Read an Excerpt
From the Preface
The first time I set foot in Guatemala was December 2007. My sister and I were visited the country as tourists, wandering to the usual places of interest: the teeming markets of Chichicastenango, Antigua’s famous cathedral, the beautiful National Palace. At the trip’s end, we waited for our flight home in Guatemala City’s gleaming, modern airport, surrounded by over a dozen American couples. Each pair was leaving the country with a Guatemalan child.
As a photojournalist, I found the image arresting. Back in New York, I began skimming through press clippings about adoption, trying to find a compelling story angle that would enable me to return to Guatemala to photograph an adoption story. I imagined a human-interest piece touching on cultural blending, or the love and generosity that seemed intrinsic to adoption. Instead, the news articles I found were anything but uplifting. Many were downright shocking. In June 2000, nearly a decade earlier, the Miami Herald had reported that Guatemala was “the fourth-largest exporter of children in the world, a ranking sustained by often ruthless means.” The piece noted, “Child robbery is extraordinarily commonplace here” and described the experience of a young, poorly educated woman from the countryside who had been tricked into giving her baby up for adoption after a C-section. A year later, in 2001, the Los Angeles Times published a substantial feature by Juanita Darling entitled “Little Bundles of Cash,” which said Guatemalan children “have become a major export. . . . There is growing evidence that the profits and demand for babies have become high enough to foster child-trafficking rings.” Darling mentioned that the rings relied on various kinds of intimidation and financial incentives to induce impoverished women to give up their children. “Law enforcement officials believe that demand has become so intense,” she wrote, “that some traffickers are stealing babies from their mothers.”
Certainly, I thought, trafficking and kidnapping problems from almost a decade earlier would be cleaned up by now. But as I continued reading press clips from 2006 and 2007, the same transgressions kept popping up. Babies were taken, by force or coercion. Birth mothers, largely disempowered, were tricked or paid.
By 2007, the Associated Press was reporting that Americans were adopting around one in every 100 babies born in Guatemala each year. Other articles referred to Guatemala’s international adoption program as “unregulated, profit-driven, and much-criticized” and “believed to be rife with corruption.”
Photographing a straightforward human-interest piece no longer seemed appropriate. In fact, the issue felt better suited to detective work than to visual storytelling. In spring 2008, I applied to the Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, pitching an examination of adoption fraud in Guatemala as a potential thesis topic. By August 2008, I was one of a dozen Stabile fellows receiving specialized training in investigative reporting. Some of the reporting contained in this book began at Columbia under the guidance of Stabile Center director Sheila Coronel and veteran investigative journalist Wayne Barrett, who was my advisor. At first, the project seemed to be a dry kind of historical documentation, tracking legislative evolution and lobbying efforts. I wasn’t sure how my own reporting would effectively serve the public interest, since I couldn’t imagine anyone being interested enough to actually read through such dense subject material. I asked Wayne repeatedly if I should change subjects. He told me to keep digging, and I did.
On December 8, 2008, I found an e-mail that had been written month before by a woman named Betsy Emanuel. I’d been reading the archives of a popular public email Listserv, the Adoption Agency Review List (AARG), learning about how different American adoption agencies operated and how clients compared and contrasted them. In her email, Betsy offered stark advice to a list member who’d asked how to choose an agency. “Ask strong questions about exactly who any agency is dealing with in-country,” she instructed. “If you get ANY feeling that you are annoying the agency with these types of questions, then dig deeper and DO NOT ignore your feelings. These measures would have helped me if I had known to do this.”
I was instantly curious. That same afternoon, I sent Betsy an email explaining that I was a graduate student researching adoption and asking if she’d feel comfortable sharing her experience with me. She responded vaguely, saying she’d had four great adoptions and then a “nightmare” with a Florida agency that she “would not recommend.” She didn’t provide additional details.
I asked if we could set up a time to speak on the phone.
“I don’t have a lot of spare time,” she responded. “But if I can help you, I’ll try. I have a daughter who’ll be in grad school soon. “She mentioned that she knew it was hard to get people to “take the time to share information.” I expected a brief, ten-minute phone call.
Our conversation the next day lasted for three hours. Betsy summarized what amounted to a decade of adoption experiences as I tried to wrap my head around the fact that this down-to-earth, honey-voiced Southern woman had eight children. At that time, I didn’t understand how adoption hooked some families — and not just celebrities like the Jolie-Pitts. In a piece published in Good Housekeeping in 2000, journalist and mother of nine Melissa Fay Greene recounted her first adoption experience and “the feeling I can’t save all the children, but I can save this one.” After adopting four more times, in 2011, she told Publishers Weekly that “it wasn’t a humanitarian act. We simply wanted more children, and the children needed families.”
That day, when Betsy Emanuel first recounted her experience with the Florida-based adoption agency Celebrate Children International to me, the story seemed too strange to be true. Afterwards, Betsy e-mailed me a few articles from Guatemalan news-papers that supported her account, involving a young woman named Mildred Alvarado and her children.
A week later after our first conversation, I left the U.S. on the first of what would be multiple month long reporting trips to Guatemala City. Although I planned to do general research, speaking to a variety of diverse sources, Betsy’s complicated story remained in the back of my mind. I decided that I’d start looking into what had really transpired if, and only if, I could find Mildred Alvarado without too much work.
I found her within days.