Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth
by Erin Siegal
Beacon Press, 2011

Reviewed by Barbara Free, M.A.

     The author first became aware of international adoption, Guatemala in particular, when flying back to the U.S. from Guatemala, where two couples were returning with Guatemalan children they were adopting. She began to look through press clippings about adoption, looking for a story angle that could take her back to Guatemala for a human interest story. She imagined some wonderful, heart-warming story of love, generosity, and cultural blending. What she found was quite different.
     At that time, 2007, Guatemala was the fourth-largest exporter of children in the world, sometimes by ruthless means, including stolen children and murdered or imprisoned birth parents. In December 2008 she found an e-mail written a month before by an American woman, Betsy Emanuel, in the archives of a Listserv called the Adoption Agency Review List. Emanuel said, “Ask strong questions about exactly who any agency is dealing with in-country. If you get ANY feeling that you are annoying the agency with these types of questions, then dig deeper and DO NOT ignore your feeling. These measures would have helped me if I had known to do this.” Curious, Siegal contacted her, explaining that she was a graduate student researching adoption. Emanuel responded that she’d had four great adoptions and then a “nightmare” with a Florida agency that she “would not recommend.” Siegal then set up a time to talk to her by phone, expecting a short call. It turned into an odyssey and this book. She had uncovered a horrendous story of abuse and exploitation on the part of several so-called “Christian” adoption agencies, including Celebrate Children International. The significance of these agencies calling themselves “Christian” is that they engaged in such awful, illegal, unethical, dangerous practices and also that they would repeatedly tell prospective adoptive parents to “pray about it” whenever they asked questions, and that they kept requiring enormous amounts of money to supposedly adopt children who, in sane cases, were never available anyway, or did not even exist.
     The story of a little girl named Fernanda and her birth mother, Mildred, from whom she was stolen, is as terrifying as any this reader has ever encountered. The lies, the abuse, and even torture, were sometimes difficult to read about. There are several children’s stories and several sets of parents’ stories in this book, all connected. The adoptive parents, in every case, were trusting and innocent of wrongdoing. The courage of Mildred Navel Alvarado Yac and others eventually led not only to the rescue of Fernanda and her siblings, but to tighter regulations in Guatemalan adoptions and finally to suspension of adoptions between Guatemala and the U.S. Some of the perpetrators went to prison, while others continued to lie and deny they ever even worked in adoption. Celebrate Children international remains in good standing as an adoption agency in Florida and has turned their attention to adoption from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Haiti, and Ethiopia. In spite of numerous complaints and investigations, they remain in business.
     This story is harrowing, and would not be recommended bedtime reading, but it is of extreme importance to all those in the adoption community, including any prospective adoptive parents who are considering an international adoption, and also those who have already adopted. It also underscores the fact that adoption continues to be about poverty, or even fear of poverty, on the part of birth parents. In international adoption the “sending countries” are consistently poor countries, often with poor public health systems and lack of human rights enforcement, particularly for women. The United States is the biggest “receiving” nation, for a variety of reasons, including a shortage of children available for adoption, particularly infants, comparative prosperity of adoptive families, and a society that encourages generosity and encourages adoption in particular. Unfortunately, closed adoptions are still favored by many and international adoption is often seen as a way to obtain a closed adoption, with little or no possibility of the adoptee having further contact with birth family or even birth country, unless the adoptive parents make a great effort. Many do make that effort, of course. However, situations like the ones described in this book are still far too frequent, and while they should enrage any member of the adoption world, they are still rarely publicized.
     Read this book! It is available from Beacon Press, www. beacon.org, and no doubt through Amazon.com. It will be available through the Operation Identity lending library if you live in Albuquerque and are a member of O.I. You will probably not find it a your local bookstore, although you can order it through them.

Excerpted from the October 2012 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2012 Operation Identity