A Quick Guide to Keeping in Contact with Your Child’s Birth Family

Do you wonder about the options available for keeping contact with your child's birth family and what you can realistically expect?

Many adoptive families do.

Logistics, privacy concerns, language and cultural differences all combine to make contact challenging -- but not impossible.  


I’ve put together this quick guide to contact options which I hope you will find useful. Let me know what you think.

Options for Maintaining Contact

Note: In late August 2016, shortly before this article was first posted, the Guatemalan postal service suspended operations. As of February 2017 the post office remains closed and packages sent to Guatemala are being returned to sender.

Relying on the post office

The first question many families ask after receiving a search report is if they can send mail to the address in the report. The post Why Having an Address for Your Birth Family May Not Be as Important as You Think provides some background on how addresses work in Guatemala. But if sending letters, cards and photos to your birth family sounds appealing, here are some things to consider first:

Can the birth family receive mail? Not all addresses in Guatemala are serviced by mail delivery so check with your searcher first.

 Is it safe for the birth mother to receive mail?  It is unusual for most people in rural areas of Guatemala to receive mail. If the adoption has been kept a secret, a letter arriving (especially one with foreign stamps and return address) could create an uncomfortable situation for the birth mom.

Do you have someone who can translate your letters into Spanish if you are not fluent? It is rare to find a birth family with members who can read and write English, so it is best to send your letter in Spanish.  By the same token, you’d need to have someone on hand to translate any letters you receive.  Google translate may be able to help you get the jist of a letter, but I’ve seen it result in some crazy talk as well.  So it may be fine for translating a letter you receive but I would not use it to translate a letter that you are sending.

Is the birth mother literate in Spanish or does she have someone she trusts to read her your letters or translate them for her if needed? Many birth mothers cannot read or write Spanish and many do not speak Spanish.  If this is the case for your birth mother, you’d want to make sure that she has a trusted family member or friend who could read her your letter.

Are you really patient?  Mail delivery is notoriously slow in Guatemala and it can take months for a letter to arrive -- if it arrives at all.

Do you want to send anything of value to the family?  Do you envision sending a photo album, clothing your child has outgrown, an afghan you knitted last winter?  Keep in mind that items such as these may not arrive.   It is not uncommon for packages to be opened and pillaged in route.  You should also be aware that when packages do arrive the family may need to pay an import tax that will likely be beyond their means.

If you are very patient, only foresee one or two communications a year, have access to translation services and don’t envision sending anything other than a letter or card with a photo or two, using the postal service is worth a try.   You will want to have a way to verify your letters are being received and have a backup plan if not.

Using an express service

Both DHL and Federal Express service Guatemala, as does King Express (http://www.shippingtoguatemala.com/) which specializes in deliveries to Guatemala.  These services are much more reliable but can be expensive.  When I fostered my daughter in 2003, I would have my business send me a monthly packet of documents via FedEx which cost around $40.  I always got these packages (in Antigua) and the delivery guy even got to know me and one day tracked me down in the Central Park to give me my package!  The downside to these services (besides cost) is that import taxes are often charged on anything other than a letter or document and the families rarely have the funds to pay these. You’ll want to check with the carrier before sending anything of value.

Making phone calls

Being in touch by phone is, of course, the most immediate form of birth family contact. I know a few adoptive families who manage to make phone calls work, so it is definitely possible, though not always easy.  Here are things to think about if you want to try phone contact:

Does the birth mother speak Spanish?  If she only speaks a Mayan language it may be tough to find someone who can translate for you, though she may be able to get someone to translate on her end.  That could however involve your every word being translated from English to Spanish to the Mayan language and then back again which would be incredibly cumbersome and prone to miscommunications.  

Do you have a Spanish translator available to be on the call? I’d recommend using a native speaker or someone who is very comfortable with Spanish and phone conversations.  

Do you have a backup means of communication?  Cell phones are frequently lost, stolen, sold or lent in Guatemala.  Which means your birth family may not be the person who answers when you call. Most birth families pay for minutes as they go and if they do not have money for “saldo,” as it is called, for an extended time the phone company will take back the phone number.  Also, many families don’t have electricity in the home to charge their phones so need to carry it to a store or neighbor to be charged which results in stretches of time when the phone is “out of service” and they cannot be reached.

Do you have an international calling plan? Maybe obvious, but otherwise you’ll spend a fortune.  Prepaid cards that you buy in local convenience stores are also an option but those can be cumbersome to use.

You will also want to consider setting up a time to call the family rather than calling out of the blue in order to coordinate with work schedules.  And finally, expect the calls to not always go through, especially if your family lives in a remote area and during the rainy season - cellphone coverage can be very spotty in Guatemala.  

Exchanging email addresses

Many families don’t live near an Internet cafe or don’t have money to pay for one if they do.  But if your family is lucky enough to have access to the internet and has a member who can manage an email account, this can be an easy and inexpensive way to maintain contact.  The main drawback is language, but the nature of email does give you time to have your correspondence translated and for you to think through how to respond to requests.


Not all, but most families do have access to a cell phone which can make texting a possibility. I know a few families who do keep in touch this way.  The thing to keep in mind is that while the family may have a cell phone, it is most likely not a smartphone but rather one that requires the old fashioned way of entering letters by pressing the corresponding number on the keyboard the correct number of times. This can hamper their ability to reply and sometimes garble the message you get.  So not only will you have to deal with the same translation issues as with email, you may need to decipher the text, all while they are most likely expecting a quicker response. Before texting you’ll also want to find out if the birth family is charged for incoming texts.

Sharing on Facebook

Recently I have come across more families who are maintaining contact with birth family via Facebook posts and Facebook messaging. If your birth family has a Facebook account here are some things to think about if you are considering contact via Facebook:

Are you comfortable with the birth family seeing everything you post? While some adoptive families cite privacy concerns (not wanting the birth family to see where they live) others are uncomfortable knowing that the birth family’s living conditions are so drastically different from their own and how much more obvious this will be to the birth family who has Facebook access. Most adoptive families I know put Facebook privacy filters in place to manage exactly what birth family members see.

Are you comfortable with birth family members reaching out directly to your child if she has a Facebook account now or in the future when she is likely to have one? Having access to your account and seeing photos of your family will make it easier for birth family to track down your child and make contact.  Many families are fine with this but not all.

Do you have a plan on how you would handle seeing or learning anything disturbing about the birth family?  I was recently contacted by an friend seeking my advice as he became concerned after seeing his son’s birth brother posting pictures indicating he had joined a gang.  My advice to him was to contact his searcher (he was working with someone else) and provide her with the information he had so she could take appropriate precautions in her interactions with the family.

Hiring someone to do it for you

While some adoptive families relish direct contact with birth families, others are more comfortable having someone to guide them in the relationship and to handle the logistics.   If you have the resources, using an intermediary to manage contact with your child’s birth family could be a good solution.  My recommendation is to start with the person who did your search as she will have the information needed and a head start on forming the trusting relationship.  While it is possible to switch searchers/intermediaries read the post on Switching Searchers for more insight on what is involved.

What works for you

I don’t believe there is one best way to maintain contact with your birth family and what works for you may be some combination of what I’ve covered here or something else all together.  I’d love your feedback on what works for you either in the comments or in the survey I posted a few weeks ago which is still open and you can find here:   www.surveymonkey.com/r/DM6N7FZ


Survey on Birth Family Contact

Over the past 8 years we have collected quite a bit of  anecdotal data on how adoptive families maintain contact with birth families, information which has certainly informed my opinions on the matter.  But (being a bit of a data geek and someone who often conducts surveys as part of her day job), I thought it would be interesting to survey adoptive parents on the subject.

I've put to together a quick survey which should take no more than 10 minutes.   You can take the survey by clicking here.

Feel free to share the link (https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/DM6N7FZ) with other adoptive parents you know or on listservs or Facebook groups - the more responses the better.

I'll share the results here on the blog in a future post.






Can One Person Make a Difference?

When I first met Gloria she was a bubbly 12 year-old dressed in indigenous traje, who went to school in the mornings and spent her afternoons in Antigua’s Central park selling  woven bracelets and beaded necklaces.  She was part of a group of young women from a neighboring village who I came to know during the time I spent fostering my daughter.  I met Gloria before I had spent any real time outside the “bubble” of Antigua, before my Spanish was proficient, before I had worked with rural poor in Guatemala, before I met and started a relationship with my daughter’s birth family and before I had any idea about the dynamics of relationships where one person has so much more access to resources than the other.

Over the years that followed I would see Gloria on our biannual visits to Guatemala, always bringing her a T-shirt or backpack from the States.  By the time my daughter and I moved to Guatemala to live full time, Gloria was studying in diversificado (Jr high school) and I offered to pay her tuition and buy her uniform and school supplies knowing this would be difficult for her family given their only source of income was selling tipica to tourists.  Gloria would happily babysit for me when I needed help on a weekend or evening and her family would regularly invite us to their home in a village just outside of Antigua for delicious homemade pepian.

When it came time a few years later for Gloria to select her “career” she chose tourism and I made the commitment to continue to support her studies financially. A few months after Gloria had started her tourism courses I came home one afternoon to find her entire family camped out on the lawn in front of my house.  My stomach sank when I saw her mother, father, older sister and older brother all with serious faces.  It was her brother, Lionel, who started by telling me how much his family appreciated the support and friendship I had given Gloria over the years and how much it meant to them that she had someone to sponsor her education.  He talked about how proud they were that she would be the first person in their family to ever graduate high school. Then a tearful Gloria explained how she had made a mistake in her career choice and had realized after starting classes that tourism was not the career she wanted to follow. She explained that she wanted to withdraw from the program which would mean losing much of the money spent on registration, uniforms and books but she wanted my permission to do so.  She said she instead wanted to study to be a primary school teacher and had found a program which would accept her even though classes had started for the year and wanted to know if I would help her.  The entire family apologized profusely and told me they would understand whatever decision I made.

My first reaction was annoyance at the money that had been wasted.  But as I listened to Gloria the annoyance turned to compassion for a young woman who, of course, did not know what she wanted to do with her life having never had a role model to follow in regard to education. Before they left I renewed my commitment to help this family produce their first high school graduate.

Gloria enrolled in a primary teacher education program. It took her close to 6 years to finish the 4- year program due to stops and starts and health related issues (which her family was quick to blame on the stress of studying and at one point counseled her to quit her studies completely). In October of 2014, at the age of 24, Gloria became the first high school graduate in her family.  The pride I felt for her was well worth any small sacrifice I had made to help her achieve this dream and I hoped with all my heart that her family, especially her younger cousins, would see her as an example and work to follow in her footsteps.

I wanted Gloria’s education to open doors for her.  For her to get a job as a teacher and begin to help support her family and prove to them all the value of her education.  This is after all the story I'd heard again and again from charities who worked to raise girls out of poverty  --  the promise of education.  But while I have worked the few contacts I have in Guatemala, almost 2 years later Gloria has not been able to find a job as a teacher and can be found today where I met her almost 14 years ago -- selling tipica in the park in Antigua.

My relationship with Gloria is just one such relationship I have tried to navigate during my time in Guatemala -- the relationship with my daughter’s birth family being another.  I often think about what these relationships have taught me about compassion, charity, hope and one person’s ability to fight poverty and positively and respectfully impact the life of someone else. I think about the line between support and paternalism and where I want to fall on that line.  So while Gloria has not (yet) had the results I had wanted for her or she wanted for herself,  I don’t for a moment regret helping her and am in fact grateful for what I have learned.  

Last month when visiting Guatemala, Gloria’s sister-in-law Gladys (who may be my favorite person in the family because of her warmth and the caring she has always shown me and my daughter) approached me shyly and asked if she could talk to me.  She had that look I now recognize well that means a request is coming.  Her oldest daughter, Karin, had just finished diversificado and was now taking a year off from studying as she wants to study nursing but the family could not afford the program on what they earn selling tipica in the park.  She said Gloria had suggested she ask me if I could help, the implication being since I was no longer providing support for Gloria’s education I must have some extra money.  At first I bristled at this implication and the request that would mean for me a return to monthly tuition payments that, while within my means, are not insignificant.  But as with Gloria years before, I asked Gladys to do her research on what the program would cost and what they would need from me and to send me this information.  I tried to be as noncommittal as possible, but seeing the tears in Gladys’s eyes replaced by hope I knew I’d do what I could to help educate another generation of this family.  

Thinking more about this request, I’ve come to see it as a sign that I did in fact accomplish my initial goal.  This hard-working indigenous family does value education for their children. And while I may be just one person helping just this one family -  that gives me hope.





Why Asking for a Medical History of Your Child’s Birth Family May Not be as Helpful as you Might Think

Most adoptive parents we work with say that one of the objectives they have in searching for birth family is to learn about their child’s family medical history.  It sounds reasonable and is certainly something as parents we feel like we should know.  But how many of us have had to leave blanks when filling out medical history forms for our children or tell our pediatricians that we just don’t know certain facts about our children?

For most of us, having a family medical history is a “nice to have” that would make us feel like we can fill in the blanks for our children and maybe even arm ourselves with information to help us keep our kids healthy.  For others who have children with serious illnesses having a medical history can be much more than that.

But unfortunately no matter how much an adoptive family might want or need a birth family medical history, it isn’t as simple as just asking the birth family.

The truth is that qualified medical care is sorely lacking for most birth families. While healthcare is technically free in Guatemala, many birth families do not live close to a free clinic and do not have the money to pay for transportation. If they are able to borrow money to travel to a clinic, while the visit is free, they do need to pay for medications which are very often out of their economic reach or just not available.  As a result, many rural birth families rely on local healers which are lay people who have some experience in treating illnesses with medicinal plants and home remedies but who can’t offer a medical diagnosis.

It’s not uncommon for a birth mother, when asked what someone died from in her family,  to reply “stomach pain” or a “bad cough” and to say the person had suffered but never saw a doctor and then died.  

Even in cases where the birth family member is able to visit a clinic and purchase medicines, due to language and educational differences the family may often not understand the actual diagnosis.  And there is no guarantee a diagnosis is correct given the limited training of staff in the public clinics.

So while a medical history is part of the standard search interview, nine times out of ten the report will bear the phrase: “there are no contagious or chronic illnesses in the family” and nothing more, as this is pretty much all the birth family can share.

One common and potentially useful exception is the diagnosis of diabetes which has an incidence rate of 11% among Guatemalans (comparable to the 10% rate of Americans).  It is fairly common for members of a birth family to have a diabetes diagnosis which may or may not be treated.

As with most things in Guatemala and adoption, precise answers to questions about medical history are not as easy to come by as one might hope, but given the realities of life Guatemala it is understandable.




Corn, Tamales and Families

If there is one food that comes to mind when I think of Guatemalan cuisine - it would be the tortilla.  There are lots of well-known regional dishes such as Pepian and Kaquik, but it’s the tortilla that you’ll find everywhere - from the streets of Guatemala City to the highland villages in the north to the low-lying towns on the coasts.  Not that big, flat flavorless tortilla you find in Mexico, but the smaller, hand-patted, grilled, delicious, corn version.

Guatemala’s history with the corn used in tortillas goes back to the days of the ancient Maya, who believed that the gods created humans out of corn. They practiced rituals involving corn to express deep gratitude toward the gods and the sacred crop.   Atole, a corn-based drink, is still offered by farming families to the gods in many Mayan Communities.

Today it’s hard to walk down a street at mid-day in Guatemala without catching a whiff of tortillas grilling on a comal - the flat metal “stove-top” used to grill tortillas - parked in the doorway of a tortilleria.  Tortillas are a staple at breakfast, lunch and dinner in Guatemala. Even the popular Guatemalan fast-food chain Pollo Campero has resident local women parked on either side of the entrance selling hot, fresh tortillas to entering customers to enjoy with their fried chicken and fries. I’ve sat at many birth family meetings where the birth family waits patiently after the food has been served, not touching so much as a fork, until Fide or I remember and run out front to buy a stack of tortillas.  Once the tortillas are on the table the meal can commence.

While tortillas are a big part of many Guatemalan meals, for many poor Guatemalans the tortilla (with a bit of salt) IS the meal. Rural Guatemalans rely heavily on corn crops to sustain themselves and many have small plots of corn which they harvest to provide corn to make tortillas and feed their families year round.  Every community has a community corn grinder where women take their shelled corn to be ground into the masa they use to make their tortillas.

On Fide’s recent trip to the Izabal area to deliver food baskets with letters and photos from adoptive families, a group of birth families asked her for a meeting.  At the meeting they wanted to know more about how the new Association works and if there was flexibility in the supplies being provided.  They talked about how the ongoing Central American drought has destroyed the corn crops on which they rely so heavily to feed themselves and their children. (You can read more about the drought in this article from the BBC).   They wanted to know if it was possible to receive corn in place of some of the regular basket supplies on future visits.  

Fide explained about the Association and told them she would be happy to figure out how to replace supplies on her next visit with additional corn.  This made the families happy.

The visit reports that went back to adoptive families shared this news. Several of those families asked if there was something more that could be done sooner for the birth families.  In that spirit, we decided to launch a Crowdrise campaign to raise funds to buy corn for families affected by the drought.  Fide will use any funds we raise to purchase corn and deliver it to families we work with who are impacted by the drought.

If you can help with a donation or by sharing the link to this campaign (https://www.crowdrise.com/help-guatemalan-families-affected-by-drought1/fundraiser/velvetbeard) with your friends and family, it will go a long way to help families in Guatemala. And thank you for that!


Switching Searchers


I had a call this week from a friend I hadn’t talked to for quite a few years.  I met J. on a listserv just before we accepted referrals for our babies from the same orphanage. We both had plans to foster in Antigua and she was just a couple of weeks ahead of me in the process.  She actually held my daughter before I did! And she was a huge support to me during my months as a new mom living in Antigua.


I think J. was also the first person who ever mentioned birth mother searching to me -- back when my daughter was still in diapers and I didn’t have the bandwidth to even think about it.  She had met a woman who did searches and made her decision to search when her son was still a baby.

J. had called this week to ask me about how birth family visits work with Fide. She had sporadically maintained contact with her son's birth mom over the years (our kids are now 13) but had been out of touch for a while and was thinking of perhaps changing searchers for her ongoing contact.

This is a question I get from time to time, and as with most things in the search world, it doesn't’ have a straightforward answer.

In her early years of searching, Fide would take on managing birth family contact for adoptive families who, for whatever reason, wanted to switch from the searcher they had used for their search.  It quickly became obvious that this switching wasn’t as easy as one may have thought and we couldn’t easily provide the same level of service as we did for our other clients.  Here is what we learned and why Fide decided to stop taking on contact with birth families where she did not do the original search:

  1. Not all searchers provide the same level of detail in their reports.  This was a problem when Fide would send back a visit report mentioning family members and then we would be bombarded with questions about who a particular person was, how old they were, etc. which sometimes resulted in a return visit to get more information.  Similar things happened in regard to where the family lived, living conditions and schooling for children.  Fide often found herself having to return and do a more thorough interview without having charged for this service.  And it didn’t seem fair to charge up front for a full birth mother interview when they had already paid for a search.

  2. It was confusing for the birth mother to start getting visits from a stranger instead of the person they knew. Often the previous searcher had been in contact with the birth mother for years and she knew all the details of the family's life.  For birth families in remote communities it often takes time to develop trust in an outsider. To have a new person show up and start asking questions, or even just deliver a letter and photos, usually resulted in a call from the birth mother to the original searcher asking what was going on.  We tried having adoptive family’s include in the first letter that Fide delivered information on why they were switching to Fide and letting the family know she would now be the contact.  But the calls to the original searcher still often happened.  And as you might imagine, not all of them were happy with Fide for “taking” their clients.

Because of these complexities Fide stopped taking on visits from other searchers and while I am always sad to tell an adoptive family we can’t help them, we just haven’t been staffed to deal with these issues.  

After I explained the issues to J., I told her since she was a friend, I could ask Fide to make an exception and take on her case if she really wanted to switch.  We agreed it made sense for her to think it over and let me know.  She texted me a few days later to say she had decided to stay with her original searcher as she felt that would be easier on the birth mother. While I would have loved to work with her, I understand her decision.

My chat with J. reminded me of how faceted the work that searchers do is and how “searcher” doesn’t even begin to cover it.  How their work is so much more than just finding a person - that the heart of their work is really about trust and relationships:

  • the trust that an adoptive family places in the searcher to do the search,     
  • the trust they need to gain from the birth mother to just speak to her,
  • the relationship they build with the birth mother, and of course,
  • the one they help build between the birth and adoptive families.

My hope is that in the future Familias de Corazón will be able to help more families develop relationships regardless of who did their search. 


Mayan Punishment

If you Google the phrase “castigo maya” the top search results are a series of videos filmed in Guatemala. Topping the list is one posted by a Guatemalan TV news station in November 2014. It features Spanish subtitles and has been viewed 1.3 million times.  The 6-minute video of a man being publically condemned and then whipped with branches for stealing a neighbor’s cow was more than I could watch.

While I am far from an expert on Mayan punishment, what I do know about the practice makes sense to me when thinking of how it was used by the ancient Mayans as a justice system.  The lashes given in a public beating are called xik‟ayes and the number given for a crime bears cultural significance.  The most common numbers being 9 and 13.  Nine represents the 9 months of gestation, signifying that after the punishment the offender is re-born into a new and better person.  Thirteen represents the levels of energy in the Mayan day.  Another common punishment given was to shave the head of the offender so everyone in the Community could recognize the person as having committed a crime.  Stripping of possessions, burning of homes and exile from the Community are other forms of punishment traditionally used in Mayan Communities.

I was initially surprised to learn that the practice of Mayan punishment continues today and  -- if not explicitly supported -- is tolerated by the Guatemalan State.  But after years of living in Guatemala, and coming to understand the lack of a functioning judicial system (according to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2013: Guatemala, 98 percent of crimes in Guatemala do not result in prosecutions) and seeing repeated news reports of vigilante justice, it is less surprising to me now.  

And while I still find the aspect of physical violence repugnant, I can understand how the traditional Mayan justice system is key in holding together indigenous communities in the face of challenges such as poverty, alcoholism and the lure of gangs. So while the public beating of the man in the YouTube video was hard for me to stomach, I imagine it served as a deterrent to him and many watching in the face of the alternative of no repercussions for his actions.  

What saddens me deeply and what I have a harder time getting my head around are birth mother stories like that of Maria.  Here is the story she told when found in 2010.

Three years ago all of the women who had given children in adoption in my Community were brought together by our Community leaders. The leaders questioned each of us individually.  They wanted to know who had convinced us to place our children for adoption and if we had been paid.  I told them it had been my decision and I was not paid, only given money to cover my transportation and appointments.

They told me that I would never know what happened to my child and that he might be dead and that I was a bad mother. They beat me with the end of a rope in the streets of the Community in front of everyone and later shaved my head so that everyone would know that I had given my child in adoption.  Then they took me to my house and told my family to gather what they wanted to take with them and to leave the Community.  

My father fell to his knees begging them forgiveness for what I had done.  They told him that he and my mother had not known how to raise me well because I had given a child in adoption. They said they wanted all of the women to know that children should not be given or sold, that they are not animals and I would serve as a lesson for others.

When we left the house they burned it, leaving my parents, my brothers and me in the street.  We were forced to move to another Community.

Despite all Maria had suffered she told us:

It brings me peace and happiness to know my child is safe and loved.

I wish I could say this is the only case where we have learned of women being punished by their Communities for placing their children for adoption, but sadly that is not the case.  These stories serve as a reminder to me ofthe fear and shame with which some birth mothers continue to live, exactly what was at stake for them in choosing a better life for their children,  and the danger to them and to searchers which still exists today. 

I can only hope for all birth mothers the "peace and happiness" of knowing their birth children are safe.



What Does it Mean If the Birth Mother Used a False ID?

false id.jpg

Back in 2000 when I first started thinking about adoption, it was important to me that I knew that the birth mother had willingly given up her child for adoption.  In my research on adoption I came across stories, as I am sure you have as well, that told of cases where babies in Guatemala were stolen from birth mothers to fuel the adoption industry.  I remember calling agencies armed with my list of questions, topmost of which was “how do you know for sure the birth mother was not coerced or the baby was not stolen?”  I was shocked by the lack of reassuring answers I was given.  Most agency reps I talked to seemed surprised I would even ask such a question and pretty much told me they just relied on their in-country contacts.  

In the years since then, I’ve learned that while some adoptive parents may not have had these same concerns pre-adoption, the shutdown of Guatemalan adoptions in 2008 caused many of them to begin to worry about the legitimacy of their adoptions. While some prefer not to know the truth, many do feel the need to know and that need has led them to search for their child’s birth mother.

Finding the birth mother brings peace of mind to many adoptive parents with this concern. But unfortunately there are cases where the birth mother is not found.  While there are many things that can keep a birth mother from being found, one that makes it near impossible to find her is when she used a false ID (cédula) during the adoption.

When an adoptive parent is told that the cédula used in their child’s adoption was fabricated they often assume this means the adoption was somehow compromised or the birth mother did not willingly place her child for the adoption. But this is not necessarily the case.

Because of the DNA testing requirement instituted in 1998 by the U.S. embassy, it is highly unlikely that the birth mother whose photo appears on the cédula and in the DNA photo is not the true birth mother. What did happen is that a false cédula was created for some birth mothers using her actual photo and either partially or totally invented personal data.  On these cédulas the birth mother’s name is false as are usually her parent’s names.  The place and date of the birth mother’s birth may or may not be invented.

Why do birth mother’s use a false cedula?  There are a few main reasons we have come across.

  • The birth mother was underage - if a birth mother was under the age of 18 and did not want her family to know about the adoption or wanted to hide her identity a false ID could have been used.
  • The birth mother was legally married - the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act defines an orphan for the purposes of immigration to the United States as a child who was abandoned or has only one parent and that parent is unable to care for the child.  Other countries do not have this same definition and do allow adoptions of children placed by a married couple.   But since most Guatemalan adoptions were made to the U.S. this was the requirement that adoption attorneys wanted to meet in order to give the child the best chance at being adopted.  In the case a married couple wanted to place a child for adoption, false documents would need to be created for the birth mother stating that she was not married.

  • The birth mother was not Guatemalan -it was not uncommon for women from neighboring El Salvador or Honduras to travel to Guatemala to place babies for adoption as the adoption system in these countries was not as sophisticated as that in Guatemala.  A false Guatemalan ID would be created allowing the adoption to happen under Guatemalan law.

  • The birth mother wanted to hide the adoption - in cases where the birth mother needed to hide the adoption from her family or community false papers were used for her protection.

  • Baby factories - the most nefarious reason for a false id - and one we have very rarely seen - is where the baby was born to a woman who worked in what were commonly called  baby factories.  These were houses of prostitution where women were required to give up their babies if they became pregnant.  Since it would create red flags if the same woman repeatedly placed her children for adoption, false IDs were used to hide her identity.

It can certainly be unsettling for adoptive parents to learn the birth mother's cédula used in their child’s adoption was fabricated.  But while there were certainly Guatemalan adoptions with anomalies, the use of a false ID doesn’t necessarily indicate that the birth mother unwillingly placed her child for adoption.  The sad and frustrating thing for adoptive parents who find the birth mother’s cedula was false, is that since chances of finding the birth mother are very low, it is most likely they will never know her true identity or the true reason why she chose to use a false ID.





Standing With Love on Mother’s Day

You may not be surprised to hear that I read a lot of blogs.  Mostly marketing, business and technology types which help me in my day job.  At times they’re inspiring, but not usually the kind of stuff that makes my heart sing.  

But this week a post made its way across my screen that I just couldn’t get out of my mind as Mother’s Day approached.  This post talked about a feeling I so often have of being overwhelmed by all of the need in the world.  A feeling that makes me want to avoid the evening news and then feel guilty for doing so. A feeling that, even though meaningful contribution is something I strive for in my life, there is more that I could or even should be doing.

The post went on to talk about a movement, initiated by a group called the Compassion Collective,  to “take back” Mother’s Day in the spirit of Julia Ward Howe, the abolitionist and suffragette who wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in 1870. (#StandWithLove) The idea that Mother’s Day isn’t just about a kind of love “that is pink and fluffy and soft and can be bought at the store,” resonated deeply with me.  Here is how the site so beautifully describes it:

Mother’s Day IS about Love. But it’s not about commercial, comfortable love that snuggles up and stays home—it’s about love that throws open the door and marches out of our homes, beyond our fences and neighborhoods and into the hurting world to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, comfort the hurting, mother the motherless. Mother’s Day love is dangerous, revolutionary love that unites our one human family and reminds us that we belong to each other and that there is no such thing as other people’s children.

Language like this makes me think of you, my dear readers.  Those of you I have worked with over the years (both Moms and Dads) who believe in the power of educating birth siblings and understand the peace and comfort that adoptive family contact provides to birth mothers.

The post also got me to thinking about some amazing organizations and resources which also embody these beliefs and whose work just makes me feel better about this world we live in.

I’ll share them here In the spirit of Mother’s Day.  Maybe one of them will speak to you as they do to me, inspire you to find something that does, or just give you hope as they do me.

Five inspiring organizations that are making a difference

The book, Half The Sky, by journalist Sheryl WuDunn and her husband Nicholas Kristof sparked the creation of their non profit Half The Sky Movement and the film Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide which features celebrity advocates such as America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, and Meg Ryan.

Sheryl is also the presenter of an inspiring TedTalk.

Girl Rising is a global campaign for girls’ education that raises awareness and inspires action using powerful stories told in their well-done film by the same name.  I saw this film with my daughter a few years ago and loved how she was able to get their message through the stories they tell.

The Compassion Collective raises funds to donate to organizations which provide aid for refugees in Europe and homeless American Youth.  I just learned about this group in the blog post I referenced above.  What I love about them is how they encourage donations of under $25 on the belief that donations of $5, $10 and $15 from many people combined together can change the world.

Kiva.org is a micro-lending site that lets individuals lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world. My daughter and I love reviewing the profiles of entrepreneurs from all over the world (and especially in Guatemala) and deciding on who we want to make a loan to.

Ix (pronounced "eye ex") is the Mayan word for water. This company was started by Francesca Kennedy who spent summers at her family home in Lake Atitlan as a child..  On a 2010 visit she was inspired to help after seeing the lake covered in algae. Ix sells adorable (and comfortable) woven leather huaraches made by Guatemalan artisans. For every purchase, Ix donates to provide clean drinking water to children in Guatemala.  I love this company and these shoes - I own two pairs and frequently give them as gifts!

Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your world and your stories and Happy Mother’s Day!


PS  Mother’s Day is celebrated in Guatemala on May 10th each year.  As I am sure you will, I’ll be taking a moment on Tuesday to remember the Guatemalan mother who made it possible for me to be a mother.


Sharing Medical Information with Your Child’s Birth Family

I received an email this week from an adoptive mom who has had contact with her daughter's birth family for a while now.   Her question was in regard to sharing medical information with birth mothers and she suggested it might make an interesting blog topic.  I imagine others might have the same question so I'm sharing an excerpt from her email along with my thoughts here.



Here is her question:

As I am thinking about my next letter to my daughter’s birth mother, I have a question for you.

Do birth mothers want to know health information about their adopted children, even if it is not good news? We want every scrap of health information about the birth family, shouldn’t we offer them the same level of sharing back?

This mom went on to share that her daughter had recently been diagnosed with dyslexia and anxiety and wondered about sharing this information with her daughter's birth mother.

How much medical information about your child should you share with the birth family?

I immediately knew what my thoughts were on the matter.  But before I replied I wanted to check in with Fide since she has the on-the-ground contact with the birth mothers we work with and sees first-hand the direct effects on and reactions of birth mothers to all kinds of news shared in letters from adoptive parents. It turned out Fide’s thoughts mirrored mine very closely.

I’ve always felt that with issues like ADHD, anxiety and learning disorders it’s better not to share this information with birth mothers.  Mostly because these seem like such first world diagnoses.  Most birth families do not have the context to understand them the way we do.  They don't have conversations about these issues with other moms on the playground or have access to listservs and internet groups for emotional support in help in understanding.  Being told the child they placed for adoption has a medical condition which they don’t fully understand can cause them stress and worry.  In some cases the birth mothers feel guilt and may feel the condition is their fault.  Others may worry that the adoptive family sees something wrong with the child. Given the birth mother may not understand these types of diagnoses and knowing about it would only cause worry or confusion, Fide and I both feel their isn’t a good reason to share this type of information.

On the other hand, in the case of serious, physical, medical conditions, like cancer, it makes sense to share this information.  Knowing about a serious diagnosis might have an impact on someone else in the family.  And, as Fide pointed out to me, we have had cases where the objective in sharing was to help the child.

Some might say this is a “paternal” view of what information to share with the birth family.  But if sharing information is only going to cause pain, guilt or confusion with no clear benefit to anyone, then it isn't something I would do.

As always comment or email your thoughts.



Do All Birth Mothers Feel a Need to be Forgiven?

“I love you very much.  Please forgive me for separating you from me.”  

These are words I've read countless times in messages from Guatemalan birth mothers to their now-adopted children. If you are an adoptive parent who's had a successful search there's a good chance your search report contains similar words.


The first time I read these words my heart ached to think the birth mother felt she needed to be forgiven, and I have to admit I didn’t understand.   After all, she was the one making the sacrifice.  She was the one giving something up.  Why would she need forgiveness for such a selfless act?

Over the years the words don’t surprise me any longer and now I almost expect to see them in each search report I translate.  But I’ve always thought this sentiment was something unique to Guatemalan birth mothers.  Perhaps stemming from Guatemalan culture or perhaps the culture of adoption in Guatemala ,where adoption is so poorly understood, even by the birth mothers at its heart.  Often birth mothers tell us how relieved they are that their child is alive and well as they have heard rumors of terrible things happening to adopted children.  Maybe the guilt of having put their child at some risk is what they want forgiveness for.  Admittedly, my experience with birth mothers is limited to Guatemala.

So when my best friend, who is the adoptive mom of two girls from China, recently forwarded me an article written by a young Chinese adoptee about her search for her birth mother, I was surprised to read how the author heard these same requests for forgiveness uttered by Chinese birth mothers.  A ‘Lost’ Daughter Speaks and All of China Listens, written by Fulbright Scholar Jenna Cook, is well worth a read.  

I now wonder if perhaps birth mothers understand something at a deeper level than I, as an adoptive mom, have been willing to fully consider up to now.  Something that didn’t seem so important in the first years of becoming a mother, all consumed by feeding schedules, toilet training, and daycare options.   But now, with adolescence staring me flat in the face as I watch my brown-skinned daughter struggle with how she fits into her white family and the world at large, I find myself reconsidering those words asking for forgiveness.  

In her article, Jenna Cook writes of Chinese adoptees:

Although we gained new families, we lost our original culture, language, and citizenship rights. Many of us confronted racism in home communities where there were few other people of color.

Perhaps this is what birth mothers understand on an innate level or perhaps their wish for forgiveness has more to do with breaking the mother-child bond formed as they carried their babies.  Either way, I've always believed there is nothing to be forgiven, they made the best choice they could in circumstances I can only imagine.  Or maybe that is what I want to believe, since if they were guilty of an act that needed to be forgiven, doesn’t that make me, as the person responsible for the other half of the equation in my daughter's adoption, equally in need of forgiveness?

As always, thanks for reading and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments or via email.










Deciding Who Gets to be at the Birth Family Meeting

I had a question this week from an adoptive mom (I’ll call her M),  who just recently completed a successful search for the birth family of her 15 year-old daughter (I’ll call her R).  As with a lot of adoptive families, especially those with teens, M and R were eager to begin planning a first visit with the birth family.  R had been thrilled to receive the search report which she pored over, practically memorizing every word, and she was excited to finally be able to meet her birth mother face to face. M also has an 18 year-old biological daughter who was happy for her sister and excited to participate in the visit trip.  But M wasn’t sure what to do when R told them she didn’t want her sister to be there on the first visit.

When I ran this situation past a good friend who also has adopted and biological kids, her response was that there just wasn’t a good choice to be made.  And while I agree, I do have thoughts on what to think through when making a decision like this.

I don’t often see adoptive families having to make choices about who in their family will attend a meeting.  I suspect this is because the majority of visits we do are with families with younger children, where the idea of a trip without siblings isn’t something anyone would consider.  On the other hand, I do see this situation a lot on the other side of the equation- when the birth family wants to know who is invited to the meeting.  Many birth families where the adoption was not a secret are so excited about the prospect of meeting the adopted child and his family that they want to bring aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, all of whom are equally excited about the meeting.  

And whether “fair” or not, in both situations, the decision about who attends the meeting falls on the adoptive parents. In both cases, there are similar factors to weigh in making the decision, such as the expenses involved in bringing everyone together and whether there will be future trips, but at the top of the list is what will make the adopted child most comfortable and best meet his expectations for the meeting.

For younger kids the focus is on making sure they are not overwhelmed and have no doubts that at the end of the day/trip they are going home with their adoptive family.  Some young kids love the bustle of a large birth family meeting, but most are pretty shy at being the center of attention of so many strangers, in a strange place where everyone is speaking a language they don’t understand.  Teens on the other hand are a whole different animal, but again, their personality and needs should be what dictates who is present at the meeting.  Only the adoptive parents can really make this decision, as they are the ones who know their child the best.  

In M’s case she decided to honor R’s wishes, knowing that there would be future trips to Guatemala, and planned the trip for a week when her older daughter would be on a trip of her own.  I can’t wait to hear how it all goes.

As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments or via email.





Interview with an Adoptive Mom - Take 2

This interview is with an adoptive mom -  I’ll call her “M” -- who reached out to me via email after reading the post on How to Search for Your Child’s Guatemalan Birth Siblings.   I thought it would be interesting to share the experience and perspective of a mom who has done several birth sibling searches and she was generous enough to answer my questions and allow me to share those responses here.


How old is your child?

Our daughter is 9 years old.

How old was she when you did your birth mother search?

She was just 10 months old when we did the birth mother search and made contact. We had always wanted an open adoption and we wanted to be in contact as soon as possible.

How old was she when you searched for her birth siblings?

We were aware of one sibling who had been adopted when we accepted our daughter's referral, we then learned of two other adopted siblings when we met with the birth family in Guatemala. Our daughter was the fourth and last child placed for adoption by their mother in Guatemala. She was 9 when we searched for her siblings.

What made you decide to search for the birth siblings?

We wanted to know where these siblings were. Their biological mother in Guatemala was very anxious to know where they all might be (we were and are the only adoptive family to make contact to date). She was very worried and wanted to know if they were alive and ok. She had heard terrible stories. We said we would do what we could to let her know if they were alive and well.

What was your biggest fear before searching?

Our biggest fear was that we would not be able to locate a sibling and there would forever be a gap in our daughter's life, a wondering about a sibling and a worry for them.

How did you go about your sibling search?

We hired F and she liaised with the biological mother in Guatemala and then obtained amended birth certificates which had the adoptive parents’ names for all three siblings. Thankfully all of the names were not very common ones (e.g. Smith or Jones) and we were able to track the siblings to American families in three different states using online search engines and creativity.

How did you approach the siblings’ adoptive families?

We sent very respectful and cautious emails, explaining who we were and why we were contacting them.

How have you approached relationships with the other adoptive families?

We made repeated attempts at contact with all three adoptive families but then had to accept that they simply did not want contact and that while the children are children the parents have the last say in matters like this. We hope we have left doors open and perhaps contact may happen in the future.

What surprised you about the outcome of your search?

Sadly we were surprised when all three adoptive families (in various parts of the USA) either did not want any contact or simply did not respond to our emails at all.

Since you do not now have contact with the sibling families, how do you know you found the right people?

With the first family we got confirmation we had the right family when they responded telling us not to contact them again!

With the second family I found Google images of my daughter’s brother who looked exactly like my daughter as a toddler!  I was also able to match dates of birth and the names of the adoptive parents (unusual names).  The brother also looks very much like the father's side of the family in Guatemala!

With the third family I was able to match the adoptive parent’s names and their daughter has the same first name and date of birth listed on the birth certificate for my daughter’s sibling.  In pictures I found of her she also looks like paternal aunties we met in Guatemala (perhaps the advantage of having actually met family in person and being able to see family resemblances).

We are 99% sure we found the correct families , but of course there is always a 1% chance we could be wrong!

What was most difficult about the search process?

The most difficult part was worrying that the other adoptive families might not be interested in contact with us.

How did you share the results with your daughter?

We shared her whole family tree with her as part of her Life Story book. We explained to her who each of her siblings is, where they live, what their names are and ages - we said that different families believe different things and that sadly their families did not want to be in touch 'right now' and that may change in the future. We think that the fact that we have direct contact with her biological family in Guatemala and her other siblings there may help lessen the impact of this situation at the moment.

How did your daughter react to the news?

She is still only 9 and so she was quite matter of fact about what she has heard. As she grows older she will probably have lots of different feelings about the situation. We will support her if she wants to make direct contact herself with her adopted siblings once she is older.

What advice do you have for other adoptive parents thinking about searching for birth siblings?

Our advice would be to do it for sure - we are very glad we know the names, ages and locations of these adopted siblings. It helps make our daughter's story a complete one and their biological mother has been deeply reassured by this knowledge (that they are all alive and well and loved). People are always harder to find as time goes by, we feel we have opened all the doors possible and remain hopeful that perhaps contact between adopted siblings may happen at some future point.

Thanks for reading!


Why is it So Hard to Get an Education in Guatemala?

hortly after my daughter’s adoption was finalized I had a short meeting with her birth mother at the orphanage before we flew home to the U.S.  At that meeting I asked her what she wanted for our daughter.  Her reply was that she wanted her to have an education because that was something she had always wanted but not been lucky enough to have. That wish has stuck with me, partly because it was something so basic and easy for me to grant while it was something so far out of her reach.

Why Having an Address for Your Birth Family May Not Be as Important as You Think

While it makes sense to have the family’s current address and you should certainly verify with searchers that you will receive this information as part of the search fee, there are several reasons why the address isn't as important as you may think in being able to maintain contact with your family. Here are some that come to mind:

How to Search for Your Child's Guatemalan Birth Siblings

After adopting my daughter in 2003, I had this vague fantasy that in a couple of years I’d get a call from the orphanage telling me that her birth mom, M., had placed a second child for adoption and asking me if I was interested.  In my fantasy, of course I said yes and my daughter grew up with a sibling who not only looked like her, but shared her genes and Guatemalan family.