Can Franco's stolen children recover their identity?

Association says it has evidence of 261 babies who were stolen in Spain during the dictatorship and into the 1980s

Hundreds of people in Spain live with an all-consuming doubt: did my child die or was it stolen from me? Others wonder: are my parents really my parents, or did they adopt or buy me from a doctor, a priest or a nurse who pulled me out of my real mother's arms?

Research conducted by the historian Ricard Vinyes, together with investigating judge Baltasar Garzón's references to the theft of over 30,000 children and testimony from women of different backgrounds who all say the same thing - "They told me he had died and that they'd already buried him. I never saw the body" - have uncovered a baby trade that spanned the Franco regime. It began during the first years of the dictatorship in the early 1940s and ended three decades later, when democracy was taking its first, hesitant steps after Franco's death.

The trade started as part of political reprisals against women who supported the Republican side during the war; it was encouraged by the wacky theories of a psychiatrist named Vallejo Nájera, but ended up as nothing more than a business that found support in a law that favored illegal adoptions until 1987. The psychological consequences of this black market in babies continue to this day.

Do mothers have the right to look for their stolen children if these kids, now grown-ups, do not wish to be found? Should the justice system step in? Could the parents who bought their children be considered criminals?

In Argentina, some answers to these questions can be found.

Carla Artés, the first stolen child to be found by the Plaza de Mayo Grandmothers' association - which looks for the babies taken from prisoners during the dictatorship there - says she found out about her past while she was still a child. "I was 10 years old and I accepted it. But for many children who continued to live with their real parents' killers and torturers, it must be very hard to discover who you are at 30," she explains. After Carla testified against her alleged father in court, her brother - not a biological son, either - stopped talking to her altogether.

In 2009, Argentina's parliament passed a law making DNA tests mandatory when there are signs that a child might have been stolen as a baby. That is how the Plaza de Mayo association last year found "Grandson 102," a boy who grew up with an air force official and refused to find out whether that man was really his father. A court order, however, enabled authorities to confiscate undergarments for samples, and genetic testing showed that his real parents were in fact victims of the repression.

Santiago González, who just found his biological family and has created a website to help other people do the same (www.adoptados.org), says: "If that child grew up in a different family, you cannot ask him after 30 or 40 years to feel affection for a biological mother he does not know. The child is completely innocent. Must this child, now an adult, pay with his feelings for the damage done to his biological mother? I think that if an institution finds a stolen or adopted child, it must tell him that his biological relatives are looking for him. If he does not wish to make contact, it should be enough for the relatives to get a message saying 'He has been located; he is in good health; he is happy, and if in future he should wish to get in touch, he knows how to do so now'."

Enrique Vila, a lawyer who specializes in the search for biological parents - he himself is seeking his real mother - and the author of Historias robadas (or, Stolen stories) asserts that the search is successful in 90 percent of cases. "The other 10 percent are the stolen children. It's really hard for them because religious institutions [those which, in most cases, made the decisions regarding who would supposedly provide better care for the baby] refuse to disclose any information." Out of every 100 cases he sees in his office, 10 fall into this category.

"It was a very well-organized network. There were recruiters in charge of finding the parents and recruiters in charge of finding the children. The providers of adoptive parents were women with social connections. The providers of children were doctors, midwives, nursing assistants and members of religious communities who claimed to be performing an act of Christian charity. The coercion they subjected women to was brutal."

Today, Vila and Antonio Barroso, who discovered three years ago that his parents bought him for 200,000 pesetas, will take 400 cases of stolen children to the Attorney General's Office. They believe these cases qualify as illegal detention or kidnapping, crimes that do not prescribe, and that the attorney should have acted ex officio.

Most of these people, however, do not believe that their parents - the ones who bought them, that is - are really criminals. Vila has seen many of these couples in his office. "They are scared. Most were not aware that they were stealing a baby. They thought the money they were handing over was meant as economic assistance for the biological mother, who had turned in her child voluntarily. They received the child without any documents, and registered it as their own. But they thought they were just pulling a trick to save themselves some paperwork - not actually committing a crime."

The sociologist Francisco González de Tena, who has interviewed dozens of mothers of stolen children and wrote a report with his conclusions for Judge Garzón, states: "From a social and anthropological point of view, the problem is huge. It has become a very painful topic for me because I understand that it will never be fully cleared up. There are thousands of stolen children in Spain, and that's a conservative estimate. Since May 2009, I see between two and three potential cases a day.

"We live in a society where there is no security in termsof biological ascendancy; many people cannot be sure of who they are," he adds. "That creates medical problems, because clinical histories [...] are not reliable. There are also legal problems, inheritance problems and psychological problems. Adopted people are afraid. They already have parents, they don't want any trouble, and those who do seek out their mothers are not really seeking a mother but an origin, out of curiosity. Yet the mothers of stolen children really are looking for their kids."

A doctor in psychology, Guillermo Fouce, a professor at Carlos III University in Madrid, says that "the problems of identity and feelings of helplessness" created by child theft "are the worst traumas that a human being can be faced with."

The parents of stolen children who have spent years on a fruitless search suffer from depression, personality disorders and anxiety, he says. As for the children, they have contradictory feelings for the parents who lied to them, and feel uncertain about who they are, which puts their mental stability at risk. The best therapy, holds Fouce, is "emotional ventilation, which absolutely necessitates clearing up the truth and getting support from all the institutions, from legal ones to health ones."

Entire lives are breaking apart because of a festering doubt that cannot be resolved without intervention from a legal or administrative authority that will make it mandatory to provide the necessary information.

Members of Anadir assembled outside the Attorney General's Office.
Members of Anadir assembled outside the Attorney General's Office.ULY MARTÍN
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS