Schuster Fellow exposes international adoption flaws

Erin Siegal uncovers failure to enforce adoption standards

Erin Siegal

Erin Siegal, a fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis, has recently published two books based on three years of extensive reporting on fraud in Guatemalan adoptions.

What began as Siegal’s master’s project at Columbia University’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, evolved into her debut book, "Finding Fernanda."

In "Finding Fernanda," Siegal tells the riveting true story of two mothers, one American and one Guatemalan, whose lives dramatically intersect after the Guatemalan woman’s daughter is kidnapped and the American woman unwittingly attempts to adopt her.

Siegal uses the story of how these two mothers, Mildred Alvarado in Guatemala, and Elizabeth Emanuel in Tennessee found each other, reuniting a child with her birth mother against all odds, to provide a window into the serious problem of corruption in international adoption that has infected adoptions in numerous countries.

As Siegal reports, Guatemala’s adoption system was especially problematic, and in 2008, the United States suspended the processing of new Guatemalan adoptions. From 2003 to 2008, 20 percent of the 100,000 children adopted by United States families came from Guatemala — widely considered to have had the worst international adoption improprieties over the longest period of time. More than one source has referred to the business of adoption between Guatemala and the United States as “the perfect crime.” In 2007, the Associated Press reported that an astonishing one out of every 100 Guatemalan children born was adopted into the United States.

Siegal’s second book, "The U.S. Embassy Cables: Adoption Fraud in Guatemala, 1987-2010," consists solely of documents obtained from the U.S. State Department. These cables, which have never before been released, detail how U.S. officials grappled with various ethical and legal dilemmas in U.S. — Guatemalan adoption industry. 

“Many Americans involved in Guatemalan adoptions personally or professionally expressed anger and disbelief about reports of corruption in the Guatemalan adoption process,” Siegal says. “But this collection of documents exposes in great detail the corruption the U.S. Embassy was finding.”

The official communications document the ambiguous moral and legal landscape U.S. officials attempted to navigate as they tried to address the oftentimes opposing demands placed on them to provide fast "customer service" to adopting American families while trying to avoid complicity in cases of presumed child trafficking, Siegal said.

The story of how the embassy cables came to be released is nearly as complicated. While researching Finding Fernanda, Siegal filed dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests with various government agencies—to little response.

“Erin Siegal relentlessly bird-dogged slow-moving officials into releasing files that should be public” says Florence Graves, founding director of the Schuster Institute. Even so, it wasn’t until after Finding Fernanda was published that Siegal finally received the thousands of pages of important and revealing documents.

“And instead of filing them away as many reporters would do,” Graves said, “Siegal compiled them into a 718-page volume so that adoptive parents, adoption industry professionals, policy makers and interested journalists could better understand the depth of the corruption and the crisis it created for tens of thousands of people whose lives were damaged by this process.”

The documents show that through the late 1980s and 1990s the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City was discovering that as the country’s adoption industry began to grow, so did adoption fraud. The documents reveal that women mysteriously turned up dead. DNA tests showed that women were pretending to relinquish for adoption children they weren't related to (they had been kidnapped or obtained through other illegal means by criminal networks trafficking in children). To facilitate adoptions, Guatemalan adoption lawyers charged Americans and other Westerners $20,000 and more U.S. dollars—an enormous sum in the Guatemalan economy. In turn, the money created a strong incentive for unscrupulous parties and criminal networks to acquire "orphans" in any number of “creative ways,” Siegal says.

In February, Siegal was awarded the James Madison Award for champions of the First Amendment and freedom of information by the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California for her relentless efforts to force government officials to release these documents and publishing them as a public service.

The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism has reported extensively on the fraud and corruption involved in international adoption. To learn more, go to 

To learn more about Siegal’s work, go to Erin Siegal’s webpage at the Schuster Institute, her personal website, or follow her on Twitter @erinsiegal.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs, Research

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