(CNN) — Scott Lieberman, an American living in San Francisco, always knew he was adopted by Chile. What he didn’t know was that he was kidnapped when he was a child.
“I lived 42 years of my life not knowing it was stolen, not knowing what was going on in Chile in the 70s and 80s, and I want people to know that (…). There are families out there who can yet to be reunited”, She said Liebermann.
During the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), many children were given to adoption agencies. Some of the children came from wealthy families and were taken or given away to protect their reputations. Other children from poorer families were stolen outright, as seems to have been the case with Lieberman.
Over the past decade, CNN has documented several cases of Chilean babies being stolen at birth. The country’s authorities say that priests, nuns, doctors, nurses and others conspired to carry out illegal adoptions, the main purpose of which was for profit.
The Chilean authorities say so the number of stolen babies could run into the thousands, but the country’s investigation into controversial adoptions has languished over the years. Some of those who participated in illegal adoptions have died. Many of the clinics or hospitals where the children were allegedly stolen from no longer exist.
When Lieberman learned of the scandal a few months ago, he began to wonder if the same thing had happened to him too, and he began to reconstruct the story of two families deceived, in Chile and in the United States.
Lieberman’s story begins at the end of 1979 in the city of Cañete, located in the Biobío region of south-central Chile. Her mother, Rosa Ester Mardones, then 23, had just found out she was pregnant. Single and struggling financially, she sought help, according to her daughter Jenny Escalona Mardones, Lieberman’s senior by two years.
Escalona told CNN that some Catholic nuns went to see her mother and offered her a job in Santiago, the capital, where “she would do housework in a doctor’s house.”
Once in Santiago, he also received help from a social worker who, according to Escalona, seemed particularly interested in the Mardones case. Throughout her pregnancy, Escalona says, the social worker made her mother sign several documents that the young farmer didn’t fully understand.
The child was born on August 21, 1980 at the Providencia Clinic in Santiago. He was healthy, but Rosa Ester Mardones could hardly see him after giving birth. The social worker took custody and took the child away, even before her mother had left the hospital, Escalona says.
When Mardones reached out to the social worker to ask about the baby, she was threatened.
“Don’t come looking for the baby anymore because if you do, I’ll call the police and they’ll arrest you,” Escalona told her mother.
“Your child is now in Holland or Sweden. He is in another country. You are a poor single woman and unable to raise another child. You have given up your parental rights anyway.”
During the dictatorship, asking too many questions was risky. For a woman like Mardones, asking the police for help would have been unthinkable.
The child was indeed in another country, but not in Europe. An American couple had adopted him and had done all the paperwork to legally bring him to the United States, where the child, now named Scott Lieberman, would grow up.
“I feel more complete”
In an interview with CNN, Lieberman, now 42, said her adoptive parents never suspected they were adopting a child who was stolen from her birth mother.
Only late last year, when Lieberman, who works as a video editor, read a report on illegal adoptions in Chile, did he begin to wonder if he was the same.
With the help of “Nos Buscamos”, a Chilean non-profit organization that seeks to reunite children who had been separated from their biological parents, she discovered that she had a half-sister. With the help of MyHeritage, an online genealogy company, Lieberman and Escalona underwent DNA tests that confirmed their relationship.
Lieberman showed CNN her Chilean birth certificate and birth certificate, as well as her U.S. adoption papers.
On April 11, Lieberman flew to Chile to be reunited with his biological family. His mother had died of bone cancer in 2015, aged 58. He never knew that his son had been adopted by an American family and that he would return to his native Chile less than ten years later.
Instead, he met his half-sister at the Concepción airport. She doesn’t speak English and her Spanish is basic, but words weren’t needed. Though they had been strangers a few weeks ago, they were now hugging each other as if they had known each other forever. No one, not even those around them, had dry eyes.
When asked how it feels to return to her home country, Lieberman replied, “Very good. Most of my family is here. It’s amazing. Lots of love.” Members of his extended family had also come, and he was later reunited with his biological father as well.
Her sister, Escalona, said she felt “very happy,” but speechless.
Lieberman thinks he was lucky, especially when he thinks of those mothers and children who have not found each other.
“She knew I existed. There are other mothers who have been told their children were stillborn. They don’t know their children might still be alive in another country,” says Lieberman.
Lieberman spent 12 days in Chile, where she visited her birth mother’s grave with her sister.
“Before, I didn’t feel like my life wasn’t complete. I got a lot of love from my family growing up. I got a lot of love from my friends. But now it’s weird, but I feel more complete. I feel loved in a way that I don’t I’ve never felt before,” Lieberman told CNN after returning to San Francisco from Chile.
Escalona now believes that the nuns who came to visit her mother when she became pregnant, as well as the doctor where she worked, conspired with the social worker to steal her half-brother’s mother.
He also says that his mother never told him anything about his brother. He believes a combination of shame, pain and sadness prevented him from doing so.
“My mother never, ever talked about the fact that she had a child and that it was stolen from her. It was a painful truth that she kept for many years. I even think the pain took her away,” says Escalona.
What Escalona knows is of a close relative who helped her mother. That relative was with her mother during her pregnancy and knew details about the baby’s birth and how he was taken from his mother, Escalona said.
The truth helped Escalona understand things about her mother that previously seemed puzzling, such as her mother’s decision to live near the Santiago airport for the last few years of her life.
“She loved going to the airport and asked us to drive her. She would sit and watch people, especially those arriving,” says Escalona.
He now believes his mother was waiting for her son to return.
His mother returned to Cañete shortly before her death, where she said, “I no longer hear the planes.”