The city of lost children

Is a brazilian judge stealing babies for American Families?

Published January 30, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

| JUNDIAM, Brazil -- Rita de Cassia lost her 2-year-old son in May 1997. Unwed, unemployed and just 18 years old, she had despaired when the boy's father abandoned her. In need of help to care for him, the shy, black-haired teen sought help from the chief of the local minors court, Judge Luiz Beethoven Giffoni Ferreira. The judge, who is most commonly referred to as Judge Beethoven, agreed to let the boy stay in a shelter until de Cassia found work -- or at least that's what she thought as she signed the papers he gave her. But when she came back to his office two months later, newly employed, de Cassia says she realized her child had been taken away.

"I got a lawyer who looked in my court file, and he told me it said I was a prostitute," de Cassia recalls with quiet indignation. "But that's a lie. No one ever came to interview me or talk to my neighbors. I don't know how they can say that."

Among the several dozen mothers who gather weekly in the plaza of Jundiam, a town of 450,000 about 40 miles outside of Sao Paulo, de Cassia is regarded as lucky. She knows where her son is today, and it's not far: He was adopted by a local family. Many of the other women here are still trying to find out what happened to their children. They have named their group the Mothers of the Courthouse Plaza, inspired by Argentina's Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children disappeared, presumably murdered, during that country's Dirty War between the government and suspected rebels. But no one believes the Jundiam mothers' children are dead. The suspicion is that they were illegally and secretly placed in adoptive homes in Europe or the United States. Every Monday for nearly a year, the mothers have held protests outside the second-story window of the office of Judge Beethoven, to whom many say they went for help only to have their children stolen from them.

The Brazilian mothers' nightmare is a bitter result of the dream of adoptive parents from industrialized nations, who have flocked to the developing world in recent years in hopes of building families. As the number of U.S. babies available for adoption declines, due in part to wider use of birth control and legalized abortions, more and more Americans are traveling abroad in search of children. In the past eight years, the number of U.S. visas issued for children adopted internationally has nearly doubled, from 7,093 to 13,620.

As overseas adoptions have become more numerous, however, so have the legal and ethical complications involved for first worlders delving into unfamiliar cultures for the most intimate and serious of transactions. Once a mecca for U.S. adoptions, Latin America in particular has become the source of increasing tales of children being stolen or bought from destitute women to fill the growing demand from the North. Since the 1960s, whispers of gangs trafficking in babies or even baby organs for transplants have made their way into the Latin American press. While the persistent baby-organ rumor has never been substantiated, police throughout the region have gathered increasing evidence of a great many illegal adoptions.

It's no coincidence these problems are coming to light only now. When many Latin American nations were run by right-wing dictatorships, local newspapers weren't as free to investigate charges of child-stealing, particularly by authority figures like attorneys and judges. And the victims, mostly impoverished mothers, were either scared to come forward with their complaints or skeptical that anything would be done if they did.

That has allowed judges like Beethoven virtually free reign in deciding the fate of their children. A tall, imperious man whose name derives from his father's love of classical music, Beethoven has worked in minors courts in several Sao Paulo state cities for the past 20 years -- the first six of them during the 1964-85 military rule. For most of this decade, he has been a rare friend to Americans and Europeans whose search for a baby led them to his sunny courthouse office. Unlike most Latin American bureaucrats, famed for sloth, the judge is brisk, efficient and decisive -- as well as a passionate advocate of foreign adoptions. And he has been a notably prolific advocate, placing more than 200 children in foreign homes in the last six years, triple the average placed by other courts in Sao Paulo state, even as Brazil has tightened its adoption laws.

Now, however, Judge Beethoven has a formidable adversary in the mothers, who wear green scarves to symbolize hope and raise placards and photos of their babies and toddlers beneath his window. Aided by a relentless, publicity-wise local lawyer named Marcos Antonio Colagrossi, their campaign has become the most organized protest against illegal adoption in Latin America to date and has resulted in federal and state investigations of the judge. Outside Brazil, there are new, painful questions for adoptive parents -- particularly the families, from Boston to Berlin, who have received children from Beethoven's court.

"For years, he has taken children from parents who are poor and uneducated and haven't been able to fight back until now," the graying Colagrossi told me shortly after he became involved in the mothers' cause. The attorney, who specializes in child-welfare cases, first took issue with Beethoven about a year ago, when the Bar Association of Jundiam asked him to investigate Beethoven's attempt to remove an 8-year-old from his mother's custody on the grounds that she had beaten him. When Colagrossi managed to get the case dropped, it made news, and other mothers began calling him with their stories.

"Pretty soon, they began meeting together in the plaza -- at first 10 of them, then 15, then 20, then 30," he said. "Other lawyers told me I was exaggerating, that this would go nowhere. But we managed to make the first popular protest against a Brazilian judge."

It is about an hour's drive from the smoggy, crowded streets of Sao Paulo, through rolling green hills, to Jundiam, where favelas, or slums, with cramped rows of small homes of exposed red brick and tin lay on the perimeter of the city. When I went to the plaza last year, several dozen mothers were making their weekly vigil. They ranged from teenagers to women in their 50s and 60s; most were light-skinned and all looked poor and frazzled. One by one, they told me complicated tales, some stretching over several years, of their battles with Beethoven. A common theme quickly emerged: The judge had taken their children under false pretenses, in many cases claiming without evidence that they had been abused or abandoned. Some of the women charged that court officials actually went out looking for children to steal, prowling city streets in a car known as the cata-crianca -- the child hunter -- and paying informants in slum neighborhoods and hospitals.

"I never beat my children, as he claimed," said a stocky, sad-eyed woman
named Silvana Barbosa Pereira, 34, holding a poster of four smiling and well-groomed children. She has not seen her children since 1994, when all four, aged 11 months to 6 years, were taken from her. The cata-crianca stopped at her door after someone made an anonymous complaint, she said she was later told. She has no idea where the children are today. "The only thing wrong with my family is that we're poor," said Pereira, "but that doesn't give him the right to decide what's best for us."

An unemployed nurse's aide, Maria Aparecida Salles, 39,
told me that she also lost her three children, aged 5 through 9, five years ago, when she went to Beethoven for help in getting their father to pay support
payments. She recalls signing a document that in her understanding gave permission for the children to be housed in a temporary shelter. That was the last time she saw them. "I have gone to his office once a month ever since then, and each time I ask, as politely as I can, that if they can't give my children back to me, for the love of God, just give me news of them," she said. Finally, last year, one of Beethoven's assistants took pity on her and told her that her children had been adopted by an Italian family. Salles said she was even given a photograph of three healthy and smiling children against a pleasant background of trees -- although, for reasons neither she nor any Jundiam court officials can explain, the children's blond hair was now black and all three were wearing glasses.

"A welfare worker told me it would be a pity if I got them
back," Salles said. "She said it's like they've won the lottery."

To be sure, reports of stolen children are often murkier than they first
sound. Sometimes Latin American mothers willingly give up their babies, for
cash or the simple hope of a better future, and then change their minds,
as do birth mothers in the United States. Widespread and deep poverty
can corrode even maternal bonds, and in destitute rural villages and some
city slums, one often hears of mothers abandoning their children at the
hospital or even in the street, or turning them over to others more
willing to raise them. In "Death Without Weeping," her 1992 study of the impoverished Bahia slums of Bom Jesus da Mata, anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes wrote that "the abandonment of newborns by their overwrought mothers is so common in the maternity wing of the local hospital that a copybook is kept hanging on a cord just outside the nursery in which the data on abandonments and informal adoptions are recorded."

But illegally arranged foreign adoptions have become a big enough political issue in recent years that Bolivia, Chile and Peru have toughened laws and cracked down on corrupt lawyers and judges. Paraguay, which sent 1,900 adopted babies to the United States from 1990 to 1995, banned international adoptions altogether in 1996. In Guatemala, where more than 2,600 foreign adoptions took place between 1992 and 1995, the attorney general recently called for a suspension of all foreign adoptions until authorities can be better regulated.

The irony of the Jundiam scandal is that Brazil's international adoption requirements are already some of the strictest in the world. In the 1970s and 1980s, nearly 19,000 infants and children were legally adopted from Brazil, while federal police believe thousands more left the country by means of illegal child-trafficking. By a law approved in 1990, adoptive parents must now live in Brazil with their new child for 30 days if the child is 2 or older, or 15 days for younger babies. The law also puts Brazilian parents first in line for the most sought-after babies: light-skinned newborns. Since 1990, most foreign applicants dealing with reputable agencies have adopted older children with darker skin or physical handicaps.

Despite the crackdown, however, plenty of Brazilians are willing to help foreigners arrange illegal adoptions. When I began reporting on this issue a couple of years ago, I spoke off the record to a charming Rio obstetrician who had forged birth certificates for adoptive parents who were her patients. I also tracked down a man named Luiz, a former taxi driver who sported a large Rolex. He told me he had friends among the federal police and offered to get me a newborn girl with a complete set of documents and no questions asked for $20,000.

The cottage industry of swindlers exists because of the number of foreigners still willing to try to skirt the system in order to obtain a light-skinned baby. Few get caught, yet five years ago Israeli model Sapirit Friedman spent three weeks in jail in Rio de Janeiro after police caught her at the airport with a lawyer handing off a newborn girl and a forged birth certificate. Friedman protested she had erred in good faith, misunderstanding the rules -- even though it was her second adoption in Brazil -- and went on to write a book about her ordeal titled "A Mother's Love."

On the margins of the bidding wars for pale newborns are the less sought-after children -- older, handicapped or dark-skinned. These days, some Brazilian judges complain that many such children are languishing in orphanages, victims of overzealous bureaucrats. They have been lobbying to reduce Brazil's
required waiting period, arguing that it imposes an unfair financial burden on foreign families who would be willing to take the children Brazilians reject. But as pressure mounts on Beethoven, it may encourage those who argue the rules should be even more strict.

The plight of abandoned children naturally tugs at the heartstrings of well-off
but childless developed-world adults, who dream of opening their homes to
such a baby. Yet Latin America's baby scandals have increasingly tainted a
choice that in the overwhelming majority of cases is motivated by love and
altruism. "It saddens me that women who have fertility problems in the United States go to so much trouble and expense to have a baby of their own when there
are so many babies elsewhere who need homes," says Emily Graham, a staff
lawyer for the California Supreme Court who adopted a Guatemalan
infant five years ago. Still, some parents confide that an added attraction
of adopting internationally is that it is obviously much more difficult for a biological mother with second thoughts in Beijing or Rio de Janeiro to come looking for her baby months or years later than it is for an "open adoption" participant in a nearby U.S. city.

Recently, I spoke by telephone to an eastern Massachusetts man who adopted two Afro-Brazilian sisters, aged 3 and 7, from Beethoven's court in 1994 through Limiar, a U.S. agency. He chose his words carefully, speaking on condition that neither his name nor his city be mentioned, to protect his daughters. When I asked why he had decided to adopt in Brazil, he said he and his wife were both over 50 and supposed that would have made it more difficult for them to be accepted by an agency in the United States. But the distance was also a definite plus.

"We had heard enough horror stories about biological relatives turning
up, long after the adoptions, that it was part of the context that made us
look to Brazil," he said. "These people were devastated. We didn't want
to face that." Although the man told me he has since heard the rumors about Beethoven, he calmly added that he felt sure the judge had acted correctly in his case, and that no relatives of the two girls would have preferred to raise
them. "We don't have a lot of factual information as to the backgrounds
of the girls, but there was no sign that anything was done improperly," he
said, adding that he and his wife have kept up contact with their family and had received pictures and letters. "We haven't gotten any indication that anyone has objected to the adoption."

But the mothers of Jundiam gave poignant testimony that, at least in their cases, Judge Beethoven made no effort to place their children with relatives, as required by law. According to Rita de Cassia, the 18-year-old mother who thought her boy was safe in a shelter while she sought work, the judge paid no attention to her brother's offer to help support her blond toddler. "He asked, 'Is he the father?' And when I said no, he said, 'Then he's not the immediate family.'"

Leaving the mothers in the plaza, I walked into Beethoven's courtroom and requested an interview. To my surprise, since the judge rarely talks to reporters, he agreed because, he said, he admires the United States, where I'm from. I was ushered upstairs to his spacious, cheery office. Canaries twittered in two hanging cages, and on one wall hung a huge poster for the 1992 film "Beethoven," about an American father who is talked into adopting an orphan St. Bernard puppy of that name -- a slobbering and unruly, but lovable, dog.

Judge Beethoven strode in brusquely, his long black robe flapping. I took a chair near his desk, which is on a raised platform, giving a guest the strange illusion of kneeling before him. As we spoke, he rarely looked my way, instead flipping through a small stack of documents on his desk, which he scanned and signed impatiently. It brought to mind something one of the mothers of the
plaza had said -- that he'd responded to her pleas for an appeal of her
case by saying, "Above me, only God."

Beethoven declined to address the individual mothers' complaints, except to
say that they were all unsubstantiated. The mothers had all given away their children willingly, he argued, and then had second thoughts. Glaring out his window, he then compared his plight to that of President Clinton, besieged by political enemies. "Clinton brought your country the greatest era of prosperity in modern times," he said. "And I made Jundiam a city without street kids. We have lower rates of juvenile crime here than in New York."

I had heard rumors that Beethoven's motives were not purely altruistic. "The natural suspicion is that he has been paid," Colagrossi, the mothers' lawyer, told me -- although he added that he has found no evidence of that, despite months of searching. Beethoven, a practicing Catholic who has taught law for the past 15 years, denies he has received any payments other than his salary.

But Colagrossi and other investigators are suspicious of the judge's close work with prosecutor Ines Makowski de Oliveira, who has also worked for the Jundiam Children's Orientation Center (COMEJ), where Beethoven is a citizen commissioner. Though de Oliveira turned down a request for an interview, the Brazilian investigative magazine Istoi, which has pursued Beethoven relentlessly for nearly a year, reported last November that COMEJ has received at least one grant from a Rome organization called AMI that arranges international adoptions and supports groups working with needy children in developing countries. And last year, a letter from Beethoven appeared on AMI's Web site. Addressed to an unnamed child, presumed to be reading it some years in the future, the letter explains why Beethoven and his assistants arranged for the boy or girl to be adopted by foreign parents. "You were born in Brazil, a beautiful country that unhappily has great/immense problems about which, in this letter of Love, we won't speak," it begins. "The important thing is that you were conceived by
people who loved you very much and who did everything so that you would be
happy, even to the point of giving you up for Love."

Like the imaginary birth family of his letter, the 47-year-old judge -- who is married and the father of two teenagers -- implied to me that he also acted out of love for the large number of local children he has sent to foreign homes and scoffs at the notion that those numbers are suspicious. "They call me a thief because I act fast," he said, adding that Brazilian critics of international adoptions are nationalists. "They are protective of our misery, our poverty. They want to keep it here at home." Yet according to Beethoven, Brazilians discriminate when it comes to adoption: "They only want the white babies. Americans, Italians -- they take the kids that no one here wants." Beethoven told me he has sent such children to Denver, Boston, New York. "I'm in the middle of placing a child in a family from Washington, D.C., right now," he added, suddenly facing me directly. "You have friends who want to adopt? Send them my way!"

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The day after my visit to Beethoven, I spoke with Nancy Cameron, president of Limiar, a Portuguese word for "threshold," signifying new beginnings. The San Antonio agency began arranging Brazilian adoptions in 1981 and has earned a good reputation in Brazil. These days, however, it arranges only about 40 U.S. adoptions each year -- much less than it used to, Cameron says, in part because the stricter Brazilian laws have dissuaded many Americans who can't afford the required long stays. In addition, despite what Beethoven argues, it's a rare adoptive parent of any nationality who will choose the kind of children legally available to foreigners in Brazil.

Cameron said she takes pride in finding homes for "the children nobody
wants, the ones I have no doubt would end up institutionalized for years or
out on the street." In recent years, her agency has found U.S. homes for about 20 hard-to-place children from Beethoven's court, she said.

Cameron admitted that she had heard about the judge's troubles, but maintained, "We have faith in his legal processes. If not, we wouldn't be dealing with him." Still, she acknowledged that her agency's oversight is limited: "We're not lawyers. We don't pick over his legal decisions." Like
other adoption agencies in Brazil, Limiar does not independently
investigate the circumstances under which children become available; it simply receives and reviews the necessary court certificates. In fact, U.S. embassies in Latin America usually do not even try to guarantee that birth mothers have given up children of their own free will. While policies vary from country to country -- U.S. diplomats have conducted DNA tests in a few disputed cases in Guatemala, for example -- U.S. consular officials in Brazil limit themselves to confirming that adoptive parents have worked with a reputable judge and that court papers are in order.

"I know there are a lot of angry mothers," Cameron sighed. "I would hope that if these mothers had been to court and said, 'Hey, I have relatives who could take the child,' they would have been heard. It may be there was a lack of counseling, I don't know. I trust the Brazilian system to work through the ramifications."

Finally, those "angry mothers" are being heard. Last year, Brazilian Justice Minister Renan Calheiros denounced Beethoven's alleged excessive haste in sending children abroad as "hateful" and ordered a federal police investigation of agencies involved in international adoptions. Calheiros also asked the foreign ministry to help track down the missing children. Indeed, Beethoven's past decisions are currently being scrutinized by both the federal justice department and a watchdog agency for the state justice court.

One of the questions investigators are now considering is why, despite scores of charges by the judge that mothers have mistreated their children, there have
been so few criminal prosecutions, as the law requires. According to state public defender Maria Dolores Macano, Beethoven filed charges of mistreatment against mothers in only two cases and both were dropped. The Sao Paulo State Assembly's Human Rights Commission, meanwhile, has examined 14 cases of foreign adoptions from Beethoven's court and determined that in none of them did he make efforts to find relatives who might have taken custody.

In December, in a precedent-setting ruling, the Sao Paulo state court reversed the adoption through Judge Beethoven's court of the two children of Elizangela Cordeiro Rodrigues, Evelyn and Lucas, who are now living with a family in Germany. The court ruled that the evidence backing up the judge's allegations of mistreatment of the children was "fragile." The adoptive parents reportedly are now trying to get the mother to come live with them.

By last month, according to Colagrossi, at least six Jundiam children who
were being housed in local shelters had also been returned to their mothers. De Cassia, the 18-year-old mother, is now able to visit her child, and Colagrossi says it's likely she will eventually get him back. But the attorney admits he has no such hopes for most of the other mothers. In Brazil's fragile democracy, the justice system remains inefficient and often inattentive to citizens' demands. "Most of the mothers will never see their kids again," he admits, adding that he is now working to create a nonprofit group that would care for the town's truly homeless children, with the childless mothers in charge.

I spoke with Beethoven one last time on a recent Saturday afternoon, after the press reported that a judicial panel had voted to relieve him of authority in juvenile cases. He told me that he had volunteered to give the cases up. "I figured my work had finished," the judge said, refusing to elaborate. While the probe into the workings of his court continues, in this land of many investigations and few convictions, especially of authority figures, even Colagrossi doubts that Beethoven will ever be found guilty.

This has not deterred the mothers, however, who now number more than 90 and who continue their protests outside Beethoven's window, even though the judge may not be there much longer to look down on them. The sad reality is that most will be left to wonder for the rest of their lives how and where their children are. At the same time, parents in other parts of the world will be left wondering as well. In San Francisco, Emily Graham says that baby-trafficking scandals weren't big news when she adopted in 1993, so she never had reason to doubt the legitimacy of the procedures in her case. Nonetheless, the more she hears of stories such as those of the Mothers of the Courthouse Plaza, the more she looks at her daughter and wonders if she
knows the whole truth about how she came to her home. She tells herself sadly, "You can never really be 100 percent sure."

By Katherine Ellison

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize–winning former foreign correspondent and the author of seven books, including "The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes You Smarter" and "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention." She lives in northern California.

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