Santiago, Chile – Chris Flaherty remembers clearly the phone call in which he learned about his biological family. It was in October 2022, and he had just finished a day of teaching high school classes.
Tyler Graf, who founded the NGO Connecting Roots, told Flaherty he had three brothers from the town of Quemchi, on the island of Chiloe in southern Chile. Just 12 hours before Graf reached him over the phone, Flaherty’s birth mother — who had long believed her son to be dead — had passed away from complications related to COVID-19.
“I wasn’t really sad at that moment; I was more shocked,” Flaherty told Al Jazeera. “I never knew her, I never had a picture. But it was only when I announced the news to my wife and children that night that I broke down, just stating out loud that my mother died.”
Throughout her life, Flaherty’s biological mother thought her son had died shortly after being born. According to the family, doctors falsely confirmed the baby’s death, while he was covertly whisked away to be sold illegally for international adoption in the United States.
“Even now, I don’t know if I’m ready to really accept that, emotionally,” Flaherty said.
His story is not an isolated one. During Chile’s dictatorship, from 1973 to 1990, thousands of children are believed to have been stolen from their mothers and put up for overseas adoption.
Chilean investigators and rights groups say these illegal adoptions were facilitated by various networks across the country, made up of social workers, healthcare staff, religious officials, lawyers and international adoption agencies.
Some mothers were coerced into giving up their children for adoption, while others had their babies stolen, with the infants later sold to families in the US and Europe.
Though cases of illegal adoption have emerged from the 1960s up until the 2000s, the practice peaked during the 17 years of Augusto Pinochet’s violent dictatorship, starting in 1973.
Pinochet’s regime actively pushed international adoption as a poverty eradication strategy, directly targeting Indigenous communities and vulnerable mothers from impoverished regions.
“In this case they were judges, they were doctors from public hospitals, they were social workers — even the police and immigration. Everyone realised this was happening but never did anything about it, and they started to participate in it,” Ana Maria Olivares, a journalist who works with the non-profit Hijos y Madres del Silencio, which advocates for adoptees, told Al Jazeera. “So here they were, effectively agents of the state, working against a large number of civilians.”
During this period, social workers would seek out vulnerable mothers and coerce them into giving up their children, or trick them into signing papers they couldn’t read or understand.
In some cases, children who had been placed — ostensibly on a temporary basis — in private children’s homes or institutions were declared abandoned and put up for adoption. But when their mothers went to pick them up, the women were told the child was no longer there, and they had no resources to fight back.
In 2018, a Chilean judge launched a criminal investigation to examine the circumstances of around 8,000 overseas adoptions between 1970 and 1999, but investigators believe the total number of illegal adoptions could be as high as 20,000. The probe remains ongoing.
A congressional committee investigating the state’s involvement in the scandal has described the stealing of children as a “lucrative business for real mafias” (PDF).
“We concluded the state is responsible for what happened,” Boris Barrera, a member of congress who led the committee, told Al Jazeera. Though legislators from the ministries of justice, health and foreign affairs have recognised the state’s role, “we still need the president to declare the country’s responsibility”, he added.
Al Jazeera contacted the Chilean Justice Ministry and the government media office for comment on the matter but did not receive a reply.
To date, no one has been brought to justice for the wave of illegal adoptions. “It is an open wound with which unfortunately the Chilean state has not dealt with as it should,” Rodrigo Bustos, the executive director of Amnesty International Chile, told Al Jazeera. “It’s important for there to be a state policy for truth, justice and reparation that guarantees that this would never happen again.”
Meanwhile, adoptees, NGOs and volunteer groups have continued to search for affected families and demand government action.
Graf founded Connecting Roots after being reunited with his own biological mother in 2021. Doctors had told his mother that Graf died as a baby, but they refused to let her see the body. Graf now dedicates his time to rebuilding his relationship with his birth family and campaigning to raise awareness to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again.
Connecting Roots uses ID numbers and any available documentation to track down biological families. Those searching for a lost relative are encouraged to submit their DNA to a database, and if a match is confirmed, the group facilitates video calls between family members. It is a long and complex journey of reconciliation.
Maria Diemar, who was raised in Sweden after being abducted from her mother on the day she was born in July 1975, said that learning the circumstances of her adoption felt like “a double or triple trauma”. Following tireless activism by Diemar and other adoptees, Sweden became one of the few states to open an investigation into inter-country adoptions.
“We are victims of one of the most evil crimes, but we have been forced to fight for our rights … Although I have everything I could ever ask for, my identity was built on so many lies, and I didn’t get to know my Chilean family until very late in life,” Diemar told Al Jazeera. “My mom was silenced about what happened to her, and I had no idea that I was abducted. No one protected me.”
The path to reconnecting with birth families, particularly in the face of cultural and linguistic barriers, can be difficult and exhausting. But some adoptees recall feeling a deep connection with a birth country they didn’t even know they had.
“It felt different than almost anywhere I’ve ever been,” Flaherty said of his first visit to Chile. “It felt very peaceful.”
His three brothers waited outside the hotel where Flaherty was staying to see and hug their sibling for the first time.
“It was the best thing that happened to us,” one of his brothers, Marcial Calbun, told Al Jazeera. “The news was hard, but it gave us a kind of peace after the death of my mother. Knowing Chris and his family filled an empty space left by the loss of my mother. He is so affable, exactly like my mother.”
Flaherty’s brothers gave him a picture of his birth mother, which he looks at every morning before heading to work. Those daily glances are the closest connection he will ever have with her.
He often thinks about what might have been — all the years that he and his biological family could have lived together. Flaherty recalls texting his brothers recently: “We were kind of making fun of each other. But I was almost crying because I never had anyone to joke with like that when I was growing up.”
This story was produced with the support of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) as part of its Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice in the Americas initiative.