03 Oct 2011

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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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Q&A with Dawn Embrey, Caught in 5+ Year Irregular Adoption

October 2007: The Embreys and the two Guatemalan girls they began trying to adopt. Today, one child lives in the US, and one remains in Guatemala.

The Embrey family began adopting two young sisters, ages 4 and 6, from Guatemala in 2007. The older girl was able to immigrate to the US in 2008, but the younger girl couldn’t. Her identity had been used once before in the adoption of a third child to a different US family. So what happens next?  

1. When did you start trying to adopt from Guatemala, and why?

For a long time, I have felt a burden for children who do not have families to love them. I believe God used this burden to get me to explore the option of adoption for our family. In the summer of 2007, my husband and I took the required steps to start the necessary paperwork. During this process, we prayed and sought confirmation from our biological children. When my husband and I saw the pictures of our daughters online, we felt these girls were meant to be a part of our family. Since we were older, we believed we were lead to older siblings who would not have as many opportunities for adoption. We contacted the adoption agency in September 2007, and signed our referral on September 21, 2007. Our agency helped us make arrangements to fly to Guatemala and meet our girls in October 2007.

2. How did you choose your adoption agency? Have they been helpful and supportive?

I spent many months in the spring of 2007 researching online and talking to friends who had adopted to gather as much information as possible. I did have a “checklist” for choosing a good agency. All of that went out the window because the girls we saw online were already assigned to The Open Way Adoptions agency. Thankfully, our agency has integrity in their dealings and are very committed to the well-being of the children finding good homes.  The Open Way Adoptions agency had not completed one single adoption when we signed our referral as they were a new agency.  This was one of the most important things on my “checklist” and thus, the beginning of this incredible journey of faith. With all we have been through the last four years, I truly believe The Open Way Adoptions have done as much as possible to assist with this drawn-out process. They have helped me make every single phone call to the Ministerio Público as I do not speak Spanish.  Over the last 2 ½ years, The Open Way Adoptions agency made over 100 conference calls to Guatemala with me. They have never asked for any compensation for their enormous amount of extra time spent on this case. Their hearts are also broken with the way things have been handled in our case as well as many others.

3. When did complications first come to light in the adoption process, and what happened?

We were told our daughters were being processed as single cases as they were entered into the adoption process separately. This was because our older daughter was born at home and our attorney Manfredo Velasquez Gallo had to get a court case put together to prove her birth and obtain a birth certificate. This process took several months. Our younger daughter, who is still in Guatemala, was born in a hospital in Guatemala City and already had a birth certificate and was able to enter the adoption process sooner.

We were blessed to bring home our older daughter on October 1, 2008. At that time, we were told it would be about 8 weeks before our younger daughter would be able to come home.  PGN did give us approval for adoption for our younger daughter in September 2008. It would just be a matter of completing the paperwork. We did not know of any problems until December 27, 2008, when we were notified our daughter was denied a Guatemalan passport. When our attorney applied for Guatemalan passport, it was discovered that our daughter’s birth certificate was used in a previous adoption that took place in 2003-2004. Our attorney immediately took our case to the Ministerio Público to seek help as he knew our daughter was a victim of stolen identity. This was the beginning of the greatest trial we have endured.

4. What have your interactions with US authorities been like? Which authorities have you contacted, and what have they said to you?

My first contact with US authorities was with the US Embassy in Guatemala in July 2009. Unfortunately, it was horrifying. I had emailed the Embassy requesting an appointment as I was traveling to Guatemala to meet with the Ministerio Público. I never received an answer to my email. I went to the US Embassy On Wednesday, July 22, 2009, at 7:00 am. Here is my blog entry from that date:

“This morning we got up early to head to our US Embassy. I got there bright and early at 7:00 am…Well, things went down hill from there. Are you ready for this? Our United States Embassy would not speak with me! After spending several hours there, having windows shut in my face and told to go to another window only to be told to go to another window. Finally was told by a rude lady that I need a number and I need to be there at 7:00 am to get one.  I tried to explain that I was there at 7:00 am but did not know that I needed a number since I was an American citizen. She did not care. I asked her where I get this number and she told me to get here at 7:00 am tomorrow morning and ask someone. As I was leaving, a Guatemalan man came up to me and told me not to get there at 7:00 am as that would be too late.  He said I needed to be there at least by 6:00 am.  He said that a person will come out to the street to hand out the numbers and sometimes it is before 7:00 am! I called Mayra, who has been an angel to me this trip. She confirmed what the man had said and she told me that many Guatemalans will be there by 5:00 am and I will not get priority as an American! To make my morning even more upsetting is that I have emailed the Embassy and have had another lady who knows someone in the Embassy email them about our case.  They were all behind the windows talking about me/my case with no compassion. Of course, they are responsible for a LARGE part of our problems and they do not want to talk to me. It will be interesting to see how it goes tomorrow….  ”

I left the Embassy that day in tears. I did receive a phone call on my Guatemalan cell phone late that afternoon. Apparently, someone at the US Embassy checked the email and saw that I did request an appointment and they set up an appointment for me the next day. I met with Kay Anske who was very polite to me, but unable to answer most of my questions.

My main requests were to know how the US Embassy gave us Pre-Approval on a girl who already had been adopted (according to their paperwork) and to know where to turn for help. The only main concern she was able to address was the confirmation the Guatemalan government would not be able to force the girl who was adopted using our daughter’s birth certificate back to Guatemala. I was willing to sacrifice bringing my daughter home if it meant that girl would be forced from the only family she had known for the last 5 ½ years. She assured me since no one was claiming she was stolen, she would be safe.

I contacted both my US Senators with no results. I have been a part of numerous phone calls and petitions to our US government. My only other contact with US authorities has been recently through the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, who is working with Senator Landrieu. My US Congresswoman, Vicky Hartzler has also been contacted in hopes of making sure my information gets to the US team who is currently working with the Guatemalan government.

5. What have your interactions with Guatemalan authorities been like? Which authorities have you contacted, and what have they said to you?  

We met with PGN in September 2008, to check on our younger daughter’s case while we were in Guatemala to bring home our older daughter. They were cordial and informed us PGN had already approved our adoption for our younger daughter. We were just waiting for final signature. We did receive news a few weeks later the paperwork was finalized.

I flew to Guatemala with my adopted daughter to meet with the Ministerio Público in July 2009. I was shocked by how polite and nice the prosecutors were who were handling my case. They met with me and spent at least an hour reviewing my daughter’s case. They even met with me the next day as I requested more information. This was the beginning of a 2 ½ year relationship that consisted of numerous conference calls and several more visits.

Each of the five consecutive prosecutors who were assigned to our case were polite. They would keep us up on the progress of their investigation and encouraged us to keep calling them. After much investigation, each prosecutor told us they believed there was no fraud in our case and they would be able to get our daughter’s passport. We were encouraged to remain patient and assured our daughter would be able to come home.

I believe each of these prosecutors truly believed what they told us. When the prosecutor believed they had enough evidence and investigation to add to our case, they would present it to their authority. We would then be assigned a new prosecutor and start all over with more investigation. This cycle happened five times.

One prosecutor, Mynor Pinto, did not know any details of our case. When we told him the truth about our case, he hung up on us. It was obvious his entire focus was on who he could prosecute and not on welfare of an eleven year old child.

6. How was your experience with “adoption supervisors?” What did they do, and what did they tell you?

We sought help in March 2009, from an adoption supervisor group called Servicios Juridicos Integrados (SJI).  This was due to our Guatemalan attorney Manfredo Velasquez Gallo, who refused to help us with the MP as he felt his job was done since we had a certificate of adoption from PGN. We dealt with Edwin Barrientos and Manfred Bretbacher through several emails. We checked references and sent $3,000 USD to Edwin Barrientos as they said we must have representation at the MP for our daughter’s case. We exchanged several emails over a four-month period. They said they went to the MP personally and inquired about our case and gave us updates on our case at the MP.

After much urging from our agency and several others, we asked SJI if they thought it would help our case to go to the MP ourselves. They insisted the MP would not speak to us. With no real progress, we decided to try to talk with the MP in person. It was July 2009, that I flew to Guatemala for the sole purpose of inquiring about our case.

As I mentioned earlier, the MP was very polite and discussed our daughter’s case at great length. The MP informed me that SJI, Edwin Barrientos, nor Manfred Bretbacher had been there to inquire about our daughter’s case.  According to the MP, that day was the first time my daughter’s file was even opened. The prosecutor at the MP tried to explain to me the huge amount of cases he is given and he is unable to work on most of them.

He assured me he would be working diligently now that we brought our daughter’s case to his attention. He reprimanded me for hiring SJI and told me that I did not need to have an attorney to represent our daughter. They would investigate and bring this case to an end as soon as possible.

I emailed SJI while I was in Guatemala and told them I went to the MP. They responded with anger and told me I have jeopardized my daughter’s case and now no attorney will help me. I was completely overwhelmed with who to believe and went to the US Embassy the next day in hopes of receiving help and direction.  It was then I discovered that we were completely on our own to fight for our daughter.

7. Where does your case stand today?

The two girls in March 2011. Photo taken by the Embreys on their last trip to Guatemala.

Our last trip to Guatemala was in March 2011. We met with Lissette Ordonez from the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry who was able to get our Guatemalan adoption attorney and several representatives from the MP together for a meeting.

Again, we were told that if we brought in the birth mother and her DNA matched and she still wanted to relinquish her daughter, our daughter would be able to get passport and come home. We paid our attorney and the birth mother to appear the next day at the MP. This made the second time we had to pay for the birth mother to be interviewed by the MP. The MP interviewed her and took her DNA. This was the third time the birth mother gave a DNA sample and her seventh interview inquiring her desire to relinquish her daughters. Upon returning home, we were notified the MP would no longer speak with us. They would only speak to our adoption attorney.

After months of trying to get a response from our adoption attorney, he notified us he would only inquire of our case at the MP for Q2500 for each visit. This is approximately $320 USD. We tried several times to speak with Lissette Ordonez. She told us she was not able to help us. She said she heard the MP was planning to cancel our adoption decree. She was unable to tell us what would happen to our daughter. We are completely distraught as the last four years of making nine trips to Guatemala, complying to every request made by the MP and spending an enormous amount of money, we are not any closer to bringing our daughter home. The emotional toll this has taken on our entire family has been immense, especially to both of our daughters.

I also did my own research, and by the grace of God, I located the family who adopted the girl using our daughter’s birth certificate.  They were not pleased to hear from me and requested that I not contact them again.  I did send them a copy of the birth mother’s DNA and my daughters’ DNA in hopes they would test their daughter.  Both of my daughters claim their child is their biological sister.  I do not really know.  My daughters were 6 years and 4 years old when that adoption took place.  I sent the DNA results to them in January 2011 and have not heard anything back from them.

8. What is the current life situation (housing, school, basics) of the girl you are trying to adopt?

Since we are legal guardians of our daughter in Guatemala, we were able to sign temporary guardianship to missionary friends who are currently living in Guatemala. This has been our only means of peace as we know our daughter is with a loving family who has taken great care of her. She has been attending a bilingual school that we have paid for monthly, along with all of her expenses, over the last 2 ½ years.

This has created a huge financial burden, but we know the necessity of our daughter having outstanding care. Our daughters are able to talk to each other through Skype. This is both a comfort and also a heartache. It has been very difficult for our older daughter who has been home with us for three years as her sister is the only thing she has left from her past, which is positive and comforting. She misses her greatly but it is hard for her to spend time on Skype. Our younger daughter in Guatemala is having difficulty living a life in limbo. If the MP does cancel our adoption, our daughter will be removed from the only loving home she has ever known. There is no way of knowing if she will be able to recover from so much trauma in her young life.

9. How has this process affected your family?

There is no way to measure the devastation this has created on our entire family and friends. Our friends are distraught on how to offer help as they see our family suffering. The thousands upon thousands of hours of emails, phone calls and conversations with many people in two countries has been very overwhelming.

The stress has affected every relationship in our household. The most devastating toll is on our daughter who is home with us. She suffers from the abuse she was exposed to while living in Guatemala and is not able to trust any adults. She is in therapy and is starting to make some progress. Our first goal is to have her realize this is not her fault.

Because of the abuse she suffered while living in Guatemala, she believes all of this is her fault – she was the older sister who made mistakes and did not take care of her little sister. Our hopes have been crushed over and over again after each promise from the MP that our case was ready to move forward did not occur. Everyone who hears about our case is upset that this has happened, but no one seems to know how to resolve it. Now, with the threat the MP will cancel our adoption, we are devastated, not just for ourselves but for our daughters. If this news reaches them, I believe they will not be able to recover. We have only been able to survive this turmoil through the faith we have in God. It is this through this faith we get our strength to face each day with perseverance.

10. Are there any reflections you’d care to share about this entire experience? If you could speak directly into the ear of American and/or Guatemalan policymakers, what would you say?

This is the hardest question to address. A flood of emotions and tears overwhelm me as I try to sort them out. There is indescribable sadness, helplessness and anger. The saddest part of this is that hundreds of American families are affected, not just us. Each has their own heart-wrenching experience of being caught in this nightmare. We have been subjected to lies and what seems to be unlawful conduct by the Guatemalan government; and abandonment by our own United States government. I personally believe money/power is the motivation for the government closure/takeover as the Guatemalan government has proven they do not care about the welfare of the abandoned children. Can they put aside political aspirations for the moment and look at the devastation they have caused children and allow them to have a future of love and hope?

2 Comments
2 Comments
  1. This is a terrible situation for these sisters and illustrates the corruption of the Guatemalan adoption system. The lack of cooperation of the other adoptive family involved adds to the complications. When adopters cling vehemently as if entitled to children who may have been obtained illegally – kidnapped or stolen – they are aiding and abetting child traffickers and should be prosecuted as such.

    There are a handful of US families harboring possible kidnap victims and refusing DNA testing to confirm or put to rest such allegations, and there are the Monhanas who have been ordered to return the allegedly kidnapped child they harbor. The fact that families love these children and are providing well for them is irrelevant to the fact that alleged felony kidnappings occurred. It is also irrelevant that the families harboring the victims were unaware of the crime.

    Simply reverse the nations involved and imagine an American child kidnapped and taken out of the US and ten adopted by an unsuspecting family. Would not the uD gvt fight with all its powers to have that American born child returned to its rightful parents who were victimized? As in any kidnapping the care the child received subsequent to the kidnapping would not be a factor in seeking the proper return. Even parental kidnappings are prosecuted in this manner – returning the child.

    Prospective adopters need to be aware that ANY International adoption could land them in this awful gray area of having an adoption drag out like this, or living with the doubt of wondering if their child was stolen or obtained under some untoward duress or deceitful measures. Every one considering adoption needs to decide if they will part of the problem of part of the solution as child traffickers only exist to fill a demand. No demand, no trafficking.

    In countries that have closed International adoption reported alleged child “abandonments” reduced dramatically. When In. adoption programs were reinstated, the rate of abductions went right back up again! Claiming a child as abandoned is the classic way criminal pass off stolen children to orphanages.

    Do not contribute to these crimes! The tens of thousands Westerners pay per child is very corrupting. if your goal is humanitarian, those same dollars could be far better pent building a school, purchasing medical supplies or digging a well than taking one child and often leaving their family behind.

    Mirah Riben, author, THE STORK MARKET: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry

  2. Interesting story, thanks for the posting the interview. Just curious:

    - If the girl who is in the US used the identity of the Embrey’s referral how was the DNA test handled?

    -Does this mean that the child adopted by some other family has all faked documents, being that that child is NOT the true child on the documents?

    -Is her adoption even legal?

    -What is the reaction of the other AP family who adopted a child with a fake identity?

    Common sense reaction would be….who is this child?

    How tragic it is that this child in Guatemala is now in limbo.

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