Beyond the debate over the numbers, whether we’re talking about 3,000 or 300,000 illegal adoptions, there’s the story of Antonio Barroso.
Antonio is 42. His whole life he’d suspected he’d been adopted. But his parents always denied it. You’re our son, they said. And then, when he was 38, his phone rang. It was a childhood friend. That friend had just left his own father’s death bed and come away with a confession. Both he and Antonio were adopted.
This friend’s father told his son the truth in his final moments. He and his wife, along with Antonio’s parents, traveled to Zaragoza in 1961 to buy the boys. A package deal. The seller was a nun.
Antonio confronted his parents. Finally they too confessed. He’d cost them $1,500 dollars.
“At the time that was a lot of money,” Antonio told me recently, “about the same as an apartment. So my parents bought me on installments.”
For the next 10 years, the Barrosas spent their summer vacations in Zaragoza where, unknown to Antonio, his parents would sneak off to pay the nun that year’s sum. A couple of summers, when money was tight, the nun would come visit the Barrosas at their house near Barcelona.
“I had a picture of that nun framed on the wall in my room,” Antonio said. “My parents always told me she was my aunt.”
Today, Antonio is fairly sure that his “aunt” stole him from his biological mother and sold him for profit. If so it would fit a pattern that victims, investigators and now public prosecutors believe went on from the 1950’s to as late as the year 2000.
It went like this:
Doctors, nurses, clergy members and midwives would keep an eye out in clinics, usually for mothers who appeared poor and vulnerable. Once a victim was decided on, hospital staff would whisk her baby away at birth, then tell her it had died. If she protested, or asked to see the baby, they’d tell her that it was too traumatic and that they’d handle the “funeral.” Or, if the mother insisted, they’d threaten her with a stay in the loony bin or prison simply for not believing them.
But usually the mothers – grieving, confused, seeing no reason not to trust these figures of authority – would believe them. Believe them enough, anyway.
In Antonio’s case, he believes he was stolen because his birth certificate is perfectly legal. That is, it states that he is, in fact, the biological child of the parents he grew up with. But a recent DNA test proved that there is no blood relationship.
“I filed a complaint in the court in Zaragoza,” Antonio said, “but a judge dismissed it. He said that even if a crime had been committed the statute of limitations had run out. But that’s not true. I was kidnapped. And a kidnapping case has no statute of limitations until
Antonio appealed, but got the same response. So he started ANADIR, or the National Association of those Affected by Irregular Adoptions. ANADIR lobbies the government to investigate cases like his. And it’s set up a DNA database to help stolen children and tricked mothers find each other. In February they got their first match.
ANADIR is having other successes. In January, Spain’s public prosecutor agreed to open a nation-wide investigation, based on 1,300 cases ANADIR brought forward. With all the press attention, ANADIR and its investigators are now receiving several thousand queries a month from other potential victims.
No one has gone to jail yet. But some people likely will, if the investigations are carried through. Investigators say, for example, that in multiple irregular adoptions under scrutiny the same physician’s signature appears – an indication, they say, of an ongoing, organized pattern of deception. And then there’s the retired gravedigger in Granada who’s already told prosecutors about the hundreds of empty baby coffins he was told to bury between 1979 and 1989. For each coffin in the ground there is a mother marked for life by grief. Grief for a child that grew up somewhere else.
As for Antonio, he still doesn’t know the full story of his own birth, and may never know. His largest clue slipped through his fingers.
“When my parents confessed, I went to confront the nun who’d sold me,” he said. “But she had just died.”