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Did I Steal My Daughter?

The answers are never easy when you enter the labyrinth of global adoption.

i first met my daughter in the lobby of the Westin Camino Real, the grandest hotel in Guatemala City. The night before, my husband Walter and I had soothed our nerves running on the treadmills in the fitness center, where a polite attendant handed us plush white towels and spritzed the equipment with a flowery disinfectant. Afterward I wrote a series of letters to our daughter. Because children adopted from overseas usually have little information about their history, parents are advised to document the trip as best they can, creating what is known as an "adoption story."

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Reading the journal now, more than two years later, it feels so self-conscious. "We've been waiting so long to meet you—almost seven months!" the first entry reads. "Ever since you were seven days old and the agency emailed us your beautiful photos, we've wondered what you will be like. We fell in love with you that minute!" Gone is any sense of the surreal. Walter and I already had two biological sons; now we were jetting into a Third World country with the sole aim of leaving with one of its daughters. (Wanting a girl, we'd opted for the sure bet that adoption offers.) I mentioned, but didn't dwell on, the brutal poverty outside our hotel windows, focusing instead on how my sons were looking forward to meeting their little sister.

There is one section of the journal, however, that jumps out from the boilerplate. "I feel so sad for the pain your birth mother must be in since she is not able to raise you," I wrote. "But I believe now that I am your 'real' mommy." Reading those words now sparks a flash of shame. Because even though my daughter was, as is required by U.S. immigration law, legally classified as an orphan, she had two Guatemalan parents who were very much alive.

I remember being comforted by the Guatemalan social worker's report on the case; the baby's mother, Beatriz,had evidently made an informed choice to place her for adoption. Or at least that's what I told myself.

The truth is that I didn't know Beatriz. And I was secretly relieved this was so.

people have been parenting children not born to them since the dawn of time. But adoption as an irrevocable severing of a child's relationship with her biological family is largely a European and American practice. "In the vast majority of the countries where children are adopted from, the Western notion of adoption doesn't even exist," says Hollee McGinnis, policy and operations director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research and advocacy organization. "Informal adoption and kinship care have always existed, but our form of formalized adoption by nonrelatives is very, very new."

Until 1945 (and in some states much later), most adopted Americans and their parents had legal access to birth certificates and related court documents. Adoption agencies even facilitated contact between adoptees and birth relatives. The push toward secrecy and sealed records took hold in the postwar culture, when adoptions were increasingly run by social workers. Confidentiality was thought to shield both mothers and children from the stigma of illegitimacy, and it allowed parents to hide their infertility even from their own children—birth certificates were simply changed to list the adoptive parents. (This practice continues today. My daughter's American birth certificate lists her birthplace as Antigua, Guatemala, but gives us credit for the one thing we most certainly did not do.) Young pregnant women were rushed into homes for unwed mothers, where social workers told them they'd forget about their babies once they signed the adoption papers.

But they didn't. In the 1970s, a psychology professor named Lee Campbell realized that she was suffering from mental health problems brought on by being forced to "surrender" her infant son when she was a high school senior in 1962. Campbell wrote a letter to the Boston Globe in 1975 asking what were then called biological mothers to contact her if they were interested in talking about their experiences.

These women founded Concerned United Birthparents, one of a handful of organizations that advocate for birth families. (The use of the term "birth parent," coined by Campbell, is controversial. Some parents believe it relegates them to breeder status; alternate terms include "natural parents," "first parents," "surrendering parents," or simply "parents." I call Beatriz my daughter's "Guatemalan mother" because it feels somehow more factual, although to be honest I have never referred to myself as her "American mother.")

As more women gained access to contraceptives and legal abortion, and the stigma of unwed pregnancy lessened, fewer American women placed their babies for adoption, and those who did had more power to get what they wanted, including knowing their children's fate. Today, almost no American woman deciding on adoption seeks anonymity; roughly 90 percent of mothers have met their children's adoptive parents, and most helped choose them. Research shows that such arrangements result in less grief for the birth parents and many benefits for adoptees.

Yet the vast majority of transnational (also called international and intercountry) adoptions remain closed—and it's widely understood that this appeals to some adoptive parents. "It's about entitlement and ownership," says Marley Greiner, the executive chair of the activist adoptee group Bastard Nation. "When you read the adoption boards online, it seems like parents go overseas because they don't want some pesky birth mother or relative showing up."

In fact, while we've belatedly acknowledged the trauma of American women who were forced to surrender their children, birth families abroad have remained shrouded in mystery, allowing parents and professionals to invent the narrative that best suits them. "Practitioners 20 years ago assumed we were rescued from these horrific nations and would never go back," says McGinnis, who was adopted from Korea when she was three and has been in touch with her Korean family for more than a decade. And while many adoptees won't want to meet their birth families, she notes, virtually all would like basic information about their background. "We grow up in environments where it is so much about your dna, it's quite natural for adopted people to feel excluded because we don't have that basic human right."

The right to background information is laid out in a little-noticed provision in the 1993 Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which 74 countries have signed. If the U.S. Senate finally ratifies the treaty this winter, as expected, the transnational adoption landscape may change. Already, Children's Home Society and Family Services of Minnesota, one of America's most prominent adoption agencies, has shifted to advocating openness and helps with birth family searches in Guatemala, Korea, Colombia, and Peru.

Still, the treaty's provisions are nonbinding, and parents who prefer closed adoptions will be able to arrange for one. And while celebrities' forays into transnational adoptions bring on the occasional ethics complaint, there's no sign of a broader debate. "It's absurd on some level," says open-adoption pioneer Campbell. "Every day, parents look into the face of their child and they see a different race and a different ethnicity. And yet, they compartmentalize that truth and deem it unimportant. Why aren't the movie stars talking about the birth parents of their kids and modeling the opportunity to do it right?"

walter and i had tried to do everything right. We'd heard of corrupt adoption lawyers, fly-by-night operators who use online photo listings to lure parents, of baby stealing and baby selling, and of the myriad agencies that offer, for hefty fees, to help Americans bring home a child from some of the world's poorest countries. We chose one of the largest and most respected, and faithfully attended all the counseling appointments it offered, including a seminar that featured a session with an American birth mother. She clearly loved her son, but said she hadn't been ready to become a mother. "I'm not his parent," she told us.

And yet when it came time to choose a program, our agency told us to go with whatever we were comfortable with, as if "open" and "closed" were items on a menu. We asked our social worker about a domestic open adoption; she said that because we already had biological children and were only open to adopting a girl, we wouldn't be a very compelling family to an American birth mother. We never discussed adopting from the U.S. foster care system or an Eastern European orphanage; we wanted a baby who had never spent an hour in institutionalized care. We also wanted our daughter's country of origin to be easy to travel to, so we could go there for family vacations. Talk about menu items!

We did agonize over some moral questions—the potential hardships for a Latina child raised in a white family, the ethics of choosing the sex of our child. At every step, we were reassured that what we were doing was a good and worthy thing. "I think [adoption] is almost an antithesis to oppression," Kevin Kreutner, a moderator at the support group who is in contact with his children's Guatemalan family, told me. "For people who are given no access to family planning, have an unplanned pregnancy, and can't raise that child, there is a liberating sense where they can realize that this child will not suffer that same oppression."

"I just need to know that the child we adopt has no other options," Walter finally told our social worker. I can't remember her exact answer, but it was something along the lines of "all these children need families." When I later told this to an adoptee-rights advocate, she said the agency should have pursued a discussion that might have dissuaded us from transnational adoption, or led us to a program through which we could sponsor a child to remain with her family. But the truth is I don't think I would have listened—so absorbed was I in the force of my own wanting.

when we got our daughter's paperwork, Walter and I noticed that her first, middle, and last names were exactly the same as her mother's. We told ourselves this was probably because the adoption lawyer had suggested it—an efficient decision made for the sake of checkups and court appearances. I'd read that some adoptees believe their given name is a precious connection to their heritage. When we asked our social worker what she thought about changing it, she said it was up to us to decide what was right for our family. So we changed her first name to Flora and made Beatriz her middle name.

We did not, however, want Flora's life before us to be irretrievable, so we asked if Beatriz wanted to meet us and stay in touch. Our social worker contacted the lawyer in Guatemala, who replied that Beatriz "would love to know us." Then, a week before our trip, the social worker called and said there would be no meeting; Beatriz had gone back to her village and wasn't reachable.

"But she's from Guatemala City," I said. "Do you think the lawyer is telling us the truth?" The social worker said it was hard to know. Adoptions in Guatemala are arranged entirely by private lawyers, without oversight from any central authority, and corruption is widespread. Our agency promised it carefully screened those it worked with in Guatemala. But this incident gave us pause. The lawyer might technically be representing both Flora and us, but whose interests was he really looking out for?

a week later, we flew to Guatemala City. The hotel of choice for American adoptive parents is the Marriott, which is so used to these "pickup" trips, it offers strollers for rent and has arranged with a nearby pharmacy to deliver formula and diapers to panicky new parents. Via chat rooms, adoptive parents with similar pick-up trip schedules make arrangements to connect at the Marriott. But the idea of all that camaraderie just heightened my anxiety. So we stayed at the Westin.

As the elevator chugged down toward the lobby, Walter pointed the video camera at me and said, "Here's Mommy waiting to see Flora for the first time!" I forced a feeble smile. I was naked and sweating when I met my sons in the sterile glow of a hospital birthing room. Now I stepped out onto rose-marble floors to face Flora's foster mother Maria, a stout woman with a six-month-old girl riding at her hip in a woven sling. As they cuddled and laughed—later I'd look at photos of this moment to remind myself that Flora could laugh; for weeks her eyes grazed her new home with a dull blankness—my heart sank.

Our lawyer was, to our surprise, not present. My limited Spanish had drained from my memory, but somehow I managed to ask Maria to walk with us to the hotel's business center so that we could hire a translator. On our way, a gray-haired man in a suit stopped to shake Maria's hand. Later she told me he was an adoption lawyer; he owed her four months' salary that she knew would never be paid.

The woman who ran the business center was feeding documents into a fax machine when we blew into her office. On seeing Flora, she rose and shook hands with Walter and me. Then she nodded at Maria. I told her I needed to ask Maria a few questions: What time did Flora go to bed? How often did she nap? Did she eat solid foods?


A Star Is Adopted

In the 1950s, celebrity parents such as George Burns and Gracie Allen gave adoption mainstream cachet; now Brangelina et al launch new adoption trends, and controversies, each time they bring home another child.
Ellen Charles


adopted from


candidate for sainthood?

Angelina Jolie

Cambodia (Maddox, 2002), Ethiopia (Zahara, 2005), Vietnam (Pax, 2007)

A month after Jolie filed Maddox's adoption papers, the ins suspended adoptions from Cambodia because of fraud and baby stealing; no foul play was found in her case. When she brought home Zahara in '05, Jimmy Kimmel sniped that she and Brad Pitt were just deflecting attention from breaking Jennifer Aniston's heart.

Pitt has said he's ready for No. 5; he and Jolie have reportedly been looking at Chad and the Czech Republic.

Meg Ryan

China (Daisy True, 2006)

This year China disqualified single parents such as Ryan and required adoption applicants to vouch that they are not gay or lesbian.

"I just really wanted a baby. I was on a mission to connect with somebody."

Mia Farrow

China, India, South Korea, Vietnam (10 children, 1973-1995)

Woody Allen, Farrow's companion of 12 years, married her adopted daughter Soon Yi Previn in 1997. Previn and Allen have adopted two children, Bechet (China, 1999) and Manzie (Texas, 2000).

"I felt that I had a lifeboat and that many people were drowning all around the world. I could take some into my lifeboat."


Malawi (David, 2006)

Madonna picked 13-month-old David from an orphanage even though he had a father who rode his bike 50 miles twice a week to visit him. After the adoption, the father said he hadn't wanted to give David up. The Malawian government brushed him off.

"I have the welfare of all of you at heart and I love you," the Material Girl told a group of orphans in Malawi. "I will try to support you all and take care of you in the same manner as David."

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