Jacqueline Arias was 28 years old when she met her mother.
She arrived on her sisters’ doorstep in Alajuela and held the older woman in a tearful embrace for a long moment.
The last time they had seen each other was more than two decades earlier when Arias was only four. It was at that time that social workers arrived at their home and found Arias and her siblings being cared for by their 13-year-old sister.
“They saw we weren’t being properly taken care of,” Arias said, piecing together the the story from the parts she’s managed to collect. “So they took us into foster care and told my mother it was a temporary situation until she could get a house … One day she showed up to see us and we were gone.”
Arias and her older brother had been adopted by a family in the United States, and eventually arrived in a small town in Ohio by way of Panama. An older sister was also adopted internationally and moved from Panama to Florida.
Arias had a typical U.S. upbringing – attending local schools, listening to popular radio, and dressing in the latest styles.
But she always felt different, almost as an outsider in her new home. She knew that one day she’d go looking for her birth mother.
When that moment came, it felt almost surreal. Maybe she expected all the years they spent apart to melt away, but, working through a language barrier, she felt distant from her biological family.
“I knew my mother felt a sense of guilt,” Arias said. “I knew she loved us and that she never meant to give us up.”
As a means of healing, Arias, now 39 and living in New York, turned to her skills in photography and videography as an artistic outlet. She began recording scenes from meetings with her family, planning for an eventual film written from the perspective of her mother.
The more she researched her family’s story, the more she learned of other mothers who had suffered a similar fate.
“I realized the story was a lot bigger than my own family,” said Arias. “Many others have been affected by this.”
One of the first people she interviewed was Selenia Cristina Arroyo, who lives in Florida with her husband and three children.
Like Arias, Arroyo was taken from her family in Costa Rica when she was four. Government officials arrived at their house, a small shack on the side of the road, and told the family they would have to move to make room for road widening. Arroyo and her family relocated to a one-bedroom house.
When officials arrived once again, they told her mother that the living conditions weren’t appropriate for the children.
“They took us and told my mother that we would be returned, but we never came back,” said Arroyo. But for Arroyo, the adoption was a blessing, as it may have saved her life. When she left Costa Rica at age 4 and a half, she weighed 17 pounds. She was on the verge of death. Doctors advised her soon-to-be parents not to take her, warning that she would die in two months. “But my new parents said once they saw me, they couldn’t leave me.”
Arroyo always wanted to find her birth family, but was reluctant to go searching. “I didn’t want to look for my parents and find out they were dead,” she said. “For me, not knowing kept them alive.”
As part of her film research, Arias pulled Arroyo’s records from the Child Welfare Office, known locally as PANI, when she was in Costa Rica. She called Arroyo to interview her, which spurred Arroyo to find her biological family on Facebook and then book a flight down.
“Finding my family was probably the best thing she (Arias) could have done for me,” Arroyo said. “I might never have been ready to meet them (on my own).”
She described the reunion as “the greatest most inexplicable feeling on earth.” “To see my face in others was an overwhelming experience,” she said. “They had my nose, my face, my laugh, my hair. It was completion for me.”
Arroyo’s story was one of Arias’ first steps towards producing her documentary “Imaginary Mothers,” which is told from the perspective of women who have involuntarily had a son or daughter adopted internationally.
On her fourth trip to Costa Rica, Arias put out a call on a local television station for women who have had their children taken against their will.
“Our phone was ringing all day,” said Arias. “It was really overwhelming.” She began interviewing the women whose children were taken away from them between 10 and 20 years ago, recording their stories and staging reenactments for her film.
“Most of the women have a lot of guilt,” she said. “Many were young, single mothers who were facing a lot of shame from their families and feeling very alone.
“They really connected with me, seeing me as a link to their son or daughter, and I connected with them. For me, it felt comforting to hear how they truly loved their children.”
My hope is that we can help establish more regulations surrounding international adoption,” Arias continued. “I want to see the market value taken out of adoption to make it profit-free. There should never be a charge on a child’s head.”
Arias is raising funds to complete the film which she hopes to finish by August. For more information about the film and how you can contribute, visit www.imaginarymothers.com.
The “Imaginary Mothers” filmmaker invites artists and filmmakers to submit short videos, photographs, performances and installations for a fundraiser to support the completion of the film on June 25 at Littlefield in Brooklyn, New York.
Submissions should relate to the interconnected themes of adoption, mothers rights, women’s rights and family preservation.
Videos and performances should be no longer than 10 minutes.
Brief descriptions, images, video clips and/or website links about the submissions should be sent by e-mail before June 7 to firstname.lastname@example.org. The project website is www.imaginarymothers.com.
Status of International Adoption in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has rules in force regulating international adoptions, but some say they lack efficiency and rigor, and threaten children’s well-being.
“The rules for international adoption aren’t strict in any sense of the word,” said Iris Rodríguez, an attorney who worked for the Child Welfare Office (PANI) for seven years and adopted a child herself. “The only thing that foreigners need to do is comply with the law (as if they were nationals).”
Although PANI mandates that the child’s progress be tracked, Rodríguez said there is no follow-up when children go to other countries, mainly due to lack of resources.
Situations like that of Jacqueline Arias, in which children are put up for adoption without the consent of the parent, can still happen, she said.
“What PANI does is take the child (if they see the child is not living in adequate conditions). And if there isn’t someone within the family who can assume responsibility, PANI declares them abandoned,” she said. “At that moment, all the rights of the parents pass into the hands of PANI, so PANI has the right to put these children up for adoption.”
Rodríguez thinks the most urgent reforms of Costa Rica’s adoption system include reducing the holding time for children who are in need of homes and staffing the Child Welfare Office with personnel who can empathize with the children.
“The Child Welfare Office needs to be one of the most humane government institutions,” said Rodríguez, who believes that adoptions are too often treated as a business without the humane touch that is necessary in such a situation. In some cases, $5,000 or $10,000 change hands in order to give a foreign family a parentless Costa Rican child.
“For me the worst and most vulgar thing a lawyer can do is charge for an adoption,” she said. “There’s a lot we need to do to fix adoptions here, but we should start by reorganizing PANI.”