal pursuit of these individuals is just too time consuming and difficult for prosecutors in Guatemala. Ultimately there are larger and more pressing issues of narco-trafficking, human trafficking for sex and servitude, and the aforementioned murder rate of women.

While there have been criminal prosecutions in the nation, the future of these abduction cases in terms mother-child reunions has many unknowns and one certainty. The unknowns are related to the political environment in Guatemala and the will of the US government to do the right thing—which has yet to be done thus far. With a newly elected president in Guatemala, one known to be directly connected to genocide orders during the civil war, the country is in transition. These are tenuous times for a nation that has suffered the longest civil war in the Americas and lack of civil society today. However, one constant is Norma Cruz the human rights defender who stood by Mildred and pushed her case forward at every corner. Known by many as simply “Norma,” she has become a national hero. I am fortunate to call her a friend and colleague. As Norma has taken these cases to the US public in her requests for justice, I have accompanied her including one American University Law School presentation in which top State Department officials were in attendance. I can say with all certainty that she will fight for these women and the return of their children until her final breath. For these cases of child abduction for adoption have come to symbolize what is wrong in Guatemala, a country seized by greed, corruption, and the desperation of poverty so deep that the selling of its citizenry into human trafficking schemes is far too common. And, as a US citizen, I am embarrassed to say that the exploitation is all too often for the sake of the U.S. dollar!

As a social worker, I would have never thought that such a seedy story could emerge from the very important social intervention of child adoption. When I began my own research on the underlying problems of adoption fraud in Guatemala, dating back to the year 2000, consistent and solid evidence of abduction was not yet clear. However, over time if became obvious that some unknown number of adoptions were touched by many different forms of force, fraud, and coercion. And, Siegal has captured it in one woman’s story.

Finally, because I personally know a number of the individuals identified, quoted, and sourced in this book, I can say that Siegal has captured much the same oral history that I have been told. [3] I would take only one minor dispute with Siegal. I applaud Siegal for writing the book and I am amazed by the details that she documented. To travel in a country with extreme violence against women and investigate organized crime is not for the faint of heart. I thank Siegal for her courage to give voice to women like Mildred Alvarado for they are often the voiceless and misunderstood, but when they seek justice they are often marginalized. Now, we are moving forward in setting the record straight.


[1] Not all child adoptions from Guatemala were illegitimate or corrupt. However,there were enough problems that human rights defenders and some scholarshave asserted that birth mother payments were relatively frequent andabductions also occurred. Learn more and view reports here.
[2] The idea of ‘follow the money’ has been asserted in various ways by many scholars and advocates who observe private child adoptions. Adam Pertman (2011) captures the issues well in his book Adoption Nation and Mirah Riben’s book The Stork Market: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry.
[3] The idea of ‘follow the money’ has been asserted in various ways by many scholars and advocates who observe private child adoptions. Adam Pertman (2011) captures the issues well in his book Adoption Nation and Mirah Riben’s book The Stork Market: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry.

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  • daniel-ibn-zayd

    Thank you for the review of this book, it bears witness to the lifting of the fog among professionals in the field who are starting to realize what those of us who have returned to our lands of birth know  and have known to be the truth for a long time now: Adoption is trafficking. Whether in Korea (where adoptees have led the battle to end adoption) or Guatemala, or Lebanon (where I am now), or any other source country, the systemic dispossession of children from those least able to defend themselves to provide for a class of people at the top of the economic and political hierarchy is the same, and follows on the heels of the economic liberalization of these countries or else profits from war, disasters, or willful destruction and the ensuing global inequalities so produced.

    What is needed is a redefinition of “adoption” as opposed to “foster care” or “guardianship”, where the first is the providing of children to form nuclear families at the expense of the child’s extended family and community, while the second is a communal contract to collectively take care of others’ children when his or her parents are unable to do so for whatever reason. This is the difference in definition that reveals the individualistic and nuclear-family based mindset that sees children as property, as opposed to how the majority of the world acts and lives.

    I can only hope that this book goes far in empowering mothers in the Global South who have lost what is most precious to them. Those in the First World would do well to truly search their souls and realize what the right thing to do is in this matter.

  • cmarie

    I’d also like to thank you for this review and I’m anxious to read the book.  Some people (corrupt attorneys and those holding children they know to have been trafficked) will argue that once a child has spent a certain amount of time with the “adoptive” family he or she has “bonded” and will be hurt if returned to his or her natural family.  This argument, they believe, is their trump card.  The truth is that any nine year old with a library card can get internet access, google their name and if there is a story there, find it.  Yes, certainly it would be confusing for a five or six year old to be returned to her natural family in a country she may find unfamiliar and a language she may have (temporarily) forgotton.  But, imagine how much worse it would be for the same child a few years later to learn that not only was he/she kidnapped but is also legally forbidden from returning home until such time as his or her eighteenth birthday… another nine years!…certainly even if your ONLY concern is the future emotional welfare of the child, there is only one answer… returning them to their natural families immediately!

  • adoptauthor

    Thank you Karen.

    Siegal has written a very important, powerful and poignant book that hopefully anyone and everyone considering adopting a child from anywhere will read.  

    This corruption is not limited to Guatemala. Child Trafficking for adoption has been documented in China, India, Nepal, Somalia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia and elsewhere. All over the world children are at risk of being snatched and claimed as abandoned, sold to orphanages with falsified papers and made available to meet the huge market demand.

    “How is it really possible that these families honestly believe that such a sum is anything other than the fuel that fed the fires of graft and greed in Guatemala?”  Indeed!   

    Until people “desperate” for a child at any price stop being so willing to support this corruption, there will be criminals to fill their orders with other women’s children. Each of us needs to decide whether we chose to be part of the solution or part of the problem. We need to wake up an recognize that taking children one at a time does nothing to ameliorate the poverty of their family, siblings, village or nation.  Adopting Internationally puts you at risk for receiving a kidnapped child.

    And, there are so many other ways to help children such as being a foster parent, adopting from US foster care, or donating to charities such as SOS Children’s Fund, UNICEF, Save the Children, all of whom because they work directly with impoverished children and families firmly believe that International Adoption should be a LAST REORT!

    Those thinking of adoption need to read, educate themselves, face the truth and make IA their last resort.

    Mirah Riben, author, THE STORK MARKET: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry