Podcast on “Corruption in International Adoption”

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently posted a podcast on “Corruption in International Adoption.” The segment, produced by Amy Costello, featured an interview with Jennifer Hemsley, an adoptive mother who was so concerned that her intended daughter had been kidnapped from her Guatemalan birth mother that she halted the adoption. Hemsley later discovered the girl had not been kidnapped; the child was moved to an orphanage, and ultimately placed in permanent foster care in Guatemala. Amy Costello also interviewed Erin Siegal, author of Finding Fernanda, a new book about corrupt practices in adoptions from Guatemala.

Unlike some of the reportage I read about international adoption, I found Costello’s interview to be thoughtful and well-researched. At the same time, I felt she was presenting only one side of a very complex issue. Thus, I engaged with Costello in a dialogue on yet another blog, China Adoption Talk. You can listen to the original podcast and read our conversation by clicking on the China Adoption Talk link.

Below are excerpts from my comments:

As everyone agrees, corruption in international adoption must be identified and weeded out, a monumental task to be sure.

But I think it’s important to view the subject of “money” in international adoption within the context of all adoptions, as well as within the context of the often-overlooked but related fertility “industry.”

I’ve spent the past year speaking to groups of parents about a book I wrote about adoption from Guatemala. Many folks tell me our international adoption was “cheap” compared with their private domestic adoption, and/or fertility treatments, and/or payments to donors and surrogates, both here and abroad.

One physician said he thought the high cost of international adoption could be linked to the high cost of fertility treatments in the US. Something to consider.

None of which excuses corrupt practices in international adoption. But it seems as though international adoption often is reported in a vacuum, when in fact it’s part of a wide spectrum of ways to create a family, most involving money that changes hands.


As a fellow adoptive mom with children from Guatemala, I feel deep empathy for Jennifer and her family’s struggles. Her responses definitely resonate for me, as they probably do for others who have adopted from Guatemala and spent any time there. As my lawyer once told me, “This is not Paris. This is not Argentina. This is Guatemala. Things are different here.”

Enough said.

A number of adoptive parents have shared with me their nightmare paperwork stories, including false names or addresses, or a boilerplate social worker report. This is especially hard because many APs with children from Guatemala want to connect with birth parents, and inaccurate information makes that impossible: children will never be able to trace their biological roots, and birth mothers are unable to be found. I consider that a tragedy.

However, for me, false paperwork is a far cry from kidnapping or coercion, although they are often all lumped together as “corrupt adoption.” (In California, where I live, for example, tens of thousands of residents are undocumented and use fake ID, but we don’t consider them “criminals.” Again, my opinion only.) Jennifer’s experience is a case in point: although the date on the DNA was wrong, the baby was not kidnapped. Yet the adoption is labeled “corrupt.”


Like you and others, including “orphan doctor” Jane Aronson, I absolutely support the idea of family preservation in-country. In addition to funds donated by “ordinary families around the world,” it would be great if governments of countries could step up efforts to assist their citizens by earmarking funds for family planning services, food, housing, and education.

That said, there will always be situations where a woman cannot or chooses not to parent her child. In those instances, international adoption can be viewed as one option.

Will international adoption ever be fully transparent? Maybe if enough people make enough noise, it will. In a country such as Guatemala, adoption of non-blood-related children is rare, so without international adoption, the alternative is a lifetime spent in institutional care. Jennifer’s account of her daughter’s orphanage experience was chilling, and unfortunately, not unique.

I’m grateful to Amy Costello for caring about international adoption, and for listening to what I had to say. Thanks, too, to Malinda at China Adoption Talk for giving us the space to air our thoughts.

If you have an opinion you’d like to share, please comment here or on either of the other two websites.




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5 Responses to “Podcast on “Corruption in International Adoption””

  1. marie says:

    It is really interesting (and shocking) to see how some APs downplay the term corruption, ignoring or excusing how coersion, falsification of documentation, fake IDs, fake birth certificates, erroneous dates, negative DNA results and paying birthmothers, as not falling under that heading! What makes it even sadder is the excuse is given that is “the way things are in Guatemala.” Yes, colonialism still exists in Guatemala and those with no voices are used for profit, end of story but that does not mean that should be accepted by Adoptive Parents!

    The argument is used that many APs have “searched” for the biomothers, which in MANY cases have turned out to be biofamilies found, complete with a father in the picture and siblings older than the adoptee that were kept and siblings younger than the adoptee who were born after the relinquishment of the adoptee. The question does come to mind, then why was that child relinquished? This interesting scenario is glanced lightly over by many APs. The child is NOT an orphan!

    What do they expect the extended happy and healthy biofamily to say to them? Do they expect to hear that the pregnant biomother was approached at a remote market place and told how relinquishing the child to a family in the US would guarantee monetary benefits down the road and dependency on that US family and…ultimately on the child in the future as the child becomes an adult? How the mother was escorted and provided for during the pregnancy or aftwards? Seriously? I think not.

    Of course they are going to reiterate the very scripted synopsis of the reason for relinquishment, especially when many APs come offering money, groceries, educational support for biosiblings, buy businesses for them, property and even new homes for the biofamily, not to mention many APs also supply expenses paid vacations to extended biofamilies that would be totally out of the question in their reality due to the classicism that exists in Guatemala today. Do APs really think that biofamilies are going to offer another version different from what the AP heard about the reason for the relinquishment or how somehow a poor and illiterate pregnant woman found herself in an attorney’s office in Guatemala City? Why were older siblings kept and one child relinquished? Why were other children born after the relinquished child? Why was the biofather who is present in the family not mentioned in the SW reports? Interesting.

    Once again we see the adoptee being profited by others with these searches/searchers who make a profit from this business. ICA corruption just morphed into another form.

    It takes ALOT of courage to stand up to verify the documentation that one is presented when one is a PAP. Atleast this child can truly know who she is. Using a “searcher” does NOT provide verification of the facts. Interesting to note that many “searchers” were once noted “busquadores” who found the pregnant women in the first place! So those in the adoption biz have just morphed into being in the “searchers” biz. As were those involved in processing ICA. Folks this is well known in Guatemala circles, just sharing. The best method for verification is using a private investigator like the Hemsleys did AND with notifying authorities in Guatemala.

    Please note that the Hemsleys did not give up on the child and the child is not living in an orphanage. The child is STILL in process, the PAPs are still the Hemsleys, the Hemsleys are also financially supporting the child who lives with a foster family (Legal Guardian) and the Hemsleys are awaiting approval by the CNA. Omitting this detail is not respectful to neither the Hemsley family nor the child. Instead of PAPs pushing for their adoption to go through and ignoring vital points, they should have investigated the delays and verified the information.

    Downplaying the term corruption in the end hurts us all.

  2. Jennifer Hemsley says:

    Jessica, the truth of my family’s story is much more complex than the soundbite you’ve placed above, so I wanted to respond. It appears to me by presenting the above distillation of our story, you’ve minimized the problems we faced and perhaps subtly twisted the facts in order to support your premise that, essentially, “corruption isn’t corruption unless it’s kidnapping”.

    We had many other concerns about corruption and fraud (other than kidnapping) when we were faced with numerous “irregularities” in the case. The problem was, we just didn’t know what was the truth, and that was a huge problem for us. A kidnapping was just one of the possibilities, along with coercion. As documented in Erin Siegal’s (Finding Fernanda) research and in US Embassy cables, a Guatemalan mother who desired her child back once put into the adoption system faced possible death if she spoke up. It became known that a mother could not change her mind, or face retaliation. I did not want to raise a child that was wanted, a child who was not an orphan. Unfortunately, many PAPs definition of “Orphan” was fairly elastic.

    To be clear, the adoption was halted —for investigation— when I reported the fraud in the case. Then, an associate of our Guatemalan facilitators tried to take Hazel by force from our nanny. Hazel was then placed in protective custody by the CNA—to protect the whole family she was with. CNA placed Hazel in an orphanage (luckily for a short time), and even I had to get court permission to visit, in order to protect her identity and location. I then got her moved within 24 hours. And this is just a portion of the story. I won’t bore you with the other nuances or things that will remain private in regard to Hazel’s past.

Overall, this isn’t about “ownership” of Hazel, and once and for all, I’d like to take her out of that prescribed adoption framework. I have a new understanding of Parenting that is divorced from ownership. I may have “lost” her as far as raising her in my home as “my” child, and that is deeply painful on a certain level there is no doubt. To watch her grow in pictures from a great distance, my heart certainly aches for that loss of daily contact and interaction. But, I believe love is greater than my need to parent within that framework of ownership, and our focus is instead on her welfare, happiness, education, and health…. in her home country. She will not go without. She is our family. Soon to be an adult, able to perhaps join us in the United States, but it won’t be as an “adoptee” —in all likelihood.

    Regardless, despite the outcome of an adoption process, she is not “mine” in a larger scale as I see it. As a popular poem says, “children are of the universe” and as parents, we are merely a guide. Isn’t this often the hardest aspect of parenting to accept? That we don’t “own” “our” children in the grander scheme? That our role is to eventually let go? I guess I view our situation as a crystalized version of this, and there is a great deal of truth and wisdom (and for me, comfort) within those lines.

    We as adoptive parents owe a great deal of humility, respect (and frankly, apology) to Guatemalans for what happened in our quest to become parents. Our money fueled some terrible practices and horrific crimes, and we must face that one day and be accountable for our roles in that, no matter how direct or indirect they may be. I believe we need to make amends for the corrupt market system that we unknowingly created by our need to parent (for some, at any cost). We can start to make amends by simply looking at what happened with open eyes, and open hearts, learning the truth, no matter how painful, and by supporting those that were the most damaged in Guatemala such as the mothers with stolen children (Olga, Raquel and Loyda) through Norma Cruz and Fundacion Sobrevivientes.

    You have a popular blog, and a popular book. Imagine the greater good you could do, in the homeland of your children, should you open the doors wider here to examination of these issues. Imagine the difference you could make if you could “bring along” many other APs on that journey. Without examination of the past, we are destined to repeat it in the future. Without voices like yours, I fear the repetition.

    Jessica, in all honesty, I have not read your entire book because I can’t bring myself to do so. But I see from reading the first chapter, you describe that you were also faced with (what I would define) as a form of corruption. Your facilitator, a well known child trafficker, Thanasis Kolias, AKA “Teo” (who was later banned by the US Embassy) presented you with a child that was not “yours” you write. You didn’t want to know about this baby, because she could not be “yours”. In fact, you write you did not even want to hold her. And I have to wonder, what happened to that little girl who was “presented” to you by this man? Where did she come from? Where is she now? Who is responsible for her welfare? In a sense, aren’t we all responsible for her, whether she is “ours” or not?

  3. Jennifer Hemsley says:

    Oh, one other thing…. you stated above in regard to Hazel, that “the birth mother was not coerced”. Can you tell me please where you found or heard that information, and what would lead you to present that as fact on your blog?

    The definition of coercion, like your definition of corruption, seems to have varying definitions, especially within AP circles (your audience). I would prefer that any story that is to be told about any possible coercion in Hazel’s case, is left to Hazel and her mother, if and when they are ready to share it. It is not mine to share, and it is not yours. I’d prefer if you removed it.

    Thank you.

  4. Jessica says:

    Marie and Jennifer:

    Thank you both for your comments. If I have given the impression that I support corruption in adoption, I apologize. I do not. In fact, I have spent the past 7 years of my life raising my voice against corruption–five years writing Mamalita, a year to get it published, and the past year promoting it. My first comment to podcast producer Amy Costello was “As everyone agrees, corruption in international adoption must be identified and weeded out, a monumental task to be sure.”

    One reason I posted this blog was to call attention to the podcast highlighting Jennifer’s story, and to the book, Finding Fernanda. Both contain truths that are worth examining. At the same time, I felt there were other sides of the issue that weren’t being considered, which I wished to present. They are:

    1. adoption should be viewed within the larger context of the “fertility industry”;

    2. in my opinion, there are different degrees of corruption, and by lumping them all together we divert attention from and dilute egregious wrong-doings. I wish we could be more specific in our language.

    3. family preservation is paramount, but there will always be cases where a woman cannot or chooses not to parent a child. How to best handle that situation?

    From listening to the podcast, I didn’t realize Jennifer’s adoption was still in process, for which I apologize. In addition, I made an assumption about lack of coercion based on my limited understanding of the details of the case. I have deleted the reference.

    Jennifer, my knowledge of your case is based only on a single public interview I heard on one podcast; my distillation fits into a format of 300 words. Your observation that I’m presenting only a sound-bite is correct, and I thank you for providing further information.

    Jennifer, I have a lot of respect for your bravery and integrity, and admire you for making your story public. I wish you and your family well. Finally, as far as the little girl we were presented with in the opening scene of my book: I did happen to meet her adoptive parents eventually. Perhaps contrary to the impression I give, I care deeply about her and about children everywhere.

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