23 Sep 2011

The Author

Author of the award-winning book Finding Fernanda. Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Redux Pictures photographer. Read more here.

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NEW: 500 pages of internal memos from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala


This week, I got a surprise in the mail: almost 500 pages of internal memos from the US Embassy in Guatemala. The documents were in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request I filed with the Department of State almost two years ago, in which I asked for:

“…correspondence between former US Embassy Consul General John Lowell and State and also correspondence between State and the US Embassy in Guatemala concerning international adoption fraud from 1990-present.”

FOIA’ing the federal government can be an exercise in patience. Here’s the timeline of this single request from my notes:

  • November 30, 2009: Initial request date
  • February 11, 2010: Letter of appeal sent to the Department of State, since it has been 58 business days since I filed my request, and they’re legally obligated to respond within 20 days.
  • March 19, 2010: I finally receive a letter from the Department of State assigning my request a case number. The letter is signed by Wilma M. Manning.
  • May 17, 2010: I call Tom, a friendly employee in the FOIA response office of the Department of State, and he tells me that the materials (meaning: relevant records) are all in review now, and have been imaged. All three searches are apparently complete.
  • June 16, 2010: A man named Donald Besom from the State Department calls me to talk about this request, says that they already “sent out a cover letter for each segment, and it looks like the only excisions on your request are blacking out names.” He says there are 42 documents and around 320 pages here, and that out of all the docs, he thinks only two are classified. He calls specifically to ask my permission about to clarify the request so that the adoption paragraphs of a classified doc are what is released- not the entire whole document, a confidential cable from 2001 from the Embassy to Congress, which he says is unrelated to adoption. He says, without the modification, the request will take longer and he wants to finish it this week. He asks me to send him an email with permission to modify the request to besomdg@state.gov “materials relevant to adoption.” I send the email the same day.
  • June 18, 2010: I call Donald back at the Department of State FOIA number to check in and make sure he got my email, and he says that the review is finished and that the file has been passed to a senior reviewer. After that, he says, there is some clerical work, which is where the DOS has a backlog. He says that in one “segment” there are 42 documents, and that all documents are from one office out of the four searched. They have not heard back from the other three offices.
  • June 29, 2010: Email response from OGIS, saying searches continue at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, the Office of Overseas Citizen Services, and the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Records were found in the Central Foreign Policy, and a review has been completed. OGIS says “All releasable material will be forwarded to you as soon as possible.”
  • August 13, 2010: I ask for and receive an email update from OGIS/Department of State saying that searches continue in the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, the Office of Overseas Citizen Services, and the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. The search of the Central Foreign Policy Records has been completed and is under review.
  • September 13, 2011:  I receive the records.

The records came in a big cardboard box. And yup, I was so excited to finally get information from the Department of States that I took a set of photos while opening it. You can check it out on the Finding Fernanda Facebook page (click on the image):

Oddly enough, the cables I received aren’t exactly what I asked for, which were records related to former Consul General Lowell. Instead, they’re general, and read like a kind of chronological summary of the US Embassy in Guatemala’s struggle with adoption corruption in Guatemala through the last twenty years.

Some of cables are poetic. One memo from November 1996 has a subheading called “David v. Goliath or Birth Mothers v. Attorneys.” An excerpt:

“According to US immigration law, a child whose mother refused to voluntarily consent to an adoption clearly would not qualify as an “orphan.” As such, when a birth mother changes her mind and refuses to sign a relinquishment for the Embassy it generally means that the case has reached the end.

Yet, for the mother herself, her refusal to relinquish the child often means her problems are just beginning. While some Guatemalan attorneys will willingly return the child to its mother, other make the process extremely difficult, if not impossible, by pressuring, threatening, and even petitioning the court for an abandonment order.

Because of the lack of control in the Guatemalan adoption process, a birth mother cannot rely on the legal support or intervention of the Guatemalan authorities in an effort to regain custody of her child. Poor, uneducated and unsophisticated, she is “David” to the savvy, unscrupulous “Goliath” of an adoption attorney .

Unfortunately, the birth mother’s ultimate fate probably will not mirror that of David, who was the final victor. Without an understanding of the legal system or the as-of-now unavailable resources of a family advocate, she will likely never regain custody of her child.”

Other cables underscore various difficulties. Here’s one from February 2002, from then-Ambassador Prudence Bushnell:

“…The Embassy is between a rock and a hard place. On one side we are absolutely committed to serve the thousands of insistent US adoptive families, who are always eager to enlist the help of their congressional representatives. On the other, we have a moral imperative to do everything in our power to ensure that each child has been given up legitimately and honestly. To avert potential disaster, the Embassy’s INS office needs an urgent infusion of resources.”

In the coming month, I’ll be releasing some of the US Embassy, Guatemala City cables here on this website. They’ll be housed in the “Documents” section at the top of the page. I’ll also be releasing the cables in a complete set in an upcoming e-book and paperback.

UPDATE 9/30/2011: Another box of cables came today, and this one contains even more documents than the first.

A few excerpts from the records:

Both alleged mothers met untimely and violent deaths soon after our investigation…” US Embassy Guatemala cable, June 1995,” Download the full cable (14-page .pdf) here:  http://findingfernanda.com/documents/june-95.pdf

“David v. Goliath, or birth mothers v. attorneys” -US Embassy Guatemala, 1996, Download the full cable here (9-page .pdf) here: http://findingfernanda.com/documents/nov-96.pdf

“…The great unanswered question has been what happened to the children.” -US Embassy Guatemala, February 1995, Download the full cable (9-page.pdf) here: http://findingfernanda.com/documents/feb-95.pdf

9 Comments
5 Comments
  1. This is amazing! Thank you for your efforts and for securing this/ What is your plan? What will you do with this?

  2. I admire you for tracking down memos from the State Dept., an exercise in patience.

    About the 1996 memo: To the best of my knowledge, the required DNA test was instituted in 1996. Perhaps the test was in response to concerns such as the one outlined here? The four required birth mother interviews may have been around the same time. Curious if the same concerns outlined in the 1996 memo continued, or if 1996 was the last instance.

    Re the 2002 memo: Seems as if the Embassy was understaffed in 2002, and asking for additional resources.

    I think everyone agrees that the system needed to be fixed. Indeed, adoptions between Guatemala and the US have been closed since December 2007. My question is whether there has been any real progress since then–that is, moving beyond simply criticizing the system to finding ways to reform it.

    Jessica O’Dwyer

  3. Hi Mirah and Jessica, thanks to you both for the kind words.

    Jessica, I definitely agree with you that the issues of reform and progress are important. In my capacity as an investigative journalist/researcher, I hope that the information provided on this site can help increase public understanding of what happened over time in regards to fraud in Guatemalan adoptions– and why. In the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: sunlight is the best disinfectant.

    And also, Jessica, you’re wrong on the DNA date– the US State Department began the requirement for all Guatemalan children in adoption processes on October 1, 1998, not in 1996.

    Prior to 1998, the US Embassy requested DNA tests on cases where they suspected fraud.

  4. 1998, not 1996. Thanks for the correction. The point is that the State Dept. responded. Considering that about ~350 cases are still pending from the 2007 shutdown, maybe 2 years for any action should be considered reasonable.

    Jessica O’Dwyer

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