Saving the Children

Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption

By Laura Briggs

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012, 376 pp., $25.95, paperback


Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth

By Erin Siegel

Oakland, CA: Cathexis Press, 2011, 317 pp., $14.95, paperback


Reviewed by Martha Nichols

It’s strange to ride the wave of a social trend. In the decade since my husband and I adopted a baby boy in Vietnam, the media portrayal of international adoption has changed. Adoptive parents were once lauded as good Samaritans who gave lucky kids in developing countries a chance. But as celebrity adoptive moms like Madonna started to stir up controversy—are those kids really orphans? how much money did you pay, Material Girl?—and as international adoption programs continue to tighten regulations or shut down, traveling overseas to find a child has begun to seem like a dubious fad.

Meanwhile, in response to the troubling questions the practice raises, feminist scholars and adoption activists have conducted their own research. What happens when middle-class, American and European white parents adopt children of other races from other countries? The researchers’ sometimes harsh conclusions need to be aired, even if they make an adoptive parent like me wrestle with the truth of my experience.

In Somebody’s Children, Laura Briggs sheds bright light on the “politics of transracial and transnational adoption.” In Finding Fernanda, Erin Siegel puts a human face on the politics, weaving together the stories of two women—a Guatemalan birth mother whose children were kidnapped in 2006 and the American adoptive mother who helped her get them back—with accounts of double-dealing judges, handwringing US Embassy officials, and crusading feminist organizations such as Fundación Sobrevivientes (the Survivors’ Foundation). Point of view matters in telling an adoption story, and it’s usually adoptive parents who get to tell it their way. The books under review here—one academic, the other journalistic—provide disturbing perspectives on adoption as a profit-making, exploitative business.

And that’s my problem. Finding Fernanda occasionally comes off as a melodramatic exposé. Somebody’s Children, for its part, maintains a mile-high view that can minimize the serendipity and quirkiness involved in adoption, instead portraying everybody involved as followers of social scripts. Briggs doesn’t oversimplify, but she tends to examine sweeping political forces rather than personal motivations. Statements such as “From the 1930s through the 1970s, U.S. Americans learned a way to feel about foreign children” imply that all of us were marching to the same drum, heeding the rallying cries of pundits.

Just as I don’t believe that all consumers are rational actors, I don’t see adoptive parents as a monolithic bloc, making decisions based on what’s fashionable. As a feminist adoptive mom, I’m conflicted, trying to separate my knee-jerk defensiveness from a legitimate desire to help my son. So, I’ll risk sounding politically naive and ask: Why is the old-fashioned notion of “child rescue” wrong? In a manifestly imperfect world, focusing on children in need still feels to me like the place to start.

Adoption is a big fat partisan topic skewed by hot emotions, and for that reason alone, social scientists like Briggs, a women’s studies professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, are doing crucial repair work. Her grand goal is to analyze “the pivotal role that the policing of mothers played in the reorganization of race, the state, and economic resources in the last two decades of the twentieth century.”

Such phrasing indicates why Somebody’s Children isn’t a page turner, which is too bad. What Briggs means is that poor mothers have often had their kids taken away by child welfare workers and judges, simply because they aren’t white or middle class. Just what should happen to those children has been a matter of political debate since at least the 1930s. Her provocative retelling of recent adoption history emphasizes that conservative economic forces have steadily eroded state support of children in institutions or through foster care, promoting adoption as the better alternative.

The first chapter begins with the notorious 1972 statement by the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) that labeled transracial adoption as a “form of genocide.” Briggs argues persuasively that the NABSW’s “genocide” statement had far more to do with protecting black mothers from losing their kids than with slamming white liberals. In 1960, more than half of the black children who had been removed from their families were in youth correctional facilities. By 1970, Briggs notes, “the number of black children in out-of-home care had skyrocketed.”

"The NABSW’s real and substantial contribution to our understanding of the history of black child welfare," she writes,"is that it tried to call attention to the ways black single mothers were targeted by child protection systems, and it tried to defend those mothers."

From the NABSW, Briggs moves on to the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which aimed to reverse previous policies by keeping Native American children with their families and tribes; to adoptions from Latin America; to changing attitudes toward immigrant and gay adoptive parents. She identifies an ever-evolving US “narrative about race and reproduction” that has justified removing children from their birth families for all sorts of panicky rationalizations—the “culture of poverty,” the epidemic of “crack babies,” the devastating wars in developing countries such as Vietnam or El Salvador—and that serves to mask the privatization of social services. Somebody’s Children challenges not only the conservative belief that adoption is a “solution” to abortion but also the liberal one that adoption is better than foster care. As Briggs writes,

I don’t know any woman who felt at any point in her life that she could exercise some free choice for a preference between abortion, adoption, or raising a child the way one opts for cheesecake rather than chocolate cake in a cafeteria. These choices are, on the contrary, ferociously constrained by material circumstances

The second part of Somebody’s Children is devoted to transnational adoption, and those chapters tell, in grave and distressing detail, the long history of “disappearing” the children of Latin American leftists in El Salvador, Argentina, and elsewhere. As Briggs documents, based on her own work and that of many other academics and human-rights activists, in the seventies and eighties, these children were often stolen by right-wing members of the military, who either kept them or offered them for adoption to families in Europe or the US. Briggs relays many anecdotes and interviews with Latin American birth parents who lost their children before the 1990s. Their stories provide a context for the more recent history of Guatemalan adoption that Siegel reports in Finding Fernanda.

In making her case for the pervasive influence of cultural propaganda, Briggs discusses iconic photographs of poor women and children.

“One of the greatest purveyors of Cold War images of waifs and Madonnas was UNICEF,” she writes, “which used them to raise money and build support for their mother-and-child health and child-feeding programs.”

(However, both Briggs and Siegel, in Finding Fernanda, note UNICEF’s more recent activism in promoting ethical transnational adoptions.)

Certainly photography has long been used as war propaganda—not only by the UN, the Associated Press, the US military, and many NGOs but also, I would add, by the North Vietnamese in the sixties and seventies. Yet, I believe that such imagery is a form of truth. In war, women and children are often the victims of violence far beyond their control. Briggs argues that a collective desire to care for war orphans led to waves of international adoption and contradictory government policies that have helped some kids but harmed others and their birth parents. But why was the “fear, pity, sympathy, identification [we feel] with the children and mothers of these photos” a bad thing?

One of the most fascinating anecdotes she relates is about the response to a 1949 Saturday Review piece by Norman Cousins on the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. In what Briggs calls a “bastion of American middlebrow liberalism,” Cousins suggests “moral adoptions” as a means to acknowledge US responsibility:

"By moral adoption I am thinking of Hiroshima children who would be adopted by American families and who would carry the names of the people adopting them. The children would continue to live in Japan…but the American families would be responsible for their care and upbringing."

With the hindsight of sixty years, this proposal seems mired in quaint do-gooder notions and the realities of the time (Adoptions of Asians by Americans were prohibited, as Cousins notes in his article, under the Oriental Exclusion Act). Even so, “The response to Cousins’s modest proposal was overwhelming,” Briggs observes. She quotes letters from readers, many of whom sent along donations. One woman called her check “a tragically small tax payment for my own share in the guilt of belonging to a race which dropped the first atom bomb.” Another pilot who flew missions in Japan, said “I know I can’t buy back my teen-age ideals for a small sum…[but] I am enclosing my check.”

Briggs rightly explains that the concept of “moral adoption” resonated with readers because they felt “the necessity of doing something, and the difficulty of articulating what that might be.” And here she comes closer to the contradictory, messy emotions that spark such impulses. Children in need—whether they are growing up in orphanages or on the street—make us want to help, even if there are no perfect solutions, and our efforts fail, and we end up exploited by those who profit from others’ misery.

In Finding Fernanda, Erin Siegel, a fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, digs deep into child trafficking in Guatemala and documents a vast array of abuses. Siegel focuses on the saga of Mildred Alvarado, which began in 2006, when her adulterous husband left her pregnant, with no money, and with three young children to support. Alvarado did her best, selling chile rellenos and other homemade food at a roadside stand. Then she was approached by a former neighbor of her sister’s. This neighbor introduced Alvarado to Sabrina, who invited Alvarado and her children to live in her home for free—supposedly as an act of charity.

Sabrina, though, was far from charitable. Not long after Alvarado and her children moved in, Sabrina convinced her, partly through threats over money, to temporarily give her toddler daughter Fernanda to Coni, whom she described as “an older woman who’s never been blessed with children of her own.” Siegel reports that Alvarado reluctantly did so, thinking it would “just be for a little while.”

A few weeks later, Alvarado started hemorrhaging. Sabrina took her to a seedy medical clinic, where she was drugged and given a C-section. She woke to find herself bound to a hospital bed, her new baby stolen.

So began Alvarado’s two-year search for her missing children. According to Siegel, Alvarado first went to Coni’s house in an upscale neighborhood to confront the older woman and her accomplices. “I will call the authorities,” Siegel quotes Alvarado as saying, “and I will tell them everything. I want my children back.” A man responded nastily, “You have nothing, you are nothing. If you call the cops, you’ll never see your sister or your daughters again. Just go ahead, try. If you do, we’ll kill them.”

This reconstructed dialogue has a sensational ring and casts Alvarado in the role of fierce Madonna. Described by Siegel’s sources as shy, confused, depressed, and suffering from a mild speech impediment, Alvarado is an unlikely hero, although her suffering is impossible to deny.

Siegel convincingly details each link in the adoption-network chain, so much so that at times I felt like Alvarado, trudging down the street with lead weights on my shoulders. Neighbors pass along tips about vulnerable women to jaladoras (“baby finders”) such as Sabrina and Coni. Caregivers in temporary houses care for stolen kids. Thugs threaten women and government bureaucrats into silence—and bribe the police not to follow up on complaints. Adoption lawyers, many of whom run their own hogars (nurseries), falsify documents. Judges on the take sign suspect papers. Siegel underscores that such crimes against women and children in Guatemala were typical until 2008, when Guatemalan adoptions were closed to Americans, in large part because both countries finally ratified the UN Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption.

The second major storyline in Finding Fernanda involves an adoptive mother who, like Alvarado, is not the usual feminist crusader. In 2005, Betsy Emanuel, a Tennessee Christian in her mid-forties, was already the mother of seven kids, four of whom were adopted, when she saw an Internet adoption listing from the Florida agency Celebrate Children International (CCI) for an eight-year-old Guatemalan girl named Jennifer Yasmin Velásquez López.

Emanuel then commenced her own trip down a dark rabbit hole. Jennifer was one of three children offered to her—the others being Fernanda and her newborn sister Ana Christina—who never materialized. Initially attracted by CCI’s devout Christian PR (“As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are committed to going into the world to serve others”), Betsy came to loathe its executive director, Sue Hedberg.

In 2007, Siegel writes, Emanuel joined “[a] secret email listserve of dissatisfied CCI clients” called Dealing with the Devil (DWTD). The devil was Hedberg, who, when things went awry, would alternate between clichés—“it’s all God’s plan”—and bullying threats. When prospective adoptive mothers complained or expressed ethical qualms, for example, Hedberg would demand that they get psychiatric counseling.

Emanuel and her husband did adopt a baby they named Emily Belle through CCI, but according to Siegel, Emanuel was still “hell-bent” on finding out what had happened to Jennifer, Fernanda, and Ana Christina. She hired a Guatemalan private detective and badgered the US Embassy and the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Eventually, she came across a 2007 article in the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre that publicized Alvarado’s plight. Emanuel connected the dates listed and was horrified to realize that she’d been offered Alvarado’s stolen daughters.

“The outrageousness of the situation consumed her,” Siegel writes. “She found that trying to talk to the State Department was like speaking to a brick. Betsy started to imagine what Mildred had gone through in her quest to get the attention of the Guatemalan authorities. Her own efforts to solicit help from the American authorities felt futile.”

In Finding Fernanda, the birth mother is finally reunited with her children, partly because of one adoptive mother’s persistence and willingness to go on the record. The ending isn’t all happy, however. As of the book’s publication, Jennifer had yet to be located, and Hedberg and CCI still had a license to process adoptions in Florida.

It’s easy to feel outraged by the stories Siegel tells in Finding Fernanda, because so many of the bad guys are truly bad. In November 2007, for example, the Guatemalan government created a unit to investigate illegal adoptions. It had to employ bodyguards to protect the investigators from reprisals: adoption traffickers had infiltrated all levels of government, police, and social services; many had ties to organized crime.

Siegel, who gained access to US government memos and cables through Freedom of Information Act requests, reports that as far back as the early 1990s, US officials were worried about illegalities such as kidnapped children and “child laundering” in Guatemala. However, one admitted in a 1990 cable to the secretary of state,

“Given our limited investigative resources and our commitment to providing American citizens with expedited service, we cannot thoroughly investigate the truth of every adoption document presented to us.”

In 1999, the UN sent a special rapporteur, Ofelia Calcetas-Santos, on a fact-finding mission to Guatemala. Both Briggs and Siegel discuss the resulting 2000 presentation to the UN Human Rights Commission, and Siegel quotes its indictment of “the weakest adoption laws in Central America…. It is reported that a stiffer penalty is imposed for the theft of a car than for the theft of a child.”

How much of this was I aware of in 2001, when my husband and I started our own adoption process? Some of it, although that wasn’t the only reason we decided not to adopt a Guatemalan baby. We went to Vietnam based on a quirky combination of personal preferences—we’d spent more time in Asia than Latin America, and we had Asian friends and colleagues—and circumstances. At the time, the China adoption program had a long waiting list. Challenging as Vietnam seemed, we convinced ourselves that we’d be giving a baby boy in a very poor country a chance.

At this point, Vietnam is a real place to me, with a storied history, not a generic poor country. I know a lot more about the resentments adult adoptees feel when people say they’ve been “saved” and about how misguided some of my beliefs were. US-Vietnam adoptions came to a halt soon after we brought our son home, and various baby-stealing scandals and corrupt practices have since come to light there, just as in Guatemala.

In 2002, as I stood in a Vietnamese orphanage on the outskirts of Saigon, I knew I was holding another woman’s baby, and that I could never deny my son’s birth parents and culture. That’s when my long and still unresolved effort to grapple with consequences began. Now, I fall back on my experience and biases, on the tales I tell myself and my son about how we ended up together. Sometimes, I fret about how it will be when he grows older. What will he find if he searches for his roots? How will I explain the choices I made knowingly and unknowingly? Like those drawn to the idea of “moral adoption” after World War II, I’m still shaken by strong impulses I can’t articulate or ignore—hope and grief, joy and guilt—a tangle.

Cognitive dissonance is harder to express than outrage. My child is his own person, with his own story to tell. Yet we are a family. We talk about adoption. We talk about his birth parents. We talk about flute lessons and Harry Potter. The conflicted feelings will always be with me—and they should be. But they have lost their sharp edges. I can’t imagine not having my son, and he feels the same, I think. Such love is irreducible, like water or fire. It has its own mysterious life.


Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine and nonprofit organization. You'll find TW at and @talkingwriting on Twitter. Martha also blogs at Athena's Head, where you'll find links to her previous writing about adoption and other topics.

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