One evening, after our children were tucked into bed, we happened to tune into a TV show featuring a story on corruption in Guatemalan adoptions. Because we’d adopted both of our daughters from Guatemala, we were drawn to the screen. Our interest turned to shock when we saw that the attorney profiled on the show was the one we’d used to adopt our second child, Elizabeth. He was accused of baby trafficking by Guatemalan officials and by Bruce Harris, Director of Casa Alianza, an organization that protects street children. Suddenly, questions we’d put aside in the happy months after our baby’s arrival resurfaced in a rush. “Why had our repeated requests for a photograph of Elizabeth’s birth mother been ignored?” “Why had this second adoption been so much more difficult than our first, which had gone smoothly?”
Troubling as these questions were, behind them lay a deeper one: “Were we raising a child who had been unwillingly relinquished by her birth mother?” “Did this young woman cry herself to sleep at night wondering what had happened to her infant daughter?” We didn’t know what to do. At night I rocked my baby to sleep as teardrops fell from my eyes onto her shiny, black hair.
After months of deliberation and talking to friends who had adopted internationally, we decided to try to find Elizabeth’s birth mother, Blanca Elizabeth. We didn’t know what we would do if we discovered that she had been coerced into relinquishing her baby. We decided to cross that bridge if and when we came to it. The possible repercussions were staggering, and we knew that if we faced them too soon, we might not have the will to find Blanca Elizabeth. It would be impossible to keep the allegations against our attorney secret from our daughter as she became an adult, and once she heard them, her life would look like one big question mark. We had to find answers.
A Tale of Two Adoptions
Since adopting our older daughter, Katie, we’d exchanged occasional letters and photographs with her birth mother in Guatemala City. We’d also been able to locate Katie’s biological brother, who had been adopted by a family living in the U.S. So began the happy tradition of vacationing with this family each summer.
For a number of reasons we switched to another attorney for our second adoption, and almost immediately upon referral of Elizabeth, we wrote to request a picture of her birth mother. We also asked the agency here in the United States to get a birth mother photo for us. We sent a disposable camera to Guatemala and very quickly got it back, holding delightful pictures of our little one and her foster mother—but none of her birth mother. Several months later we sent a second disposable camera, this time accompanied by a letter explaining how hard it would be on our younger daughter not to have a single photograph of her birth mother, when her older sister had so many. The second camera came back, again with enchanting pictures of Elizabeth, but none of her birth mother. In frustration we decided to wait until Elizabeth arrived home, knowing that we would receive a social worker’s document that gave us Blanca Elizabeth’s address. We would write to her directly.
Our second adoption was considerably more difficult than our first. When we asked our caseworker at the agency why everything seemed to be taking so much longer, she told us that officials at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City had a longstanding gripe against our attorney. As to the nature of this gripe, she said only, “Oh, that’s a long story!” We had requested that our daughter be escorted to the United States, but at the last minute the agency told us we’d have to work directly with the Guatemalan attorney.
It was the week before Christmas that year. The Guatemalan attorney, who had hoped to escort Elizabeth himself, ended up having to cancel, claiming he had too many court cases scheduled. He finally decided to have his assistant deliver our daughter to us at JFK Airport in New York City, a seven-hour drive from our home. It took days—as well as about $500 in international telephone calls and numerous faxes—before the U.S. embassy agreed to grant the escort a visitor’s visa. Yet once our daughter was safely in our arms, we forgot about these difficulties and figured we’d contact her birth mother later. When we brought our daughter into her new home for the first time, on Christmas Eve, she truly was the present of a lifetime.
Sleuthing on the Internet
First we turned to the Internet, and we were amazed by its power to make the world a smaller place. We joined the Guatemala-adopt email list and got to know other adoptive parents of Guatemalan children. Some had used the same attorney we had used, and we learned that a few of those had corresponded by mail or had even met with their children’s birth mothers. This was reassuring, but it wasn’t enough.
I corresponded for several months with one mother, who suggested that I write to a man she had met on the Internet through his online Guatemalan travel guide, Xelapages. This was Tom, a North American, who lives with his wife, a Guatemalan, in the town of Quezaltenango. I emailed Tom and asked how I might reach Blanca Elizabeth, who lived (I thought) in a village of about 1,000 people near the southwestern coast of Guatemala. I told him of my fear that, if she’d kept her pregnancy a secret, a courier delivering a letter to her might disrupt her life. And I asked how to get a camera to Guatemala, since packages are often pilfered by corrupt customs officials.
Within 45 minutes I had a response. Tom happened to be coming to the United States with his family and would have an overnight layover in our city just four days later! He told me to have a letter prepared for the birth mother and translated into Spanish. He also suggested that we send a disposable camera inside a self-addressed inner box. He would pre-pay the postage back to the United States and mail it to Blanca Elizabeth in an outer box, once he returned home to Guatemala.
At a hotel near the airport, we met Tom, his wife, and their son. It was one of those extraordinary moments, when you meet someone and feel you’ve known them all your life. Everything clicked. Tom’s wife, Marylu, had curly brown hair, just like our older daughters, and she told Katie how much she resembled her own niece. This connection to her heritage meant a lot to Katie.
Angels on Our Side
Shortly after our new friends got back to Guatemala, Tom wrote to tell us that Marylu had decided to hand-deliver our box to Blanca Elizabeth’s door. We were thrilled and offered to pay her travel expenses. The Monday morning after traveling to Blanca Elizabeth’s town, Tom wrote to say they’d gone to the address listed on our social workers document, only to be told that Blanca Elizabeth did not live there—and never had. They’d spoken with neighbors; no one knew her. I faced the possibility that our daughter’s documents had been fabricated, and I wondered how I would answer her questions as she grew older.
I started contemplating other ways of locating Blanca Elizabeth. We asked Tom if he could recommend a private investigator in Guatemala, but he suggested that we try another route first. He asked us to fax him copies of all of our adoption documents; he and Marylu would return to the small town to inquire at the hospital where Elizabeth was born and at the inn where Blanca Elizabeth was said to have worked. Our hope was restored.
While Tom and Marylu did not locate Blanca Elizabeth on that trip, their news was encouraging. The owner of the inn did remember Blanca Elizabeth, although he did not know where she had gone. A woman who worked there said that she saw Blanca Elizabeth’s sisters in town from time to time, and she offered to hold onto our box and give it to the sisters the next time she ran into them. Short of actually locating Blanca Elizabeth, we couldn’t have been happier. And we’ve thanked our lucky stars ever since for Tom and Marylu, who, were convinced, are angels.
In early December, I found the box we’d put together three months earlier sitting in our mailbox—and began shaking so that I could barely open it. Inside I discovered a handwritten letter in Spanish, along with pictures of Blanca Elizabeth, her two daughters, her mother, and her two sisters. Here was my daughter’s biological family! I scanned the letter quickly and was relieved to find no mention of the attorney who had placed Elizabeth with us. I was certain that his name would appear if he had taken Blanca Elizabeth’s baby without her consent.
We received an English translation several weeks later and at last felt confident that all is as it should be. (The attorney has since been cleared of all charges against him.) It was a lovely letter. Blanca Elizabeth gave us her address, in a campesino outside town. She said that though she wished she could have Elizabeth with her, she thanked us and God that Elizabeth was able to have all the things she likes, which I would not be able to provide. These moving words erased the questions of the past two years. We had found Blanca Elizabeth—and forged an important link to our daughter’s past.