A Dateline¬†special on adoption in Guatemala airs on NBC Sunday, Jan. 20 at 7pm ET.
By Benita Noel, Dateline Producer
I felt like I was on a roller coaster. The car, which seemed to have no shock absorbency whatsoever, hit the bumps with a resounding thump - over and over again. I had my hand flat up against the roof to brace myself, but it wasn't much help.¬† More than once I went sliding across the seat, as did everyone else in the car.
It was March 22, 2007 and our driver was making his way - much too fast it seemed -¬† along a mostly unpaved, almost comically windy road from Guatemala City to Jalapa, 110 miles away. We'd been warned to avoid drinking too much water or coffee before the trip, and now I knew why.¬†
At least we were all laughing about it. I was with my field producer, Leonor Ayala, and our crew, cameraman Bob Abrahamsen and soundman Randy Foster. We also had our Guatemalan "fixer" in the car (hired to help us with everything from translating, to directions, to letting us know which areas of the city we shouldn't take our cameras into without security) - and a private investigator.¬† We were going to Jalapa to videotape the reunion of two young sisters with their family - nearly 5 months after they'd been kidnapped from their home, abused and almost adopted by unsuspecting families in the U.S.
In many ways, the shoot was a producer's nightmare. We'd all gotten up at the crack of dawn, only to wait an hour for everyone to arrive and get organized, and then we'd driven to a fast-food restaurant where we waited another hour for the police we'd be following. Nobody in Guatemala seems to be in much of a rush to do anything. And there wasn't much of a plan. Nobody seemed sure where the reunion would happen, or even if we'd make it to Jalapa on time. We were winging it.
About 15 minutes outside of Jalapa, there was a series of frenzied phone calls between the private investigator, the police and various people at the Jalapa District Attorney's office. There was chaotic confusion; the reunion had already happened, no, it was happening in two minutes. It was happening on the street, no, it was happening in an office inside the building.¬† Someone had changed their mind - they didn't want us there after all. No, that was a mistake. Go to this corner, no, go that corner.
Bob, our cameraman, got anxious, frantically trying to pull his camera out of the pile of cases we'd jammed into the back of the car. I told him not to worry, the only thing that really mattered that morning was those poor little girls were finally going to see their mother again. Still, we all wanted to witness the moment.
Somehow, our driver managed to pull over in the right place just in time for Bob to point his camera out the window of the car and focus on a darling little 5-year-old girl running full speed down the sidewalk towards a nervous looking woman waiting around the corner. In an instant, all the stressed commotion subsided. We just watched in silence.
|Galicia family reunited
Because we'd stayed a good block away, we couldn't hear anything, but I didn't need to, the tears were already spilling down my face. I could see the girls' mother wiping her eyes, her body shaking as she clung to her daughters and stroked their hair. I could see that the 5-year-old, who was clinging to a doll, had buried her head into her mother's leg, the same way my own daughter sometimes does.
Afterwards, we were invited inside the District Attorney's office to meet the family. The two kidnapped girls, 5-year-old Candida, and 9-year-old Claudia, were seated on a bench alongside their mother Clara, and an older brother, Ceasar. I was immediately struck by these children's smiles - they all have the most infectious grins, and they were beaming.¬† They waved at us playfully and giggled uncontrollably when Bob (pictured left) made silly faces at them.¬†
Clara, who is shy and soft spoken, was subdued, but obviously relieved, and immensely grateful.¬† She repeatedly thanked the private investigator, who had been instrumental in getting her daughters returned, as well as us. She was hoping we'd be able to help find her third kidnapped daughter.¬† I wished I could promise her we could.
Pictured: Clara Galicia
When I pulled out my digital camera to take some photos, the children were delighted.¬† I don't speak Spanish but it didn't matter. I showed them how to use it by pointing at the buttons they needed to push, and then let them take turns taking photos. It only took a moment for me to realize how little Candida had survived her traumatic ordeal. She was monopolizing the camera defiantly, bossing her brother and sister around as she took one photo after another.¬† I knew right then that this tough little cookie will be just fine.
|Photo of Benita Noel and Leonor Ayala taken by Candida
Late that night, after we'd spent the day with Candida and her family, and we were bouncing our way back along that nightmarish road to Guatemala City, tears fell down my face again. Candida and her siblings are enchanting, joyful children full of curiosity, eagerness and beautiful spirit. Their parents are lovely, gentle people who despite their modest life and financial limitations, provide their children with an abundance of genuine, nurturing love.¬† I cried because I was incensed at the kidnappers who'd so brazenly abused this family. I cried because it made me ache inside to see a mother in such agonizing pain, wondering when, or even if, she'll ever see her third kidnapped daughter again.¬† I cried because I so wished I could help, and yet, had no idea how.
Pictured: Candida, Claudia and Ceasar
UPDATE - Producer Benita Noel responds to comments:
Sadly, I can assure you that these children were indeed kidnapped -- and that they were offered for adoption. When you watch our story on Sunday, you will understand how it happened. By telling the Galicia family's story, we are by no means implying that all adoptions are corrupt. During the course of putting this story together, I was repeatedly touched by the great joy and love that adoptive parents have brought to so many lucky Guatemalan children. I also believe that for the most part, the safeguards that are designed to circumvent crime do work. But, the reality is that unfortunately there are some corrupt operators who have tried to take advantage of the system.¬† I realize that any discussion about corruption in Guatemalan adoptions is extremely difficult for the thousands of parents in this country who have, or are about to, adopt from Guatemala. I am a mother myself, and I completely understand the inclination to protect those adopted children. Nobody wants to be stigmatized - nobody wants other people to point fingers at their children, or worse, say something to their face, suggesting that because there is some corruption, all adoptions must be tainted. While I was researching this story, many people told me that they wanted to speak up about bad experiences with questionable operators in Guatemala, or unscrupulous agencies here in the U.S., but they were too scared. Some were afraid they would never get their children home if they didn't keep quiet, some were afraid of repercussions from their agencies, and many were afraid of being crucified by other adoptive parents for daring to say anything negative about Guatemalan adoptions.¬† Recently, one family who has been through one traumatic ordeal after another in the course of trying to adopt was actually threatened by someone in Guatemala who promised their baby would never come home if our story aired.¬† There is no excuse for that type of manipulative bullying, particularly when you are dealing with innocent children and emotionally vulnerable adoptive parents. That is the reason I believe that whatever the scope may be, corruption needs to be addressed. To this day, the parents of the kidnapped Galicia girls are devastated. The last time I saw Rodolfo Galicia, the father, he was so distraught he had actually been hospitalized because he can barely eat. Clara Galicia actually contemplated suicide before the two girls pictured above were safely returned home.
You can see photos of users' adopted children here, and read their adoption stories here.
Read correspondent Victoria Corderi's blog on the two sides of Guatemalan adoption here.
For more on the positive side of international adoption,¬†see Dateline's story about a Philadelphia family that adopted three sets of twins from Russia.