By Russ Dilday
Margarita Gomez* slowly stirs in a dark room. The aches of yesterday’s childbirth reverberate through her body. Her hands glide up and down the bed around her, but she doesn’t find what she wants.
Sitting up, she calls to those who have been taking care of her and asks for her newborn child.
You have no child, they respond.
It’s a lie, Gomez knows, but her life is threatened if she ever professes otherwise.
Her baby is gone.
Later that day, Gomez and her two young children are loaded on a bus that returns her to her quiet Guatemalan village. Throughout the next few days, she relives what happened. Elvia and Mario Sosa** promised to help her. They arranged for a doctor to deliver her child. Yet, shortly after she arrived at their home, she and her children were locked up. The birth of her son was a blur. She never held, never even saw her boy, Samuel.
Three days after the birth of her son, Gomez reports the situation to the police, launching a nationwide search for Samuel. It begins with legal authorities taking Gomez back to Cantel, where she awoke after childbirth.
“The only thing I remember is that there was a store right in front of the house,” Gomez says. “They took me to one street, and it wasn’t there. Then to another one, and it wasn’t there, and so on. I told them that all I remember were some railings on a little hill. That’s when we found the house.”
Inside the home, they discover the Sosas. And baby Samuel.
“They rescued my baby, and I saw them when they rescued him,” Gomez says. “To be honest, they wouldn’t let me see him that day. I was a little upset. I really wanted to meet my baby and I couldn’t do it that same day. But I was happy, too, because he was safe and away from the people who stole him from me.”
Authorities arrest the Sosas and place Samuel into care at Casa Alegria, a children’s center “without the love and care of her mother, brothers and family,” said Buckner Guatemala Caseworker Jenifer Montes.
Montes is notified of Gomez’s situation by Guatemala’s national judicial court. She is part of Semillas de Esperanza, a Buckner collaborative effort between Guatemala’s child welfare department and Buckner Guatemala. Her assignment: Perform the investigation and legal casework necessary to determine if Gomez is the mother and, if so, reunite her with her baby.
The Semillas project is the outcome of a nearly $1 million grant awarded in 2013 to Buckner by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to develop programs in Guatemala that will provide permanent family solutions for orphans and vulnerable children.
In English, the project is dubbed Fostering Hope Guatemala. In Spanish, the name gets a slight twist: It is called Semillas de Esperanza or, literally, “Seeds of Hope.”
Carlos Colon, manager of strategic initiatives for Buckner, says the USAID/Guatemala/Buckner collaboration is a “great example of what happens when governmental resources are joined with expertise in child casework. In the time Buckner has been active in the Semillas project, we have dramatically increased the number of children who have been taken from dangerous situations and placed into safe care."
Among the project’s goals are finding ways to locate or provide safe care for children ages birth-3, including placing them in foster care or reuniting with their families. It’s a charge that seems to be a perfect fit for cases like Samuel’s.
“When I learned it was a kidnapping, a child ripped out of his mother’s arms and that she didn’t even get to meet him, I felt three times as committed to her and the baby,” Montes says. “It seemed so unfair and I felt so powerless. I didn’t have the power to fix it immediately.”
Montes turns to her expertise – and to a higher power – to tackle the case. “When I heard about the case, I asked God to enlighten my mind and to guide me on the right path -- which people to talk to, and what it was that he demanded of me for me to be able to serve this family.”
[caption id="attachment_11489" align="alignright" width="500"] Buckner Guatemala caseworker Jenifer Montes helps Margarita Gomez fill out the last of the custody forms that will ensure Samuel remains in her care.[/caption]
The case is the first of its kind for Montes with Semillas de Esperanza. Similar cases often lead to dead ends. “In Guatemala, there are hundreds, even thousands of kidnapped children and the mothers – out of fear or because of a threat or ignorance or not knowing what they can do – stay quiet and the children get lost. In irregular adoptions, they get sold.
“In this case, we have to give credit to Margarita,” Montes says. “She was brave and had the courage to come to the authorities and file a report.”
As Montes works on the case, Gomez fights her own demons while Samuel is away from her.
“I was feeling sad because he wasn’t around,” she says. “I would cry sometimes, because I didn’t have him. When people asked me, I didn’t know what to say. I thought I had lost him.”
Because of the way information is transferred between courts, Montes largely starts from scratch. As she searches for people and interviews them, she documents her efforts with law enforcement officials.
“It was really difficult. As the kidnapping happened in Quetzaltenango, the process gets started in a division, a court. And because Margarita lives in another division, the case gets transferred, so in that period of time of approximately one month, there is no information about the family, their address or why is the child in custody. So, during that whole month it is very difficult to get information,” Montes said.
“Even if we had the address, it is very difficult to go in and walk around. Generally, we have to search for one person at a time and ask them, or store-by-store and say, ‘Do you know Ms. Margarita?’ or ‘Do you know where she lives? How can I find her?’”
After interviewing Gomez, Montes orders a DNA test to determine whether she is Samuel’s mother. She arranges court hearings for Gomez and Samuel. Seventy-five days after he was placed into state care, a judge grants Gomez provisional care of Samuel.
On a cloudless morning in a quiet village, Samuel is home with his mother, siblings, uncles and grandmother. Montes smiles at the sight. She helps Gomez fill out the last of the custody forms that will signify the end to her long six-month ordeal. When the DNA tests come back positive, Montes says Samuel’s “right to have an identity will be restored. Margarita and her children will continue living their lives.”
Gomez looks up at Montes with a mother’s smile as she hoists baby Samuel into her arms. “I really appreciate [Buckner] a lot because they did a really good job. My baby is with me now. I am very happy.”
Montes says that joy is mutual.
When she found out that Samuel had been reunited with his mother, she “felt a joy that I can’t even express with words. It was an overwhelming emotion. I rejoiced. I cried. I must confess that it was very gratifying to know that the effort, the time, the work and everything that gets done coordinating efforts with other institutions and going over to her home to interview her, learning about her story, and having all those little actions add up.”
Montes ends the case like she began it: with prayer.
“When I found out Samuel had been reunited with his mother, I was just thanking God and glorifying Him for His greatness and mercy, because this is one solved case out of the many kidnapped children. So now, I pray to God to give wisdom to Ms. Margarita.”
*Her name has been changed to protect her identity.
**Their names have been changed pending legal action against them.
Russ Dilday is the associate vice president of communications for Buckner International. He can be reached at rdilday[at]buckner[dot]org.
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