The Deeply Troubled Past and Present of Inter-country Adoptions from Nations in Conflict and Chaos

Stories abound of children stolen from their families in countries of conflict and chaos. Beware of countries with a history of atrocities and don’t become complicit: The "blinders" are quite profound once you enter the adoption process and become committed to a child.

On July 5, 2012 Argentinean General Jorge Rafael Videla was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his role in crimes against humanity during the “Dirty War,” (1976-1984) including illegal child adoptions. The seven year conflict resulted in the deaths of at least 30,000 people. The grotesque history includes the forcible disappearance of pregnant women who were believed to be political dissidents. Upon giving birth, the mothers were executed and their babies were adopted by families connected to military and government leadership. Many children unknowingly grew up in military families only to later learn the horrifying truth. These children have been called the “living disappeared” and, in time and with the technology of DNA tests, some of these young adults have been reunited with their extended families.

Abuelas of the Plaza Mayo is an activist group of grandmothers (abuelas) who have protested in the Plaza Mayo of Buenos Aires for many years. They have persisted in seeking justice and truth in the names of their children who were executed and their infant grandchildren who disappeared during the conflict. The Abuelas cause is known worldwide for effective and persistent human rights activism; some of the grandmothers are now in their 80s and 90s and they continue to press on for truth and family reunion. Slowly but surely, the grandmothers have not only linked families lost from each other, but they have also advocated for the legal prosecution of war criminals implicated in these crimes. To date, General Rafael Videla is the highest ranking official to finally be sentenced appropriately for role in the atrocities. In fact, symbolically this is a huge win as Rafael Videla was the defacto president of the nation from 1976-1981.

This conviction occurs after a number of legal victories in recent years. In 2008 there was another high profile case in which an adoptee charged her adoptive parents with kidnapping. Maria Eugenia Sampallo’s case against her ‘adoptive parents’ gained international press attention when her ‘parents’ were sentenced to seven-eight years for the illegal adoption. The military officer involved in the case received a ten-year sentence.  To this day, other cases continue to garner attention in the media.

Truth and reconciliation is a complicated matter after mass disappearances. Sadly, El Salvador shares a similar history and the reunification of adopted children with their biological families is ongoing today through the work of Pro-Busqueda, a small non-governmental organization dedicated to search-and-find of the living disappeared children. Some of these children were adopted by families in other countries such as the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. Pro-Busqueda has reunited hundreds of adoptees with their families in El Salvador. Other countries, such as Guatemala, also have a similar history of seeking the truth for children adopted during the war years.

While there have been celebrations for family reunion, too many families still do not know what became of the living disappeared. However, in Argentina there is cause for a sign of relief as the General spends the rest of his life incarcerated for these crimes.  Now, the question is whether lessons from the past will inform the future of adoption practices in the context of chaos and conflict.

I worry about the Congo where inter-country adoption programs are now beginning to blossom. The bloody conflict in this nation (as well as other conflicts and chaos in Africa) require that adoptions must be processed with the greatest of care. I caution any individual or couple looking to adopt from a conflict or post-conflict nation. The unique dynamics of child sales in Africa are quite complicated — including current problems in Ethiopia. Beware of the history of atrocities and don’t become complicit because the “blinders” are quite profound once you enter the adoption process and become committed to a child. It is quite a difficult scenario.

Other families caught in the middle of adoption fraud have found themselves implicated in unthinkable crimes when they thought they were involved in rescuing a child. This is true for some families who adopted from Cambodia. The problems were so bad there that arrests and convictions of some adoption agency personnel took place in the United States. Prosecutions are a rare occurrence, and this case, entitled “Operation Broken Hearts,” illustrates the risks involved in inter-country adoption from conflict nations.

As recently as 2008, a child left post-conflict Guatemala as an ‘adoptee’ and in 2011 a Guatemalan court has ruled for the return of the child as a victim of abduction for adoption. That case remains in limbo as the U.S. adoptive family refuses to comply with a foreign court order. And, a Guatemalan family desperately awaits the return of their daughter. It is all very sad. Ultimately one can only imagine the pain that this young girl will experience as she becomes of age and learns of her own history of abduction, adoption, and the need for a personal search for the truth. For more about child abduction in Guatemala, see www.findingfernanda.com.