Feb 14, 2024 - News

Tampa woman, one of Chile's stolen children, to reunite with birth mom

Left: Jeanette and Bob Hastings holding Maria on a trip to adopt her from Chile. Right: Maria and her birth mother (left) reconnect on FaceTime. Photos: Courtesy of Maria Hastings

Maria Hastings never wondered where she came from. She grew up knowing she had been adopted from Chile, but her life was in Tampa.

  • She'd been told her birth mother had given her up willingly, and she was OK with that — until she learned it was a lie.

Why it matters: Hastings, 37, is one of tens of thousands of children stolen from Chile between the 1970s to 1990s.

  • As she prepares to return to her home country, Hastings joins a community of U.S. families who want accountability for the lies and complicity that led to their pain.

Flashback: Chilean investigators estimate up to 20,000 children were stolen from low-income mothers under dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, whose solution for child poverty was sending kids abroad to be adopted under false pretenses.

  • Families from America to Australia unknowingly participated in child trafficking, convinced of their adoptions' legitimacy by adoption agencies and embassies, as well as the Catholic church.

"My initial reaction was, 'There's no way,'" Bob Hastings, Maria's adopted father, told Axios about learning the truth. "We went through so much legal stuff: Catholic social services, home studies. … It's not like we flew down and got a kid out of the back of a pickup truck."

Driving the news: Nonprofit Connecting Roots is helping Hastings and four other adoptees travel to Santiago, Chile, on Saturday to meet the families they were stolen from.

  • The organization has been helping families around the world who were separated under the Pinochet regime reconnect and heal.

The intrigue: After learning he was one of these adoptees, it took 11 years for Houston firefighter Tyler Graf to connect with his birth mother. She was told he died after giving birth to him.

  • Graf now runs Connecting Roots with a small group of fellow adoptees and Chilean firefighters. They've helped 45 people reunite with their birth families since starting the nonprofit in 2021.
  • He told Axios that he's asked legislators, immigration officials and law enforcement to investigate the adoptions, but "it falls on deaf ears."

How it works: Connecting Roots gives DNA tests to people who suspect they may be one of the trafficked adoptees and checks their adoption paperwork.

  • Confirmed adoptees are then connected to their birth families to talk online through apps like Zoom and WhatsApp. Both sides are given a free year of Babbel to help learn the others' languages.
  • Graf organizes yearly trips for adoptees to meet their families in Chile, accompanied by translators. No one should have to process the emotions of their truth alone, he says.

What they're saying: "When you find out about your adoption, your kidnapping, you're full of shock, you're full of sadness, you're full of happiness, and also at the end anger comes out. And frustration," Graf says.

  • "Being a firefighter and devoting my life to helping others, I tried to turn my anger and frustration into a good thing and help others in my position."

What's ahead: After talking to her mother for a year on Zoom and WhatsApp, Hastings still hasn't processed her own truth. In Santiago, without the language and technology barrier, she's hoping for more answers, and connection with her birth mother.

  • "I'm glad that we're both on our way to heal from what has happened. I hope it brings her some peace for her to know that I am OK and I'm here for her."
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