Last week I finished reading Erin Siegal's Finding Fernanda. What you can read by clicking on more will be a combination of a book review and personal reflection. Because myself personally and this site were mentioned in the book, being part of the story so-to-speak, it was impossible to separate the book from my personal involvement, albeit minimal, in it. And as you will read, it also caused some self-reflection.
Let me start out by offering a positive review of the book. In my opinion, it tells the story in a compelling fashion and tries to be objective and direct. Of course, to those of us who have advocated for ICA over the years, it is very simple to think otherwise because it doesn’t “show both sides”. But what I had to keep in mind is that this book is about one story and that is a story that exposes things that many of us thought impossible.
Erin Siegel researched this story for years. In the many discussions I had with her, I found her to be open-minded and very interested in really understanding all the dynamics that were going on. She didn’t investigate from afar and she put herself at risk in her determination to document what really happened. In my mind, all of these things were evident in the book.
The sad truth is that this underbelly in adoption from Guatemala did exist. The story details how the worst-of-the-worst operated. It also dives into how half of the problems with adoption are a manifestation of ills that plague Guatemalan society as a whole in ways that are difficult for us to imagine.
We can’t run away from, deny, or create excuses for what happened to Fernanda, her family, and the Emmanuels. There is no one claiming that this case represents the whole of the adoption system. And there is no way to justify a single such case because it was the exception. In my mind, we collectively need to realize it and fight to ensure adoption systems can function without these criminals being able to consider such heinous acts.
I realize this isn’t much of a review. But what can I say? It was easy-to-read. It did a good job of describing the system so all readers could understand it without generalizing so much that people like us are screaming about it missing things. Factually, I found two minor errors that I have since shared with Erin, neither of which is relevant to the main story. My biggest issue was honestly that there were too many typos, something which I find plagues all print media today. The worst of which was of course my last name being misspelled once
With all that said, the depiction of me and Guatadopt did not “make me happy”. Up front, I am not claiming any bias or any inaccuracy about either in the book! As I read it, realizing it isn’t a book about Guatadopt, I put my ego aside to be objective. So what follows is not a “my side of the story” because that’s not necessary. What it is, though, is a chance for those of our readers to better understand what Erin would have written had she unwisely decided to delve deeper into my involvement in this case and overall at the time.
Unlike most families I communicated with years ago, I do vividly remember Elizabeth Emmanuel contacting me. It was just a day or two after the Dateline NBC story aired and I was in New Mexico for a sales meeting talking to her in a hotel lobby that was under renovation. At the time, I was unaware that Elizabeth was a little skeptical of Guatadopt and as a result didn’t share 100%. Please don’t read any animosity or anger into that because there is none and if I was in her shoes I may have been the same. (For the record: Guatadopt never received a penny from ASG for the ad on the site. We put it there because so many people asked us for their contact info and because they had helped many families with basic info free-of-charge.)
To speak of skepticism, I admit I had some about Sobrevivientes. At the time, we had never seen evidence of a kidnapped child actually being adopted. We knew attempts had been made, but we wrongly believed that the Embassy approved doctor offices doing DNA samples were secure. We had become very concerned about the number of cases we saw turning into abandonments because it was a trend that stood in the face of conventional wisdom that “judicial” adoptions were not the problem.
Back to Sobrevivientes… When they got into the press, Guatadopt reached out several times trying to help, offering to post the pictures of the abducted children. At the time, we had the best vehicle available to reach the group of people most likely to (a) recognize one the children if they were in the adoption system (b) want to ensure this child returns to his/her family. For example, even if the adoptive parent chose not to come forward, there were good odds that someone else in the Guatadopt community would have seen the person’s referral pics. I mean let’s be real, we all loved to share pics of our children-to-be. Despite numerous attempts, Sobrevivientes never replied. Maybe it was our ego or maybe it was healthy skepticism in a politically charged environment, but it seemed to us that if this was all legitimate, they’d have taken up any offer of help. As such, we were not sure if the stories being presented were exactly as they appeared.
I did receive some criticism around this time for how I reacted to the hunger strike. With hindsight being 20-20, I do apologize to all the mothers for the doubt I placed on the veracity of their stories. It was never intended to deny their rights to have their children back in their hands. It was never to deny that there were abuses in the system. It was more that kidnappings seemed unnecessary in the adoption system and near-impossible to move through the system. There were DNA tests showing a maternal connection. The requisite conspiracy seemed more far-fetched than the possibility that women had changed their minds and attorneys were unwilling to do the right thing in that event. But I was wrong and I feel horribly for it.
One of the things I did after Elizabeth contacted me was to check with some of my contacts to see what they knew about this case. Two sources came back to me with the same story. They had heard that Mildred (Fernanda’s mother) had relinquished the children but then had tried to offer them to other attorneys for more money. These two sources had both been proven trustworthy in the past and had no known connection to one-another. So we’re talking two “independent” sources saying the same thing. One of the sources was the investigator referred to as “Pablo Hernandez” in the book. While I won’t divulge who the other was, I think it is important to say that it was not Susana, who by that point in time was pretty upset with Guatadopt. It is clear now that, for whatever reason, what they told me was incorrect. At the time, it seemed more plausible than the wild story portrayed in the newspaper, which by supposition indicted the sacred DNA sample sites.
Elizabeth could confirm that my position if in fact this had been about a mother’s children going to the highest bidder, never once did I support anyone hiding the children or taking any action other than the attorney with the children brining them into the court system with full disclosure and transparency. And of course my position was irrelevant anyway
Not coincidentally, the meat of the book occurs during a period of time when my personal faith in the system was diminishing. If one could plot the tone of Guatadopt over the same period this would be clear. The truth is that things seemed to be rapidly deteriorating based on the number and type of things families came to us with. Things were getting ugly and we were doing what we could to help it. We were supporting the families who refused to be victims to adoption service providers they thought had wronged them. We were giving PAPs as honest and direct of advice as we could. In a few cases, we helped get information into the hands of those who could do something with it. And at times, those same sorts of folks came to us for help. Maybe I’m being defensive but the depiction in the book, without attacking its accuracy or intent, was more of someone trying to maintain the status quo and that was not the case.
What I have had to come to terms with since that time is this reality that children were kidnapped and made it through the system. No, I don’t believe there were many, however it is that one would go about quantifying “many”. But we now know it did happen and I regret it took me as long as it did to embrace that reality.
It’s important to point out a distinction in that last paragraph and that is the part about kidnapped children actually making it through the system. Sick and stupid people did horrible things. There was one mutilated child found where it appears some such monsters actually believed they could sell her organs. We knew from the Dateline story that kidnapped children had entered the system, but had no evidence that any had exited it and joined a family in the United States.
Most of our avid readers know that much of our work was done behind the scenes, helping individual families with an open ear, compassion, honesty, and experience. And when I combine that with how our status made us privy to pieces of other things, well maybe I should be the one writing a book. We pieced together many puzzles with some amazing results. Heck, Finding Fernanda is evidence of that. For while I write this defense-of-sorts, the reality is that Elizabeth Emmanuel first made the connection as a result of reading a Prensa Libre story posted on Guatadopt. Who knows where Fernanda would be today without the site. For that, I am immensely proud. But then there is the other side.
My children are my life. I cannot fathom someone taking them from me. And for that, combined with my combined Guatadopt experience, I shall forever live with something between guilt and sadness, maybe some remorse, for what I could have done. I know in my heart with 100% certainty that never once did I act in a manner that was anything but ethical. Never once did I knowingly allow anything that meant a mother would involuntarily lose a child unless a court deemed her unfit. Nonetheless, “if I had only known then what I know now” bears a toll.
It would take a full length novel to go through this all but I am going to share some things I’ve never before disclosed publicly as I get this off my chest. It involves kidnappings and all this what I now know stuff. And it revolves around the same time period as the book.
In the aftermath of the Mary Bonn arrest and Reaching Arms International investigation, we were helping many families. And what we found from those impacted was at times frightening. If one digs back through the state of MN decision to remove RAI’s license, I believe you can see some of the detail. But the long story short is that there were children involved whose history and origin was not certain. And based on what I know now, there were similarities to the scenarios in now verified kidnappings. To be clear, these adoptions were never going to happen. The process was not moving. We had no idea where the children were physically and so far as we could tell, odds were that some scumbags were renting out their kids to other scumbags to make it appear as though these children were relinquished. Today, I think at least some of the kids were likely abducted. I don’t know what we could have done back then even if we had thought them abducted. But this does not change my regret/remorse. For the record, none of those cases were directly tied to Mary Bonn and I have no evidence that RAI would have known their origin. I am making no accusations explicit or implied that either Mary or RAI were complicit in this.
And then there is one case that is different. A case that we learned of shortly after Dateline aired and shortly after Elizabeth Emmanuel read about Mildred’s story on Guatadopt. But this is the case of a family who never went to the newspapers and who never got the attention of Norma Cruz. Imagine this scenario. At one point in time, you are helping a family get a child out the hands of someone who is working under an alias because he/she was banned by the embassy. The case is not moving. As part of this, the child physically moves to a safe hogar even though no one is confident the case will proceed. But at least we figured the child would be safe and in the courts if need be so. Months later, when we’d lost touch with the case, we discover that this child was kidnapped. This was not an infant and we were able to have the child’s parents verify it from pictures the PAP had when the child was at the hogar. Unfortunately, by this time the child had left the hogar and been given back to the adoption service provider, whereabouts unknown.
We went to great lengths to try locate this child during a period that was one of the most stressful of my life. We spent thousands of dollars out of our pockets (actually every penny of profit the original DoGood LLC made) for a private investigator and to keep the child’s family safe during the search. We made sure that the US Embassy and officials in Guatemala were informed. In fact, we were told that the inside of every Embassy window that does the visa interviews had the child’s picture taped to make sure the child didn’t slip through with a false identity. But we were never able to locate her. I can’t find the words to describe the permanent impact this has had on me. It is not guilt because we did all we could and acted properly based on our limited abilities, yet that doesn’t remove the wondering about how it could have turned out right. And as a father, that wondering is painful.
One last note of interest is that from everything I now know, every verified kidnapping had some connection to the same cast of characters involved with Fernanda. I can only hope that means they were the only such ring, though that is far from certainty. And of course there is a ton I don’t claim to know about all the public cases so someone can correct me in the comments if I am wrong about that.
So where does this all leave me? With all this remorse has my overall position changed? Do I now wish I had chosen to advocate for ending adoptions from Guatemala? Do I regret having been a ICA advocate and promoting the things I did?
The answer to those questions is almost entirely “no”. I support ICA and I think these laws that end the systems are wrong. We don’t disband the stock market when a few traders act illegally. We don’t end college football or the Catholic church because of child abuse. In fact, the real problem and answer is exactly what I advocated for many times –rigorous enforcement of laws and prosecutions of those that break them. If you read Finding Fernanda, this fact will be clear as day. Mildred’s courage is amazing and the lack of attention she received from law enforcement is inexcusable. The fact that the perpetrators are free today shows the exact issue – because even if caught little would happen. The same goes on the US side of the equation where we have been anything but proactive. If that changed, these people would think twice before being the rotten apple(s) that ruin the barrel.
Nonetheless, even as we realized that things were getting bad, they were obviously worse than we imagined. We only get to live each moment once and we can ask no more of ourselves than to always do the right thing as we see at the time. Even when we do that, even when we objectively know we have, it doesn’t make the heart fully recover from something like missing the opportunity to right a hideous wrong. There is more to that kidnapping case that I am not getting into here that would have definitively changed the end result. But those are things I can’t change and I am sure that have caused some others to share my “if only” pain.
In conclusion, read Finding Fernanda. Selfishly, please don’t use it to create any opinion on Guatadopt or myself because it’s not a book about either. I’ve written about any second thoughts I have in this post and as you have seen, they don’t involve looking the other way or creating justifications or ends-justifies-the-means explanations.