Adopting Jesús, Chapter III: Suing My Son's Mother

Brian sets out on a dangerous trip for an impossible task

Illustration by Platanohay

The bailiff’s eyebrows shot up when he saw the address on the document I’d just handed him. This apparently was not a safe destination. 

Esa zona es candela, he said with a concerned look. Sabes cómo llegar?

Did I know how to get there? I had to stifle a laugh. I’d barely managed to find my way to that courthouse in Ocumare del Tuy, about an hour outside Caracas. I definitely didn’t know how to get to the address on the lawsuit notice he was looking at. That was another hour’s drive through the parish of Nueva Cúa to a hamlet known as Sector Cenicero. My son lived there for the first six months of his life. His biological mother was believed to still be living there. A state prosecutor was suing her for neglect, which would sever the remaining legal bonds between my son and la progenitora, as the prosecutors called her. The adoption could not move forward without it.

The courthouse was sweltering. Its windows were adorned with broken air conditioning units. Women fanned themselves with what looked like court documents. A sign on the door to the bathroom warned it had no water, though this was evident from the smell that wafted from it. It was 2016, the height of la Venezuela soviética. In that context, the bailiff’s next question did not come as a surprise.

Tienes carro?

The bailiff, of course, was not asking me if I had a car. He was telling me that I was going to give him a ride.

And I was not happy about this. I had no reason to be involved in serving this lawsuit. I did not want to chauffeur a bailiff into a gang-infested rural hamlet to knock on the door of a woman who believed I had stolen her child – much less to serve her a lawsuit. The correct answer to this question was something between a polite “no” and a Mi’rmano, no tengo vela en este entierro.

But there was only one real answer. 

Si pana, tengo carro.

When people ask me why this adoption process took eight years, this is the phase that I most frequently point to – the severance of custody, or the privación de patria potestad. This legal saga would for various reasons drag on for more than three years, aggravated by the political chaos and blackout of 2019. 

Most Venezuelan adoptions typically involve children who are not orphans but rather whose parents have been determined by authorities to be unfit to raise them. Organizations like Fundana start by trying to help those families get their children back. But they also know that many families never will. Adopting a child with no living parents means waiting for the entire process to finish before the child can move in. Using that route, if you start out adopting a baby you’ll probably take home a tweener. If you go from foster care to adoption, the child can live with you while the process continues. But to move from one phase to the next, adoptive parents need to ask state prosecutors to sue the biological parents for neglect. Without completing that lawsuit, the child who knew Isabel and I as his parents, was not adoptable. 

That day in Ocumare del Tuy was the official start of that process. The bailiff and I walked out of the courthouse and down the street to where I was parked.  He immediately warned me not to park there again and said I was lucky my vehicle was still there. Por aquí roban como no tienes idea. We drove along for more than an hour through unexotic countryside. There were long stretches where the weeds, taller than the scattered pedestrians, seemed intent on swallowing up the roads. The bailiff and I got to chatting about the only thing anyone talked about in those days – what a wreck the country was. That’s how I learned the reason I was giving him a ride: the three motorcycles that the court had for exactly this purpose had been stolen. He was barely getting by on the money and unhappy to be working as a bailiff even though he had a law degree.

Most Venezuelan adoptions typically involve children who are not orphans but rather whose parents have been determined by authorities to be unfit to raise them.

As we got closer, we pulled over to ask for directions. A guy smelling of booze said he’d show us the way if we’d take him there. Against my better judgment I let him in. I’m not sure what he made of me, because I could not have looked very convincingly like a taxi driver – a musiú-looking dude dressed in a guayabera and dad jeans. Booze-smelling guy at one point advised us against one specific left turn because of the shootouts that typically happened there. Alli es donde los malandros se caen a tiros. He was ultimately unable to find Sector Cenicero. He hopped out, fortunately without stealing my beat-up Kindle that I’d clumsily left in the back seat. Soon we happened upon a group of women from the local community council who immediately knew the person we were looking for, but told us we weren’t going to find her. 

Ella está silviendo, one woman said. It took me a minute to realize what this meant. Jesús’ biological mother had joined la milicia, an ersatz volunteer army. Nonetheless, the women showed us the way to her house. I sat in the car while the bailiff went to do the talking, wondering how I’d get back if he didn’t. He returned with a document bearing the signature of a maternal grandfather by the name of Arcadio. This apparently did the job. It was the first and only time I’ve been involved in serving a lawsuit.

Six months later, I got a recommendation from a court official: don’t sue her, try to track her down and ask her to sign away her rights. I would spend more than a year figuring out how to get a social worker back out to Sector Cenicero to seek a voluntary release of custody. It was July of 2019 when we got word of her response: “No.” This did not surprise me in the slightest. Six months later, the custody lawsuit went through. Jesús was not adopted. But at least he was adoptable. 

Chapter I: Finding Joy In a Hopeless Place
Chapter II: He Called Me “Papá”
Chapter IV: They Made the Adoption Possible
Chapter V: “He’s my kid. Nobody believes me”
Chapter VI: Immigrating to Lady Liberty
Epilogue: Becoming Gringozuelan

Brian Ellsworth

Brian Ellsworth with a Washington based journalist and communications advisor. He spent 18 years in Venezuela, principally as a correspondent for Reuters.