Inside Guatemala's adoption pipeline
Latin nation tries to fight image as baby factory for the U.S.
By Oscar Avila
Tribune foreign correspondent
November 11, 2007
Maria Lorena will soon celebrate her first, and possibly last, birthday in her home country. In January, the 11-month-old infant will likely become yet another precious export to the U.S. when a Minnesota family adopts her.
But U.S. and Guatemalan officials and child advocates worry that adoptions aren't just of value to the children and their prospective parents. Critics say a shadowy Guatemalan system has helped lawyers, middlemen -- and even birth mothers -- collect sizable payoffs.
Under worldwide pressure, Guatemala is preparing to enact a law, currently being debated in the country's Congress, to add oversight and transparency to its adoptions, as required by an international treaty. Nearly all agree that the result would be fewer adoptions from Guatemala, which sent more than 4,100 children to the U.S. last year, making it the second-largest foreign source behind China.
Guatemalan officials say the country is becoming painfully aware that its youngest citizens have turned into "merchandise," in which birth mothers often receive hefty sums to place their children for adoption, while lawyers get up to $20,000 to make the deal.
On the other side, a well-organized lobby of pro-adoption groups in the U.S. has distributed letters and petitions via the Internet, charging that the new hurdles would send thousands of Guatemalan children into the streets instead of U.S. homes.
The debate has been passionate. Both sides say they are fighting to protect thousands of children in a violent, poverty-stricken country. Their arguments, more than in the typical policy disagreement, tug at the heartstrings.
In the New Hope Home, a shelter for children, Maria Lorena frolics in a nursery adorned with a cheerful "Finding Nemo" mural. The center has arranged adoptions for nearly all its 30 children, and center director Feliciano Carrillo worries that a new law would doom the next Maria Lorena.
"These children you see here, it's not fair that they do not have families," he said.
The question is how those families should take shape.
U.S. parents have adopted children overseas since the 1940s, when some U.S. military families brought German children home. The top sending nations have ebbed and flowed over the years, including a wave of South Korean children in the 1970s and Russian children in the 1990s.
In the past two decades, Romania and El Salvador cracked down on adoptions, reducing the flow of children to practically nothing. China said it would tighten restrictions on foreign adoptive parents, including banning those who are single, obese or older than 50.
Pressure from U.S.
The landscape for Guatemala changed last year when the U.S. said it would not process adoptions from countries not in compliance with an adoption treaty. About 70 nations have ratified the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which was enacted in 1993.
The convention has certain requirements that Guatemala does not meet, according to the U.S. State Department. For example, Guatemala does not have a centralized system to exhaust options for domestic placement and to counsel the birth mother before adoption.
Also, the convention requires that any adoption fees cover expenses only and not be used for profit. In addition to the lawyers, Guatemalan adoptions are fueled by jaladores, or pullers, who collect fees for identifying mothers willing to place children for adoption.
The powerful lobby of Guatemalan lawyers had thwarted any tightening of regulations for years. But First Lady Wendy de Berger has made it a crusade to overhaul the system, backed by UNICEF and the U.S.
The crux of the debate is whether the unsavory practices are ingrained in the system, as some government officials charge, or merely isolated examples that can be rooted out by a more modest proposal.
Carmen de Wennier, Guatemala's secretary for social welfare, said she thinks a "significant" share of international adoptions have been tainted by financial interests.
"A noble institution that is adoption has lost its value and turned into a business," de Wennier said in an interview. "Our children are not factory products."
Guatemalan attorneys say the alternative, greater government control, is no better. They say the government is riddled with corruption and does not have the resources to publicly fund the services that private agencies provide.
Hannah Wallace, president of Pennsylvania-based Focus on Adoption, which advocates for international adoptions, said the tougher law would discourage birth mothers because they would first be required to seek placement within their extended family. Many rural mothers hide their pregnancies from relatives and might turn to clandestine abortions or abandonment, Wallace said.
Wallace said the system can be cleaned up without such requirements by forcing private agencies to register with the government and provide a clear accounting of how money has changed hands.
"It's unacceptable that hundreds of thousands of children would be living on the streets or in institutions or dying prematurely because there is no way to protect their ability to find a family," said Wallace, who adopted a child from Honduras, where international adoptions have dwindled since similar laws were passed.
Wallace says only a tiny minority of Guatemalan mothers place children for adoption simply because they received money. Mothers typically get payments that can reach $1,000, a sizable sum for indigenous women in the countryside.
UNICEF and other proponents of a stricter approach say that because the financial incentive is strong, Guatemala will not see a surge of abandoned children. They point to estimates that 30 percent of the nation's birth mothers place more than one child for adoption, which they see as evidence of a calculated decision to have babies for that purpose.
"If I sell elotes [corn on the cob], and they take away my market, what am I going to do? I'm going to look for alternatives. I'm not going to keep producing elotes," said Hector Julio Perez, a Guatemalan lawmaker leading the legislative fight for a new law.
In an unusual twist, the Guatemala flap has dragged in UNICEF, the United Nations agency that promotes children's rights with the help of celebrity ambassadors such as Jackie Chan and Shakira.
Wallace, who recently traveled to Guatemala, said she thinks UNICEF wrongly considers international adoption a "neocolonial" practice, somehow seeing it as immoral for a child to leave a developing nation for the U.S. Many adoption advocates say UNICEF has been heavy-handed in trying to push through reforms in Guatemala.
Manuel Manrique, UNICEF's representative in Guatemala, denied that his agency wants to end adoptions. But the outcry has been so great that U.S. adoptive mothers even started a movement to boycott the traditional Halloween collection for the organization.
The uncertainty over Guatemala's changes has rippled throughout the United States. Parents with adoption cases under way, estimated to be at least 3,000, have bombarded Guatemalan and U.S. officials with requests to let their cases continue under the current legal framework.
Several American couples with adoptions pending in Guatemala declined to discuss their concerns on the record for fear of jeopardizing their cases. A writer on a Guatemalan adoption blog who knows six parents in limbo recently wrote: "The [American] parents of these children aren't sleeping too well these days as politicians play chess with the future of their children. They hold their children in their hearts until they can hold them in their arms, and live with daily anxiety and worry."
For now, new families come together every day, especially at the Marriott in Guatemala City, known around the world as the "Baby Hotel" because it is one of the most popular lodging choices for U.S. families coming to meet their adoptive children.
The gift shop sells diapers and talcum power in addition to postcards and gum. The third floor, site of a "baby lounge," smells like formula. In the lobby, Guatemalan caregivers in traditional Mayan dresses place babies into the arms of smiling parents.
As lawmaker Perez drank coffee in the Marriott's cafeteria, nearly every table had a highchair with a Guatemalan child.
"Maybe these children are going to good homes," Perez said. "But as I think about how they could have come to this point, how they might have been taken from their mothers' arms, it fills me with sadness to see them."
But just like everything in the debate, even simple scenes are viewed in strikingly different fashion. When Carrillo brings babies from his New Hope Home to these high-rise hotels, he sees a wonderful process about to come to fruition.
"I feel good when I see these children going off to America," he said. "I think this child has a good future, a secure future, a future that even I wish I would have had."
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune