One girl's controversial adoption, and what it says about Guatemala's broken international adoption system

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Marco Werman: Guatemala used to be a popular country for Americans seeking to adopt a child. In 2006 alone, more than 4,000 Guatemalan kids were adopted by families here in the US. In each case, perspective parents paid tens of thousands of dollars in fees. All that money fueled a lucrative adoption industry in Guatemala, and an underground trade in abducted children. It got so bad that Guatemala halted all new international adoptions in 2007. The country has been trying to reform its broken system ever since, but there are still a lot of questions about what went on in the past and about one case in particular. We’re going to spend the next few minutes hearing the details of that one controversial adoption and we begin by turning to investigative journalist Erin Siegal McIntyre. She spent years looking into Guatemala’s broken adoption system and she has a story in Guernica Magazine about the case involving a girl named Karen Abigail.


Erin Siegal McIntyre: So, Karen’s case is actually a high profile criminal investigation in Guatemala. It’s a case being handled by the Federal Human Trafficking Unit and for the past six years this child known as Karen has lived in Missouri in the United States with her adoptive parents, TImothy and Jennifer Monahan. But in Guatemala, there is a young Guatemalan couple, Loyda Rodriguez and Dayner Hernández, who are convinced that that child is their kidnapped daughter, Anyelí, who disappeared in November 2006. The case gets even more controversial because in 2011, a Guatemalan judge actually ruled that Karen should be returned to Guatemala, but the Monahans have held onto her.


Werman: How strong is the evidence that this girl, Karen, was abducted and then sold for adoption?


McIntyre: Well, in Guatemala, nearly a dozen people, including government officials, have been charged with serious criminal offenses related to this adoption, including dereliction of duty, human trafficking, and falsifying documents. Two women involved, a nursery director and also a lawyer, have already been found guilty and are serving jail time for their involvement with this child and this adoption.


Werman: Have the parents that claim that Karen is their daughter, those parents in Guatemala, do they have any DNA evidence that would prove that she is their daughter?


McIntyre: Well, Loyda Rodriguez’ DNA was compared to the DNA sample that had been kept on file for Karen that was originally drawn back in July 2007, and two independent labs, one in Spain and one in the US, had both sent their findings back to Guatemala about that test. Both labs agreed--there was a 99.98% positive match for maternity, meaning that Loyda Rodriguez is the mother of that child who was presented as Karen in July 2007.


Werman: And is it certain that the blood sample those two independent labs tested was, in fact, the sample of that girl who is now named Karen?


McIntyre: Well, what’s clear is that sample was supposed to be the blood sample drawn from the child who went to the lab that day, and that child who went to the lab that day was being called Karen, the documents say she’s Karen, so it seems as if that is her.


Werman: Okay, so Karen became a US citizen. What has the US State Department said about the case?


McIntyre: That’s a good question. So, both Guatemala and the United States are parties to the Inter-American Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters. So, via that treaty, Guatemala’s public ministry of justice has asked the State Department for assistance in this case. They asked for a new DNA swab to be taken from Karen’s cheek and that way they can verify whether or not the child in Missouri is or isn’t Loyda Rodriguez’ kidnapped daughter. But the Justice Department responded and said that they weren’t going to help and that there wasn’t enough evidence tying the adoptive parents to the kidnapped child, and because of that, they can’t take that step. Prosecutors in Guatemala say they continue asking and that it’s an ongoing request pretty much.


Werman: Investigative Erin Siegal McIntyre. Her reporting on this case, which again, appears online in Guernica Magazine, is much more complex than what we’ve just summarized. For example, the DNA puzzle also includes a woman who originally presented Karen for adoption at the US embassy in Guatemala, claiming to be the child’s mother. But her DNA did not match Karen’s. McIntyre’s article also raises questions about whether Karen’s adoptive family, the Monahans, knew at some point that something about the adoption process wasn’t right. The family strongly denies that. We asked the attorney representing the Monahans, Jared Genser, to comment on the story. He told me that there were several facts that McIntyre failed to mention in her article or didn’t put in the proper context.


Jared Genser: Consider three things that she has missed in reporting this story: First is that the only clear conclusion from comparing the DNA at the embassy was that Ms. Rodriguez, the imposter birthmother, and the child were actually all closely biologically related, meaning that the women presenting the child at the embassy was actually most likely her biological aunt. Second, Ms. Rodriguez herself has put forward a half-dozen different versions of the alleged kidnapping of her daughter and even Ms. McIntyre’s version in her own article is contradicted by two links on her own website, and all of these contradictions were reported by CNN. Lastly, and most importantly, my clients actually reached out to Ms. Rodriguez almost three years ago in a letter that was hand delivered by US embassy personnel to initiate a private discussion about the situation and never got any response. I think when you look at these things together, and that none of these things are reported in Ms. McIntyre’s story, you start to get a sense as to what’s really missing here.


Werman: Ms. McIntyre told us that several people involved with Karen’s adoption case have been charged with serious criminal offenses, including falsifying papers and human trafficking, and that two people involved are in jail today. So, don’t you think that raises legitimate questions about the case?


Genser: Of course it raises legitimate questions about the case. I think that the real question though is what actually happened and getting to the truth of what happened. My point here is that the whole story needs to be told, including what the Monahans actually did when they started to learn about some of these things. They reached out proactively to the Guatemalan police to give them a copy of the failed DNA test, they reached out to the Guatemalan foreign ministry directly, they talked to the US State Department and to US law enforcement. They also had been assured through a two-year long process before this trial was adopted that numerous vettings of this adoption had been completed, numerous investigations had been completed by Guatemalan authorities and at the time they had every reason to believe that everything had been done properly. So, of course after the fact one can look back and say that there were problems that happened here that are, in fact, very, very serious. But again, much of what I’ve just described isn’t reported in Ms. McIntyre’s article at all.


Werman: You say that the DNA tests show that it’s most likely the child but why wouldn’t the Monahans agree to a new DNA test to determine once and for all if the adoptive daughter Karen is the same girl as Loyda Rodriguez’ missing daughter? Wouldn’t the Monahans want to know for sure?


Genser: Look, that’s a reasonable question and there are a few things that I would say about it. First, the State Department told the Monahans that the state of Missouri was the appropriate place where this case should be heard, including any DNA testing, and the Monahans were frankly surprised that Ms. Rodriguez didn’t avail herself of the opportunity to challenge the adoption there within a year that she had when the adoption was completed to claim fraud. If she had done that, she would have gotten her child back. The court order in Guatemala that purported to order to return the child to Guatemala already concluded that there was a DNA match. Again, I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but I’m kind of confused as to why people in Guatemala, or the government of Guatemala, want to do DNA testing when that court order was good enough to annul the adoption and demand that this child, who at that point when the court order came out had already been in the United States for two and a half to three years, they wanted to have this child returned to Guatemala, rip the child from her family without having been sure of the DNA testing, and yet now they’re saying they need more DNA testing. So, my view is that the government of Guatemala shouldn’t be able to have it both ways. It’s not really very fair. They’ve concluded that it’s the same child, and so at this point, with all these considerations in mind, the Monahans believe that they’ve done the best that they can to investigate and come to the truth about their daughter’s origins.


Werman: So, the Monahans truly believe this was a regular standard adoption?


Genser: Look, the Monahans believe that at the time that the adoption took place, based on all the information that they had and all the assurances that they’d been given by the government of Guatemala, the US government, and everyone else, that this was done in full accordance with all of the laws, regulations, and procedures.


Werman: Jared Genser is the attorney representing Timothy and Jennifer Monahan, the American couple who adopted Karen in Guatemala. As we heard, this is a very complex case and you can only imagine the emotions involved on both sides. We have a link to Erin Siegal McIntyre’s article about Karen’s adoption published by Guernica Magazine and to Jared Genser’s full response to it. That’s all at PRI.ORG.