Scott Lieberman, an American who lives in San Francisco, always knew that he was adopted from Chile. What he did not know was that he had been stolen as an infant.
“I lived 42 years of my life without knowing that I was stolen, not knowing what was happening down in Chile during the 70s and 80s and I just, I want people to know… There are families out there that can still be reunited,” Lieberman said.
During the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-90), many babies were funneled to adoption agencies. Some of the children came from rich families, taken or given up to protect reputations. Other babies from poorer backgrounds were simply stolen – as it appears was the case with Lieberman.
In the last decade, CNN has documented multiple cases of Chilean babies who were stolen at birth. Authorities in the country say priests, nuns, doctors, nurses and others conspired to carry out illegal adoptions, with the main motive being profit.
Chilean officials say the number of stolen babies could be in the thousands, but the country’s investigation into the controversial adoptions has languished over the years. Some who took part in the illegal adoptions have died. Many clinics or hospitals where the babies were allegedly stolen no longer exist.
When Lieberman found out about the scandal a few months ago, he began to wonder if the same thing had happened to him – and began to piece together the story of two families deceived, in Chile and in the United States.
Lieberman’s story starts in late 1979 in the town of Cañete, located in south central Chile’s Biobío region. His mother Rosa Ester Mardones, then 23 years old, had just found out she was pregnant. Since she was unmarried and in a difficult financial situation, she sought help, according to her daughter Jenny Escalona Mardones, who is two years older than Lieberman.
Escalona told CNN that Catholic nuns went to visit her mother and offered her a job in Santiago, the capital, where “she would do domestic work at a house belonging to a doctor.”
Once in Santiago, she was also helped by a social worker who, according to Escalona, seemed particularly interested in Mardones’ case. Over the course of her pregnancy, Escalona said, the social worker made her mother sign multiple documents that the young woman from the countryside didn’t fully understand.
The baby was born on August 21, 1980, at Santiago’s Clinica Providencia. He was healthy, but Rosa Ester Mardones barely got to see him after delivery. The social worker took custody and took the baby away, even before his mother had left the hospital, Escalona said.
When Mardones sought the social worker to inquire about the baby, she was threatened.
“Don’t come here looking for the baby anymore; because, if you do I will call the police, and they will arrest you,” Escalona said her mother was told.
“Your son is now in the Netherlands or Sweden. He’s in a different country. You’re a poor, single woman, and you’re not capable of raising another child. You signed your parental rights away, anyway.”
During the dictatorship, asking too many questions was risky. For a woman like Mardones, getting help from the police would’ve been unthinkable.
The baby was indeed in a different country, but not in Europe. An American couple had adopted him and done all the paperwork to legally take the baby home with them to the United States, where the infant, now named Scott Lieberman, would grow up.
‘I feel more complete’
In an interview with CNN, Lieberman, now 42 years old, said his adoptive parents never suspected they were adopting a baby boy who was stolen from his biological mother.
It was not until late last year when Lieberman, who works as a video editor, read a story about illegal adoptions in Chile, that he began to wonder if that had been his case too.
With the help of “Nos Buscamos” a Chilean nonprofit organization seeking to reunite children who were taken away from their biological parents, he found out he had a half-sister. With the help of MyHeritage, an online genealogy company, Lieberman and Escalona took DNA tests that confirmed they are related.
Lieberman showed CNN his Chilean birth certificate and birth record as well as his American adoption documents.
On April 11, Lieberman flew to Chile to meet his biological family. His mother had died of bone cancer in 2015, at the age of 58. She never knew her son was adopted by an American family and would return to his native Chile less than a decade later.
He instead met his half-sister at the Concepción Airport. She doesn’t speak English and his Spanish is basic, but there were no words needed. Despite being strangers a few weeks before, they were now hugging as if they had known each other their entire lives. No one, including those around them, had a dry eye.
Asked how he felt about returning to his native country, Lieberman said: “Very good. Almost all my family is here. It’s incredible. So much love!” Members of his extended family had also shown up and he later met with his biological father as well.
His sister, Escalona, said she felt “very happy,” yet lost for words.
Scott and his half-sister, Jenny Escalona, at their mother’s grave in Chile. Courtesy of Nos Buscamos
Lieberman believes he was fortunate, especially when he thinks about those mothers and children who haven’t found each other.
“She knew I existed. There are other mothers who were told their children were stillborn. They don’t know that their child could still be alive in another country,” Lieberman said.
Lieberman spent 12 days in Chile, visiting his biological mother’s tomb along with his sister.
“I didn’t feel that my life wasn’t complete before. I had a lot of love from my family growing up. I have a lot of love from my friends. But now, it’s weird, but I do feel more complete. [I feel] loved in a way that I’ve never felt before,” Lieberman told CNN after returning to San Francisco from Chile.
Escalona now believes the nuns who went to visit her mother when she became pregnant, as well as the doctor in whose house she worked, conspired with the social worker to steal her half-brother from her mother.
Escalona said her mother never told her anything about her brother. She believes a combination of shame, pain and sadness prevented her mother from letting her know the truth.
“Never, ever, did my mother talk about the fact that she had had a child and that he had been stolen. It was the painful truth that she kept to herself for many years. I even think that her pain took her away,” Escalona said.
What Escalona knows is from a close relative who helped her mother. That relative was with her mother during the pregnancy and knew details about the baby’s birth and how he was taken away from her mother, Escalona said.
The truth has helped Escalona understand things about her mother that once seemed puzzling, including her mother’s decision to live near Santiago’s airport during the last years of her life.
“She liked going to the airport and she would ask us to go with her. She would just sit down and watch people, especially those who were arriving,” Escalona said.
She now believes her mother hoped her son would come back.
Her mother moved back to Cañete just before she died, but would often say: “I can no longer hear the airplanes.”