How Chiles’ Stolen Babies Are Finding Their Birth Families Again After Decades Apart

Viv Haggren was returning from a fishing trip near her hometown of Stockholm when she heard a radio report about illegally adopted Chilean children. As she listened, an insight she’d harbored for decades became impossible to ignore. Suddenly, I thought, it’s about time, she said Rest of the world.

Haggren knew she was adopted from Chile, her Swedish adoptive parents had told her as a child. But that was 1973, the year Augusto Pinochet staged a coup in Chile, so her parents believed the vague paperwork was due to the political instability in the country at the time. The only information provided by the Swedish agency for her adoption was that she had been abandoned in a hospital and that her birth mother had named her Luisa.

After some research, Haggren came across Nos Buscamos, a small Santiago-based NGO that specializes in connecting illegally adopted Chilean children and their biological families. According to the organization, since it was founded in 2014, it has brought together 400 families by uncovering five decades of half-truths and cover-ups by adoption agencies and former government officials that have made it so difficult for adoptees like Haggren to trace their ancestry.

Decades after their adoption, new and more accessible technologies are opening up the possibility for these adoptees to finally find their families, in searches that span continents and languages. At the heart of the search for abducted adoptees in Chile is not a genetic testing giant, like 23andMe, but rather Nos Buscamos, which leverages custom database software, social networking, and artificial intelligence to accomplish what DNA testing alone often does. cannot achieve: the reunification of long-lost families.

[Nos Buscamos] it works a bit like Tinder: there are adopted children and there is the family, said the founder Constanza del Ro Rest of the world, joining hands to illustrate the meeting. Two groups looking for each other.


Courtesy of Viv Haggren

The nature of how these Chilean children were kidnapped and given up for adoption is what makes Nos Buscamos’ mission so unique. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of Chileans were irregularly or illegally adopted through child trafficking programs, facilitated by Pinochet in an effort to reduce poverty rates by sending children from poor families abroad. Subsequent investigations into this practice revealed nationwide trafficking networks that included lawyers, social workers, midwives, doctors and middlemen who scouted vulnerable pregnant women, often from indigenous communities. A Chilean judge investigating these adoptions has estimated that the number of illegal or irregular cases could reach 20,000; Nos Buscamos believes the total could actually be closer to 50,000.

A few years ago, the Chilean government launched an initiative to take DNA swabs from families trying to trace their children, but promptly scrapped it when Covid-19 hit. Nos Buscamos and another non-profit called Hijos y Madres del Silencio are the only organizations in Chile that actively conduct searches to find matches.

Instead of extensively tracing people’s general genealogy, as a genetic testing company would do, Nos Buscamos begins by looking up and compiling official data, such as birthdays or hospital records. This can narrow your search significantly to smaller groups, sometimes communities and families. Nos Buscamos then partners with MyHeritage, a genetic testing company, to test targeted individuals in these communities who may be biologically related to an adoptee.

The first step, compiling the official data before any DNA work is conducted, currently involves more than 7,000 entries, del Ro said. While available information is often scarce, he said most people know a few details: where they were born, the name of a hospital, their birth name, a contact for an adoption agency. Due to the illicit nature of these adoptions, complete data is rare, but every detail helps.

This information is then divided into variables and any coincidences between the two groups generate an email notification from the Nos Buscamos platform. I started with a notebook, thinking we wouldn’t have more than 50 cases, del Ro said. But as more cases came in, it became apparent that we needed to build custom software. He said it’s a fairly simple program, but optimized for the organization’s unique needs.

For example, when 42-year-old American Scott Lieberman read a People magazine article about illegal adoptions in Chile last year, she began to question her own story. He knew he was adopted by Chile, but was unaware of the circumstances. He registered with Nos Buscamos in 2022, who launched an investigation for leads and eventually tracked down a potential relative. The organization then provided her with a MyHeritage DNA test. Lieberman also sent a DNA sample. They received their results within weeks – they were half brothers.

Even if Lieberman had done the DNA test himself, without Nos Buscamos, it is highly unlikely that his half-sister would have done it, and would have remained unaware of his past.

Our dream is that all people who have been victims of child trafficking have free access to DNA testing.

Nos Buscamos survives on donations and can only afford the approximately 100 DNA tests donated by MyHeritage each year. This means that it must be very certain that it is targeting the right people. Adoptees living abroad must have their own DNA test. Del Ro said that Nos Buscamos helps some families in Chile, especially in rural areas where the mother doesn’t have the Internet, she doesn’t know how to use the Internet, she doesn’t speak English, she doesn’t have a telephone, she doesn’t know what a DNA is. proof is.

Nos Buscamos is now looking into using artificial intelligence to help automate and organize the existing process, Del Ro said. For example, the team must verify that each case qualifies as an irregular or illegal adoption and is not simply an attempt to trace an separated family member. The small team of volunteers then still has to go through all the cases manually.

Del Ro prefers to work with MyHeritage even though Chile’s SML State Medical Examiner Service currently has a small genetic testing program. But SML can only handle direct DNA comparisons by finding genetic links between two selected samples at a time, rather than identifying an extended family tree. As a private international company, the MyHeritages DNA database is also much larger than the SML archives.

Our dream is for all people who have been victims of child trafficking to have free access to DNA testing from MyHeritage, del Ro said.

Bioethicists have warned against relying so heavily on private genetic testing companies, since many have previously shared customers’ genetic data with third parties. When you upload data to these companies, there are quite broad things they can do with it, said Anna Lewis, a research associate in genomics at Harvard University’s Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics.

He stressed that DNA collected from indigenous groups, such as the Mapuche, must be treated with care. How genetic research has interacted with Indigenous communities has a poor track record, she said, referring to the case of Arizona’s Havasupai tribe, whose blood samples were tested for genetic links without volunteers’ consent . They subpoenaed the university’s board of trustees, leading to a settlement on the charges which included the infliction of emotional distress and civil rights violations.

Ultimately, in the context of Chilean adoptees trying to find their families through genealogy websites, Lewis believed the pros probably outweighed the cons, but he proceeded with caution.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, Haggren just celebrated his 50th birthday. She enjoyed a week of fishing in a picturesque coastal spot in the south of the country. She is awaiting DNA results for a potential genetic match made by Nos Buscamos in Chile. Haggren reasoned that her biological family may not want to meet her and she may not be looking either. I just want them to know I’ve had a great life, she said. Above all, she Haggren just wants to find out the truth. I need to know what really happened.

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