Photo: Fernanda, 2010, courtesy Erin Siegal.

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Press coverage of "Finding Fernanda" and "The U.S. Embassy Cables"

Excerpt: Audio Interview with Mildred Alvarado

Mildred Alvarado with children, photo Prensa Libre, Oscar Estrada

Mildred Alvarado with her children are photographed after a judge ordered their return in 2008. Photo Prensa Libre, Oscar Estrada.

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The Overseas Press Club of America has given "Finding Fernanda" a Robert Spiers Benjamin Award Citation for best reporting in any medium on Latin America.

The Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California, has presented a James Madison Award for champions of the First Amendment and freedom of information to Erin Siegal in the Author category for her investigation of human rights abuses in Guatemala’s adoption industry in which children have been stolen, sold and offered as orphans to well-intentioned Western parents. The judges also highlighted her reporting about the conflicted role the U.S. government has played in these adoptions.

Independent Publisher Book Awards honored Siegal with a Gold IPPY Award in the category of Current Events II (Social Issues / Public Affairs / Ecological / Humanitarian). 

Also from Siegal

"The U.S. Embassy Cables: Adoption Fraud in Guatemala, 1987-2010" is a three-volume compilation of U.S. State Department diplomatic cables that reveals disturbing information about how international adoptions between Guatemala and the United States were handled between 1987 and 2010. Paperback | Ebook Volume One | Ebook Volume Two | Ebook Volume Three

"Finding Fernanda" was originally published by Cathexis Press in 2011. It is Siegal's first book.

Buy the book>

From the Schuster Institute

Fraud & Corruption in International Adoptions

Fraud & Corruption in International Adoptions: Guatemala

Finding Fernanda, Erin Siegal, International adoption Guatemala

Finding Fernanda

   Two Mothers, One Child, and a
   Cross-Border Search for Truth 

In 2007, an astonishing one out of every 110 Guatemalan children born was adopted in the United States. Between 2003-2008, 20 percent of the 100,000 children adopted by United States families came from Guatemala. Numerous news reports point to fraud and corruption in the international adoption system between Guatemala and the United States, a system widely considered by adoption experts to have had the worst improprieties over the longest period of time.

The Perfect Crime 

Investigative journalist and Schuster Institute Senior Fellow Erin Siegal knows firsthand about the fraud that permeates the international adoption industry. More than one source told her how the business of adoption can be “the perfect crime.” Siegal provides a comprehensive description of how it takes place.

What began as a 2009 Master’s project when Siegal was a Fellow at the Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism evolved into investigative reporting journey in which she:  

  • Followed the money trail of $30,000 U.S. dollars 
  • Tracked the lives of four Guatemalan “orphans”
  • Investigated one nonprofit evangelical Christian adoption agency
  • Uncovered a family-run child-trafficking ring
  • Discovered one infant who had been cut from her unconscious mother’s womb
  • Found two tiny missing sisters
  • Told the story of a nine-member Tennessee family who believed wholeheartedly in Christian love and faith.

Finding Fernanda, Erin Siegal, international adoption Guatemala

The result of Siegal’s investigative reporting is the book, “Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth” (Beacon Press, May 8, 2012). Siegal tells a dramatic cross-border tale of love, faith, and greed that shines light on the pervasive problem of corruption in international adoption. Children have been stolen, sold, and offered as orphans to well-intentioned Westerners since the Guatemalan adoption industry began in the 1980s, yet the governments of Guatemala and the United States proved unwilling and incapable of preventing repeated human rights abuses from occurring. Siegal narrates the riveting true story of two women, Guatemalan Mildred Alvarado and American Betsy Emanuel, as their lives collide in search of the same missing girl.

Betsy Emanuel was hell-bent on figuring out how, exactly, her family had ended up accepting an adoption referral for a child that had been stolen. The outrageousness of the situation consumed her. To her, it was plain and simple hypocrisy that Celebrate Children International professed to operate according to Christian morals and family values. She felt like a fool, and she resented how much power Sue Hedberg had wielded over her during the adoption process. She hated that the other CCI clients she’d grown so close to had been scared into submission, just as she had when Sue Hedberg had re-offered Jennifer for adoption.Two years had passed since Betsy had first contacted CCI about adopting from Guatemala. She realized she’d still never met Sue Hedberg face-to-face. I could probably walk right into her office, and she wouldn’t know who I was, Betsy thought, slightly amused. What would I say? She wandered around the daydream for a moment. I’d look her straight in the eye and ask: Sue, what really happened to Jennifer? Why was finding Fernanda “too dangerous”? What did you know?

Fraud and Corruption
 in Guatemalan Adoption

Adoption can offer hope and safe harbor for a child who is orphaned. But international adoption systems in various countries are not without their problems, as a comprehensive Schuster Institute project has documented. In some countries, such as Guatemala, there exists a sad recent history of pervasive illegalities associated with adoption; problems involving fraud, corruption, and even child trafficking. 

In her book “Finding Fernanda,” Siegal illuminates these illegalities by focusing on one child’s case while placing Fernanda’s experience—and that of her potential adoptive family and her birth family—within the boarder context of Guatemala’s international adoption marketplace.

Siegal couples her carefully documented narrative storytelling with never-before-revealed information she gleaned from the nearly 2,000 source documents she obtained and reviewed. These include diplomatic cables and communications from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala to the U.S. State department. Siegal obtained these documents through Freedom of Information Act requests, leaked e-mails, and her key sources within the Guatemalan and U.S. governments.

In February, Siegal self-published “The U.S. Embassy Cables: Adoption Fraud in Guatemala, 1987-2010” (Cathexis Press, 2012), a 718-page, three-volume book containing this revelatory cable traffic. Read excerpts>

For the first time, the U.S. diplomatic back-and-forth that took place between 1987 to 2010 focused on what U.S. officials in Guatemala were learning about illegal adoption practices in Guatemala is revealed. What this cable traffic highlights is the ambiguous moral and legal terrain that U.S. officials navigated amid their awareness of rising levels of fraud, corruption, and criminality being practiced at many levels by those involved with adoption in Guatemala.

Siegal supplements her writing about Fernanda’s story with additional reporting and documentation of Guatemalan adoptions at

Press Coverage>

Mildred Alvarado with her family, Guatemala, 2010

Mildred Alvarado is pictured here with her partner and her children, (from front left) Ana Cristina, Maria Fernanda, Mario, and Pamela Susana who is holding Adriana Sofia, at their home in Guatemala, 2010. Photo courtesy Erin Siegal.

Excerpt: Interview with Mildred Alvarado

The following is a rough translation of part of an interview Siegal had with Mildred, who recounts the call she got from Norma telling her that her daughters had been found:

"I hope that they [Sabrina and Coni] get sent to jail. It’s not fair what they did. They should get sentenced, they took me as their stupid one, their fool. I believe that they were helping me from the goodness of their heart, and it was all a lie. I hope they pay for what they did."

Last page update: May 9, 2012