Adoption Scandal

A present-day stolen babies case in Lugo?

A Galician court is investigating complaints by marginalized women who say they were duped or coerced into giving up newborns for adoption

A woman who has accused the Xunta  of snatching her two children.
A woman who has accused the Xunta of snatching her two children. Xurxo Lobato

On the day staff at the Xeral Calde hospital in Lugo, in Galicia, brought the papers for Paula to sign away her newborn baby, Juan, for adoption, she was heavily sedated, having been given repeated doses of valium: one at 9am, another at 11am, and the third shortly before lunch. "She was like a zombie. She didn't know what she was doing; she would have signed anything," says a hospital orderly who was present, and who has since given evidence as a witness in the judicial investigation opened one year after the birth of Juan into more than a dozen breaches of adoption procedures at the hospital.

The orderly says that he had been told that Paula was a "dangerous" schizophrenic and that he should keep her door closed at all times and not to let her out of his sight. "It was like a kidnapping," he told the judge. "If anybody talked, the deal was off."

Shortly after Paula had been administered the third valium, four women arrived. Two of them ordered everybody out of the room. One was carrying the papers, and the other the baby's clothes. Paula slept for the rest of the day. Over the following days, when she woke, calling for her baby, she was given another sleeping tablet. Finally, said the orderly, after Paula had signed the papers, the baby, which until then had been kept isolated in an incubator, was taken away by nuns from the Madre Encarnación Home.

The authorities in Lugo are investigating other stories similar to Paula's, dating back a decade. In 2006, a young woman who had handed her child over a month earlier, jumped out of an eighth-floor window. She survived, but is now completely paralyzed. In 2003, another woman signed her child away after she was threatened by a Russian suspected of belonging to an organized crime gang. The man had allegedly told her that if she did not hand over the baby, he would kill her other child. Another says that social workers took away her first baby, and then her second. She was allegedly told that she was "too poor" to look after them.

After three valiums, she would have signed anything; she was a zombie"

The case has barely made the headlines in Galicia: the media have been kept busy over the last two years by continued revelations about political corruption at the highest levels.

Operation Baby, as some have dubbed the case, has echoes of the stories that have surfaced in Spain about a network of doctors and religious orders who provided wealthy families with babies during the Franco period and into the 1980s.

"We've read in the papers about babies being stolen during the Franco years, but it's been going on here until now," says the lawyer of a young Algerian woman whose baby was taken away from her shortly after birth at the hospital in Burela, Lugo province, in February 2011. She has brought legal proceedings to halt the adoption process, currently underway in neighboring Pontevedra. The young woman, who came to Spain to work as a domestic employee, says that she barely spoke Spanish at the time, and that she believed the adoption papers she signed were paperwork authorizing her release from hospital.

Police finally began looking into irregularities in adoption procedures in Galicia after four lawyers filed complaints against the regional government, which runs the health service. The exact number of babies allegedly taken from their mothers on the grounds that they were not able to provide their newborn with a proper home is still not clear: sources at Lugo's provincial court say "almost 20 families" are involved, while other sources say the number of babies alleged to have been stolen is around a dozen. The most recent documented case, seen by EL PAÍS, dates from May 2011.

Lawyers for the families involved accuse social workers from Galicia's Minors Department of taking babies away from their mothers "with a view to having them adopted" on "arbitrary" criteria based on subjective reports they either wrote themselves or had prepared by Franciscan nuns from the Madre Encarnación Home.

In the case of Paula, a fictitious name, the social services department report recommending her child's adoption said that the father was "unknown." The mother says that her partner, who was under a restraining order at the time, was refused permission to enter the hospital. In any event, his permission would have been required by law before any adoption could go ahead. The Minors Department subsequently forbade him and the mother from having any contact with the child. The father brought the case to the attention of the media after he wrote to the hospital reiterating that he had not given his consent for the adoption to go ahead. At the same time, he took legal advice on securing the return of his child, whom he has still not seen.

We´ve read about the Franco-era babies, but it´s been going on until now"

Lawyers representing the women who say that their children were taken without their permission, or who were pressured into doing so, say that since they have brought legal action, documents in the social services department have "mysteriously disappeared," along with other evidence. They also accuse the social services of being "hasty" in suspending the rights of the infants to have contact with their biological parents or any other family members, and doing so without following the required judicial procedures. Spain's civil code states that even in cases where a father's parental custody is taken away, contact with other family members can only be prevented after a judicial review.

The problem now, say lawyers, is that even if they are successful in reuniting families, "the damage is irreparable: the children have grown up and the only life they know is the adopted home in which they have been brought up."

Another young woman trying to secure the return of her child says that she was sent to the Madre Encarnación Home by Galicia's social services when she became pregnant. Two of her children had already been taken away from her by the authorities. Her lawyers say that the decision was based on false medical and school reports. After giving birth and being subjected to pressure by the nuns to give the child up for adoption, she visited a doctor, who certified that she was able to look after the baby. She then fled to Portugal, where she sought legal advice on getting them back. They have still not been returned, and she does not even know where they are.

A report issued in May 2010 by the judge overseeing the investigation refers to "serious irregularities that could be considered crimes of false documentation, disobeying authority, and overstepping their authority by state employees." The report continues: "In the paperwork relating to care, pre-adoption, and adoption, there are official documents whose content is misquoted. They mention negative medical reports that in reality are positive, while decisions are made based on medical reports that do not exist."

The offices of Galicia's Minors Department have since been searched by police, as has the convent-run mother-and-baby home. For the moment, nobody has been charged. Lawyers representing the families say that the investigation ground to a halt last year due to Operation Champion, the Galicia-based investigation into political corruption. But at the end of last year, Judge Estela San José reopened the baby case before being obliged to close it again this year after it emerged that she was a friend of one of the lawyers representing the families. The investigation is now being handled by Sandra Piñeiro.

The nuns take in pregnant women who are undergoing financial problems

Meanwhile, the regional government of Galicia has tried to bring its own legal action within the investigation, a request the judge has rejected. The spokeswoman for Galicia's Welfare Department, which oversees adoptions, says that the regional government is "anxious" for the authorities to establish the facts. "We are very worried about this. Because we have not been allowed to intervene in the case, we have no information, and we cannot even open an internal investigation. We do not know anything; we have no information. We only know that paperwork has been taken away from our offices. The feeling is one of impotence, because we don't even know who is under investigation. Social workers at the Minors Department feel that they are being targeted, and this is impacting negatively on their personal lives."

Two senior members of staff at the Minors Department are due to be called as witnesses in relation to the case of the Algerian woman whose baby was taken from her at Burela hospital.

In January, Sister Belén, the head of the Madre Encarnación Home, was called as a witness in the investigation. The institution has its own program, called Yes to Life, and takes in young pregnant women who have no means of supporting themselves or their future baby. The order says that it has nothing to do with any decisions taken by Galicia's social services. Sister Belén, whose real name is Alicia Berna, says that she and her colleagues' role is simply to help young women prepare for motherhood: "We teach them to keep clean." Later, after the child is born, she says that she has written reports for the social services on the women in her care.

Lawyers representing the complainants say that on occasions the parents and other members of their families are prevented from seeing the baby at all, and on others, that the mother is allowed to breastfeed the infant initially. At least two of the women who say that their babies were taken without their permission, and who have already given testimony, say that the nuns forced them to clean the facilities, a four-story building in the center of Lugo, and that they were subjected to psychological pressure to persuade them to give the children up for adoption. They were allegedly told about families "interested" in giving their babies homes where they could be offered a better life. One young woman, from Eastern Europe, and now under a witness protection program, told police that in April 2003, she signed documents giving her consent to the adoption of her baby under threats from a man she described as belonging to the Russian mafia.

She told police that she did not know who the man was, but that he had taken her to the convent-run home, and then collected her after she gave birth. She said that she was not allowed to leave the building unless accompanied by one of the nuns, and that she was told by the man that her other child, who lived at the time with her parents in Eastern Europe, would be killed if she did not sign her child over to the social services department. She agreed, and has never seen her child since. All she knows is that she gave birth to a boy. A few weeks after the birth, she told police that one of the nuns had told her that there were two families interested in her child, and that they were prepared to pay substantial sums of money to secure the adoption.

According to the orderly at the Xeral Calde hospital who is now cooperating with police, another young woman from a rural area of Lugo province sold her newborn baby voluntarily and had bought a tractor with the proceeds.

They are allegedly told about families who can give their babies a

Although the investigation is no longer sub judice , lawyers representing the complainants say that the court has released less than half of the testimonies and evidence gathered so far. They say the majority of the women whose babies were allegedly taken away from them without their permission were involved in abusive relationships, suffering from illness, unemployed, with no family, poorly educated, or recently arrived from abroad - in other words, unlikely or unable to defend themselves or challenge authority. Few had any idea that they could bring legal action and that they were entitled to legal aid. Among the victims are several young women who were being trafficked for the purposes of prostitution, and who worked in Galician brothels.

These cases first came to light as part of a police operation called Carioca into crime bosses running a network of brothels, and which involved several senior police officers. Investigators took testimony from hundreds of women who said that police officers not only took money in return for turning a blind eye to the activities of gangs, but that in some cases they were actively involved, and running brothels. A Brazilian woman whose baby was taken away from her says that she was taken to the Madre Encarnación Home by a police officer. She had arrived in Spain in 2002 already owing money to the people who had trafficked her: Manuel Manteiga, whose 34-year prison sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court; along with two other men who have since disappeared.

The woman told police that she was forced to work in different brothels, and eventually became pregnant. She refused to have an abortion, and was then, she says, sent to the Madre Encarnación Home, where she gave birth. She was then allegedly forced to hand over the child. Subsequently, she suffered depression. A month after giving birth, she threw herself out of the eighth-floor window of a hospital.

Lugo is a small city, a place where the same names often crop up. One of these is Carlos Jesús Abuín, a doctor who was questioned as part of Operation Carioca. His name appears on several documents in the investigation. A number of women who worked as prostitutes in the brothels of Lugo have identified Abuín as having carried out illegal abortions in a makeshift surgery for 600 euros. His methods were brutal, and he did not use any form of anesthesia. One woman describes how she screamed with pain while he carried out the procedure using a hosepipe, sending her on her way immediately after. She was taken to hospital a few days later after suffering internal bleeding. The only way for these women to avoid such treatment, they say, was to give birth in the Madre Encarnación Home, where, among the specialists working for the social services, would be Carlos Jesús Abuin, who worked as a general practitioner in the city.

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