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Did I Steal My Daughter?

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

She dutifully repeated my questions, but after Maria answered, she paused.

"She wasn't told that this was your pickup trip," the translator told us. "She thought you were only visiting."

Tears streaked down Maria's cheeks as she adjusted the stroller's back to show us that Flora liked to take her bottle lying on her back. Then, her voice catching, she recited the prayer Flora fell asleep to every night, crossing herself as she whispered. She explained that she and her husband tried to prepare themselves to say goodbye, but it was always hard. We asked her to join us for lunch in our room and she stayed until eight that evening; I'm still not sure how we found the words and gestures to communicate.

When I asked Maria if she knew Beatriz, she smiled. "Muy linda," she said. "Muy cariñosa." Very lovely. Very affectionate. That last word opened up a hopeful possibility: Had Beatriz been able to spend time with Flora? The agency hadn't been able to tell us, and the lawyer's office claimed Beatriz didn't have a phone.

Maria looked puzzled when I told her this. Then she held up her cell phone and gestured that Beatriz's number was stored in her speed dial.

"Would she want to meet us?" I asked.

Maria shook her head. I think she said that it would be too painful for Beatriz.

I looked at Flora gumming a french fry. Maria had styled her hair so that two tiny ponytails stuck out atop her head like miniature oil geysers. Somewhere, a woman was coming to terms with the fact that she would never see her baby again.

maria called on Flora's first birthday to say that Beatriz wanted us to know she felt she had made the right decision. A few weeks later, our social worker told us that Beatriz had visited the lawyer and wanted to see photos of her daughter.

Several months later, Maria called again. The lawyer had threatened to fire her if she continued to contact us.

That night I was changing Flora's diaper. "Who's my girl?" I sang as I pulled the tab taut across her stomach. She pointed at her chest and laughed, her dimples creasing into pinholes. Then she reached up to tickle my chin. "Flora Beatriz," I cooed. "You are one beautiful kid." Hearing myself say her middle name took me aback. Beatriz, I suddenly realized, had chosen it, the only connection to their brief life together.

And that's when it finally sank in: Beatriz hadn't made a "choice" in the liberating way that our post-Roe culture thinks about reproductive options. Like any woman in the developing world placing a child for adoption, she'd buckled under crushing financial or social pressure—perhaps even coercion. I'd considered this before, but had always batted the thought away by telling myself that Flora was going to be adopted, whether it was we who stepped forward or someone else.

Walter walked in, flushed and sweating from wrestling with the boys, who were now happily digging into bowls of applesauce.

"She's getting so big," he said. "She'll be talking soon."

His smile fell as he saw me crying. "Did something happen today?"

I nodded.

"I think Beatriz wants us to find her," was all I could say.

is it ethical for an adoptive parent to push for information about her child's birth family? Or should that be a decision left to the adoptee? And what about the birth family's right to privacy? "You can't compare an open adoption in the U.S. with an open adoption process internationally," says Susan Soon keum Cox, vice president of public policy at Holt International, an Oregon adoption agency whose founders launched transnational adoptions in the United States. The child of a Korean woman and a British soldier, Cox, who was adopted in 1956, found her Korean half brothers when she was an adult. Yet she cautions against too-hasty birth family searches. "The stigma of adoption in many countries is still very powerful and very real. Women place their children for adoption and slip back into society. It's a very different thing than the acceptance of single parents and adoption in the U.S." In China, currently the greatest source of transnational adoptees—6,493 U.S. "orphan" visas were issued to Chinese adoptees in 2006—relinquishing a child is illegal, and families sometimes abandon their children to avoid running afoul of the one-child policy; birth mothers found to have done this can face prosecution.

While there is no simple way to track down Chinese birth families right now, voluntary dna data banks might one day help people find relatives. (A database developed by the University of California-Berkeley's Human Rights Center is already connecting children stolen during El Salvador's civil war with their families.) "China will be a different China in 10 years," says McGinnis. "Just as Korea is not the same Korea it was in the 1970s." A Dutch family recently traveled to the Chinese town where their daughter was born; they talked to the media, a couple came forward, and dna tests confirmed that they were the girl's parents.

Some of these reunions could turn out to be unsettling. "One of the ways that wrongdoers hide their child-laundering schemes is by the closed-adoption system," says David Smolin, a law professor who's written extensively on corruption in transnational adoption. He and his wife adopted two sisters from India only to find out that they had been stolen from their birth family. Last March, a Utah adoption agency was indicted in an alleged fraud scheme involving 81 Samoan children whose parents were told that they were sending their children away to take advantage of opportunities in the United States—that there would be letters, photos, and visits, and that the children would return when they turned 18.

Openness, Smolin notes, would also make it harder for parents to think of adoptions as "rescuing" children. "There are cultural reasons why people give up children for adoption," he says. "But when you have a situation where money alone, in relatively small quantities, would allow the birth family to keep the child—under current law you are allowed to take the child and spend $30,000 when $200 would be enough to avoid the relinquishment."

As it stands, families who have forged relationships with birth parents often find it impossible to turn their backs on their economic needs. Some send a monthly stipend; others pay for the education of their child's siblings, help finance businesses, or buy computers or cell phones to make it easier to stay in touch. And while all this is legal once the adoption is finalized, it's a lot messier than writing a check for Save the Children. "We need to be careful what kind of impression that makes with other people in the village or area," says Linh Song, the president of Ethica, a nonprofit organization that advocates for transparent adoptions worldwide. "Will they receive aid if their child is sent abroad?"

i was working on deadline the afternoon Susi's email flashed on my screen, a month after we had hired her to find Beatriz. Operating by word of mouth, Susi has done hundreds of searches for birth families in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America. In 1999, when she first considered this line of work, "I asked my friends and they all said, 'No, don't get involved in that.' People here see adoptions only as a business. A big business. And when there is a lot of money involved, there is corruption."

Still, the idea of connecting families appealed to her. Her first search was easy. "I knocked on the door of the address I was given by the adoptive family and the birth mother opened the door." Soon, though, she got threats: Stop, or you'll get into trouble. Her husband accompanies her on every search; she will not contact anyone who works directly with adoptions, or discuss the details of a search.

Her email relieved us of two worries: Beatriz had been hoping we would find her, and she had not been coerced into placing Flora for adoption. She thanked us for making it possible to watch her child grow up. She missed her, prayed for her, and wanted Flora to know that not a day passed when she didn't think about her. She said that before the adoption she was a bubbly person. Now she kept mostly to herself.

I'd nurtured a vague notion of a faraway woman grieving for her lost child. But as soon as an image of Beatriz sobbing into her pillow materialized, my brain concocted a counter-narrative, a story in which she was healing from her loss. A story in which not having to raise the child I tucked into bed every night freed Beatriz in some way.

Then one evening not long after the email arrived, Walter and I spent our date night at a reading of Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption, an anthology that is a stirring and stern rebuke to the standard heartwarming adoption narrative. Back in our car, Walter bowed his head.

"We should give her back," he said.

I'd harbored the same thought, but the anguish on his face threatened me enough to push back.

"We can't," I answered.

"Why not?" he countered. "It wouldn't take much money to support them."

"Because we are her family."

"She'd adjust."

"How do you know that?" It was an unconvincing dodge. We were friends with several families who had adopted toddlers; their kids were thriving. "How could we do that to the boys?" I insisted.

"We couldn't," Walter said.

"And how could we do that to us? I couldn't live with that pain."

"But why should Beatriz have to?" he asked.

To most Americans, Flora's adoption is measured entirely by what she gains—Montessori schools, soccer camps, piano lessons, college. But it no longer quite computes that way for me. To gain a family, my daughter had to lose a family. To become an American child, she had to stop being a Guatemalan child.

McGinnis told me that because adoptive parents are put through such a rigmarole of assessments and trainings, it's easy for them to jump on the "super-parent track" in the quest to raise a happy child. "If 'adoptees want to know their past' becomes another item on the super-parent track, it's important to understand whether you are doing a search because you don't want your child to be mad at you later," she says. "My research has shown what makes a healthy identity is when the adopted person feels like they have a chance to make decisions."

Walter and I are nothing if not grade-grubbing students in the super-parent classroom. We have a babysitter who is from Guatemala and speaks only Spanish with our children. She cooks us pepian and invites us for tamales with her family, which likes my trés leches cake. A jade statue of a Mayan corn goddess stands on our living room shelf, and a woven huipil hangs in the hall. We send the boys to a summer camp for children adopted from Latin America and their siblings, and get together once a month with other families with Guatemalan children. From the moment we met Flora, we planned on visiting Guatemala every few years.

Which is all very well—but the results can sometimes feel like a trip to Epcot. Perhaps one day Flora will appreciate our efforts; maybe she will resent them. I hope that if she rolls her eyes at our jaguar masks and woven placemats, I'll be able to smile. But what if the decision she most resents is the one we can't rescind? You can't exactly put a birth family back into a drawer.

by the time we returned to Guatemala City, Flora was two and a half. Walter and I had decided it would be easier for her to meet Beatriz this young; as she grew up, she and Beatriz would figure out what they wanted from their relationship. But it was an uneasy compromise. Unlike our domestic counterparts, we didn't have the benefit of longitudinal studies and books detailing best practices. We didn't even really have an open adoption. There was no legal document to set out the terms of contact, only a tendril of trust spun from the fact that Beatriz, Walter, and I all loved the same child.


Where Do Babies Come From?

CHINA Greater wealth and a looser one-child policy have shrunk supply of adoptable babies; this year, China banned parents who are unmarried, obese, over 50, taking psychotropic drugs, or are worth less than $80,000.

RUSSIA Popular, though expensive (up to $30,000), destination for parents. But Moscow tightened rules after an American adoptive mother was convicted of killing her Russian-born son in 2005.

GUATEMALA Very young infants can be adopted; single women as well as couples with one partner over 50 may adopt. But State Department warnings about fraud and baby smuggling may slow the flow.

ETHIOPIA Has been rising in popularity thanks to model orphanages and an efficient adoption system—but may not be able to handle the surge in applications that followed Angelina Jolie's adoption of Zahara in 2005.

ROMANIA Foreign adoptions shot up after Romania's packed, miserable orphanages made world headlines following dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's fall; protests ensued, and Romania froze adoptions the next year. Some U.S. parents, unable to cope with children who had massive mental health problems, placed kids in foster care.

CAMBODIA In 2001, State Department issued first-ever ban on adoptions from an entire country, citing corruption and outright baby selling.
—Ellen Charles

Where do babies come from?

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