Between Power and Weakness: Can Motherhood's Bond Overcome an International Adoption Dilemma?

The most recent chapter in the unequal relationship between the United States and Guatemala is about international adoption.
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Honorable Guatemalan Judge Angelica Noemi Tellez Hernandez's ruling in late July that 26-year-old mother Loyda Rodríguez Morales' stolen daughter must be returned to her arms was a groundbreaking decision.

On its own merits, it was perhaps an obvious one. The decision sought to right an awful wrong by re-linking the maternal bond that was broken on Nov. 3, 2006, when Anyelí Rodríguez (then two years old) was stolen from Morales' arms in Guatemala City.

It sought to reassert order in a land where disorder, mayhem and bloodshed have prevailed for decades. And the decision presupposed that, in a just world, the child could simply be handed back to its natural mother, in a sequel to wise King Solomon's biblical judgement.

But there's nothing simple about the practical implication of Judge Hernandez's historic ruling. Anyelí Rodríguez, who turns seven on Oct. 1, now lives in a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., with her American adoptive parents, Timothy James Monahan and Jennifer Lyn Monahan. The Monahans have given her the name Karen Abigail, and likely had no idea that their daughter was stolen from her birth mother's arms when they returned to the United States with her on Dec. 9, 2008.

The culprits behind this crime appear to be the nine Guatemalans who have been criminally charged, including Judge Mario Peralta Castaneda, who signed off on the adoption -- and not the American couple. The Monahans won't talk to the media and have instead hired a Washington D.C.-based spokesman, Peter Mirijanian, to represent them.

Through Mirjanian's public relations agency, they issued the following statement: "The Monahan family will continue to advocate for the safety and best interests of their legally adopted child. They remain committed to protecting their daughter from additional trauma as they pursue the truth of her past through appropriate legal channels."

"Their legally adopted child." Those are powerful words.

Judge Hernandez has given the Monahans 60 days to hand over the girl, and threatened to call the international police agency Interpol if they do not. And that's where the linear story ends. The Monahans' intentions are unknown, but if you honestly think that a judge in small and powerless Guatemala can successfully order a family in the mighty United States to relinquish their child, then you haven't studied the grotesquely one-sided history of U.S.-Guatemala relations.

It was we yanquis who executed a coup d'etat in 1954 to remove democratically-elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz; used the beautiful countryside as our own banana republic during the Cold War; armed and trained its right-wing military during the brutal, 36-year civil war to further our own foreign policy goals; and forced the CAFTA free trade deal down the throats of Guatemala City's powers-that-be last decade.

The most recent chapter in the unequal relationship between the United States and Guatemala is about international adoption. Last decade, Guatemala became the largest "sending country" in the world for adopted children. Nearly 20,000 Guatemalan children were adopted by American families between 2004 and 2008, and a full 1 percent of all babies born in 2007 in "the land of eternal spring" were relinquished by their birth mothers and adopted abroad.

Guatemala's "notary" adoption system was the only privatized system in the world at the time. That is, "notary" judges and attorneys controlled the flow of children out of her borders, and not the government itself. The financial incentive for Guatemalans working in international adoption led to allegations, and actual cases of theft, birth mother coercion, even rumors of "fattening houses" where sex workers were encouraged to become pregnant and then sell their babies to adoption lawyers. The Guatemalan government effectively shut down international adoption in 2008.

I explore this morass in Between Light and Shadow: A Guatemalan Girl's Journey Through Adoption (University of Nebraska Press, April 2011). During my time in Guatemala, I met corrupt and unsavory lawyers, honorable women who had given up children out of the goodness of their hearts, rural Guatemalans who believed that Americans adopt children to use their organs... and everyone in between.

In the book, I retraced the steps of a girl who was coercively relinquished by her biological mother at the late age of 7 and then adopted by a loving and unsuspecting Michigan family. At the adoptive mother's urging, I facilitated and chronicled a dramatic reunion with the girl's birth family in 2006, during which we learned that the biological mother had repeatedly given up children -- for money. The realization was bitter, and yet, around no turn did this story appear black and white. Had Antonia not given up five of her 10 children for adoption, today they would probably be as desperate and poor as she is -- perhaps resorting to sex work, perhaps joining violent street gangs.

My book leads to an unexpected showdown in the jungle where the adoptee suddenly must choose between her Guatemalan family and her American family. Reading this month's upsetting news about the Missouri girl Karen Abigail, and the inevitable fight to come over her custody, I thought of how a similar battle played out in Between Light and Shadow:

Of course the girl will return to the United States with Judy on Thursday... The match today here in this jungle in Central America was not going to be fair. In fact, it was fixed to begin with. Two poor Guatemalan boys with no money, no resources, and no valuable passports never really stood a chance against a middle-class white woman from the United States when it came to fighting over the 14-year-old girl they all love and need so badly. At the end of this week Guatemala's most valuable natural resources, its children, will still be leaving the country on airplanes for El Norte, and this particular case will be no different. At the end of the month, Guatemala's role will still be one of subservience to the United States of America.