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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Siegal exposes corruption of international adoptions

Published: April 20, 2012
Section: Features, Top Stories

As a fellow of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, Erin Siegal has painstakingly unearthed the corruption of international adoptions, particularly those stemming from Guatemala, and exposed them to the public with her books “Finding Fernanda” and “The U.S. Embassy Cables: Adoption Fraud in Guatemala, 1987-2010.”

“Erin has told a beautiful and heart-wrenching human story in ‘Finding Fernanda,’ her first book about two mothers drawn together in their love for the same child—and the criminal enterprise that threw them together,” Florence Graves, director of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, said.

The book explores the tragedy associated with adoption fraud as Mildred Alvarado, a woman from Guatemala, is forced to endure the kidnapping of her daughters, one of whom is adopted by Elizabeth Emmanuel, a resident of Tennessee. Through the representations of both women’s struggles, Siegal captures the pain of adoption fraud.

When questioned as to her original impetus for investigating the exploitation and fraudulency of international adoption, Siegal recalls an event that bore a vivid impression upon her mind. While embarking on a trip to Washington D.C. in the company of her sister, she observed countless American parents leaving with their adopted Guatemalan children at the airport. Originally seeking to photograph the impressionable moment, Siegal subsequently researched Guatemalan adoptions only to discover terrible accounts of fraud dating back to more than a decade ago. She recalls being puzzled over the fact that “nobody’s doing anything to stop it, and I wanted to know what’s enabling it and why.”

Although American adoptive parents may be unaware of the crimes associated with Guatemalan adoptions, Siegal reveals that U.S. officials were informed of it to an extent. She states that “documents show this internal dialogue in the U.S. State Department about reports of baby buying and selling and a whole host of unethical practices.” In association with adoption fraud, reports of child trafficking, visa fraud and even the untimely deaths of birth mothers have arisen with the release of cable communications between the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. State Department dating from 1987 to 2010.

The release of these communications, however, was only granted after the publication of “Finding Fernanda” and after the relentless persistence of Siegal, who reported filing 30 Freedom of Information Acts as well as having had interviewed more than 350 individuals. As a consequence of this delay, Siegal opted to publish the revealing documents within a 718-page volume to ensure increased awareness of the flaws plaguing international adoption.

Published on the site for “Finding Fernanda,” one such cable dating from November 1996 reveals the reported attempts of a Guatemalan woman to regain custody of her child. The communication states, “In fact, she [the birth mother] said that following our first interview he [the adoption attorney handling this child’s case] had ‘yelled and screamed’ at her, threatening her with physical harm if she did not return to the embassy and sign the relinquishment.” Recognizing the horrors of these situations, Siegal attributes the corruption to “a lack of regulation” and the prevalence of those “who are looking to make a quick profit by engaging in unethical business.”

Graves remarked upon the prolonged process associated with obtaining information, stating that the “potential sources or victims are afraid to speak for fear of retribution; officials can be slow in responding to public records requests; and wrongdoers are rarely interested in the revelation of their bad deeds.” It is precisely due to these circumstances that, according to Graves, it is “so necessary to sustain in-depth, nuanced, well-informed investigative reporting like Erin Siegal’s” and why she is “so pleased to have found such a welcoming home for the Schuster Institute at Brandeis University, which values deep intellectual discourse—and values the truth enough to make it the university’s motto!”

When questioned as to the implications of her work, Siegal cited recent court cases that have arisen to obtain justice for the crimes associated with adoption fraud. In particular, she references the Karen Abigail case, in which two Guatemalan women involved in the adoption process were found guilty of human trafficking charges. According to Siegal, joint investigations into city adoption agencies were also initiated last summer.

In recognition of her work concerning human rights infringements within the field of international adoption, Siegal was presented with the James Madison Award by the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California.

“Erin’s work has enabled adoptive parents, adoption industry professionals, policy makers and interested journalists to better understand the depth of the corruption in Guatemalan adoptions—and the crisis it created for tens of thousands of people whose lives were damaged by flaws in the process,” Graves said.

Currently, Siegal’s investigative journalism portfolio includes conducting preliminary reports on various border issues while currently living in Mexico.