In the 70s, 80s and 90s, there was a wave of children leaving the country and due to this phenomenon they are currently spread all over the world. Those decades were very difficult times for the country’s history due to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
Since some years however, it is known that many of these children have not been left by their mothers and/or families voluntarily. As a result, today there is an official investigations in progress that tries to identify those involved. The official complaints of families who have lost their children under the most strange circumstances are still coming in on a daily basis and official numbers have past the amount of 10.000 official declarations in the year 2018.
The mothers and families are looking for their children! The adopted children are adults today and have always lived a life away from their birth-country and -families. Their families who never wanted to be separated from their children in the first place.
Chilean Adoptees Worldwide was founded in Chile in 2018 by Alejandro Quezada, Angélica Martínez and Jessica Pincheira, all of whom were adopted illegally and lived the biggest parts of their lives in The Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium. Alejandro returned to Chile in 2014 to investigate his own adoption and continued to live in Chile today.
Here is one story – Maria Diemar always knew she was adopted. Her Swedish parents were always open about her Chilean heritage. When she was 11, Diemar’s parents showed her the papers that arrived with her in Sweden as a two-month-old baby in 1975. The file on her parentage offered a brief, unflattering portrait of a teenage mother who sent her newborn girl to be raised by strangers on the other side of the world. “They said she was a live-in maid, that she had a son who lived with her parents, and that she was poor,” Diemar remembers.
The Adoption Centre is a Swedish NGO who had facilitated her adoption. Sweden has one of the highest per-capita international adoption rates in the world. In the 1990s, the agency launched a program to help adoptees reunite with their biological families. However, they had no information on Diemar’s mother.
She went to Chile but she own efforts proved fruitless. Finally, thanks to some dogged efforts by an adoption search angel in Chile in January 2003, her mother was found. As often happens in adoptee efforts for reunion, the answers are bittersweet. Her birth mother declined to meet Diemar in person. She was married now and was afraid that her husband would not take kindly to the appearance of a long-lost daughter who was not his. But she wanted Diemar to know she had never intended to give her away. She said her baby had been stolen from her at birth.
In September 2017, Diemar watched a film by Chilean documentary-maker Alejandro Vega, in which women, mostly from poor and minority backgrounds in Chile, described how they had been tricked or coerced into giving up their babies for international adoption. While he was working on a follow-up report in 2018, Vega made contact with Diemar, through an adoptees’ Facebook group. At her request, he reviewed papers relating to her adoption and found them to be full of errors and omissions. From what he had seen of her file, he believed there were fundamental problems in Diemar’s adoption.
This news was devastating. Diemar felt she had accepted that her adoption was done in the proper manner because she couldn’t handle the emotional fallout. Now the truth hit her with full force. “My whole body reacted,” she said. “I started to shake and cry.”
During the 70s and 80s, between 8,000 and 20,000 Chilean babies and young children were adopted by families across Europe and North America. The biological mothers were typically very young and very poor. These adoptions were part of a national strategy to eradicate childhood poverty, which the military dictatorship hoped to accomplish by removing deprived children from the country. International adoptions had begun decades before Augusto Pinochet took power but by 1978 promoting adoption became the official policy of the government. Pressure on mothers to give up their children increased and international adoptions surged.
The effect of Pinochet’s policies was the “criminalization of poverty.” State power was used against poor families to prevent them from raising their own children and a climate of violence prevented most mothers from resisting. Not only were the victims poor, many of them were also members of the indigenous Mapuche community, a group that has long been persecuted. Under the dictatorship, the precarious existence of these women was seen as an obstacle to progress.
Many countries had severed relations with Chile after the 1973 coup that overthrew the nation’s democratically elected government. “The dictatorship promoted adoption as a mechanism to rebuild diplomatic relations,” says Karen Alfaro, a professor of history and geography at the Austral University of Chile and an expert on Chile’s international adoptions, “especially with countries that had received Chilean exiles and whose governments were critical of human rights violations.”
And in the early 70s, accounts emerged from Chile of women being coerced by child-welfare workers into giving up their young children. Some said they had been falsely told by doctors and nurses at government-run hospitals that their babies had died at birth. The mothers were never given death certificates or allowed to see their babies. Those who attempted to involve the police, or took their stories to the media, were intimidated and treated as mentally unstable by the very people involved in taking their children.
Would-be parents in Europe and the US were paying international adoption agencies between $6,500 and $150,000 for each child. A cut of these fees often found its way to Chilean professionals who helped to identify “eligible” children and extricate them from their marginalized and uneducated parents. “International adoption agencies had representatives in Chile who developed networks of paid mediators, most of whom were public officials, to provide children for adoption,” Alfaro said. “There were social workers paid to issue false reports of child abandonment, and there was money for doctors and nurses to generate birth certificates that would say the baby died at birth, and judges paid to approve transfer of custody.”
Finally, in September 2018, under pressure from groups working to reunite families divided by abusive adoptions, Chile’s lower house of congress created a commission to investigate these historical allegations. By July 2019, the commission released a 144 page report, describing “mafias” of healthcare professionals and public officials who used nefarious methods to take children from their mothers and ensure a regular supply of babies in what had become a “lucrative business”. What had been an unregulated practice before Pinochet took power had been legally codified during the dictatorship. The result was that unscrupulous adoptions practices carried on with impunity. The report concluded that the adoptions were crimes against humanity.
As a child, Maria Diemar dreamed of hugging her birth mother and reuniting with her. “I thought I was going to look like my mum,” Diemar said. “That felt important to me.” As an adult, after the revelation that she may have been forcibly taken from her, Diemar accepted that, no matter how comforting a reunion might be, it wouldn’t change the sorrow of the past.
Very much like the Georgia Tann case, from time to time, rumors of scandal emerged in Chile. From 1974 to 1975, a scandal about the alleged sale of Chilean babies overseas was investigated after Chilean media questioned whether these were really orphan, and whether they had been given up willingly. In 1974, Chile’s supreme court dispatched a family court judge to Sweden to investigate. But the judge issued a favorable report about the Adoption Centre in Sweden and its operations in Chile. A newspaper article published in August 1975 said the judge had found no evidence that the Adoption Centre had broken the law. On the contrary, they found that the agency was providing children with an ideal environment in which to grow.
In 2017, a criminal investigation into historical international adoptions was launched in Chile by Mario Carroza, a judge in the Santiago court of appeals who has overseen numerous investigations of human rights abuses under the military dictatorship. According to Kerstin Gedung, the current director of the Adoption Centre, views on the primacy of biological parenting have “evolved” in the decades since the agency was active in Chile. The Adoption Centre ceased operations in Chile in 1992. Laws and regulations have improved and the organization has helped to develop guidelines and ethical rules for international adoption, she said. “We worked in accordance with the legal framework that existed in Chile in the 70s and 80s and the adoptions were legally correct and confirmed in courts in Chile and in Sweden,” Gedung reported.
In Chile, in the wake of its devastating 2019 report, congress ordered the creation of a Truth and Reparation Commission and a DNA database to help families and adoptees find one another. Yet efforts to investigate the deeper connection between these historical crimes and the role played by Pinochet’s dictatorship have stalled.
Diemar has been studying Mapuche culture, and its language, Mapuzugun, which has brought her a measure of peace. Chile’s native populations are eligible to receive official accreditation of their indigenous status and Diemar hopes to one day secure hers. She has met her brothers and sisters but has only spoken with her mother over the phone. She thinks her mother is coming around to the idea of meeting her daughter in person. “I really would like to see my mum in person, see what she looks like and sit down with her and learn more about my background,” Diemar said. “She is my mum.”
A much more extensive article regarding this story is in The Guardian – The Scandal of Chile’s Stolen Children.