Peru's chaotic adoption system snares lawyer, nun and others

Date: 1992-12-20

The Tampa Tribune
Author: LAWRENCE J. SPEER; Tribune Correspondent

James Gagel, an American lawyer from New Jersey, has spent nearly 10 months in a Peruvian jail, victimized by the adoption system he steered foreigners through for almost two years.

Jeanne D'Arc Turcotte, a 60-year-old Franciscan nun from Montreal, nursed a tuberculosis-ridden Peruvian orphan back to health, only to have her adoption denied by judges who said she would not make a proper role model.

Hundreds of other North American and European couples are in Peru at this moment, battling Peruvian authorities for the right to adopt abandoned children, some of whom have already been in their care for months.

What Gagel, Turcotte and all the rest have in common is firsthand knowledge of the complicated and often corruption-wrought procedure of adopting children in Peru.

More than 600 children were adopted by American couples here in 1991 oughly a third of all children adopted by foreigners last year - but the government has yet to standardize the procedure.

Because of this, adoptions are interminably drawn-out affairs, requiring lengthy hotel stays and opening up prospective parents to innumerable types of extortion.

Gagel, 36, a former Fulbright Foundation fellow in the Justice Ministry, says he got involved two years ago specifically to help foreigners steer clear of corruption.

""I used to tell my prospective adoptive parents on the day they arrived that they couldn't count on the laws or the Constitution - and especially not the police - to protect them during the process,'' Gagel said during an interview from Lima's San Jorge Prison.

After successfully arranging more than 40 adoptions, Gagel was arrested last February, charged with felonies ranging from baby-trafficking to kidnapping.

He blames his legal nightmare on a group of corrupt Peruvian policemen he denounced earlier this year for demanding bribes, a scenario most adoption experts here say is entirely plausible.

""The system is certainly rife with corruption,'' said a U.S. diplomat. ""The judges are afraid to sign anything, no one knows what the government actually wants and most of these poor people have no idea what they're getting into.''

Prompted by extensive lobbying - waged by everyone from Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Eliot Aronson to Rep. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., and even Mother Theresa of Calcutta - President Alberto Fujimori visited Gagel last month.

Fujimori said he was certain Gagel had not broken any of the nation's laws while guiding Americans through the adoption process, but refused to issue a presidential pardon, saying the case must work its way through the judicial system.

Charges of corruption, and others like those Gagel faces, have long been hurled at adoption counselors, whose agencies charge anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 to accompany prospective parents through every part of the process.

The accusers, more often than not, are Peruvian officials thought to be politically opposed to the idea of foreigners adopting children here. Because adoption by foreigners is legal, these officials usually circumvent the process by creating reasons to deny adoptions.

It is to these officials that Fujimori directed his severest comments: ""My real worry is that these people are derailing the procedure, and this must be stopped.''

Illustrative of this type of process is the seven-month battle Turcotte has waged to adopt a 3-year-old child found in a garbage dump.

The child in question, a semi-retarded boy named Juan Carlos, was suffering from advanced tuberculosis when Peruvian social workers brought him to a Franciscan children's home in 1990.

During her two-year missionary stint, Turcotte nursed Juan Carlos back to a relatively healthy state and then decided to adopt him.

Last May, with the adoption papers nearly finalized, Juan Carlos' father suddenly materialized, Turcotte said, demanding money not to oppose the procedure. ""He told me that he had a lawyer, and that he could cause problems for me. I told him that I wasn't here to buy babies,'' she said.

When a lower court sided with the boy's father against Turcotte, it started a seven-month legal odyssey that has gone to the Supreme Court.

""The real tragedy of Madre Juana's case,'' according to attorney Raul B. Canelo, who presented the nun's arguments before the Supreme Court, ""is that Peruvian justice actually worked against her and the child.''

During a telephone interview from the Montreal-area convent where she awaits the court's decision, Turcotte criticized the judicial system for failing to guard Juan Carlos' best interest.

""That child's future rests on those judges' conscience like a stone, and I should hope they correct the errors made by the lower courts,'' she said.

When the local media started a massive publicity campaign on Turcotte's behalf, her case became a possible vehicle for reform.

Cabinet ministers are now demanding adoption reform - one proposal would condense the entire process into 23 days - while the Supreme Court has put the item on the national agenda by agreeing in the first place to hear a case on the rights of minors.

Gagel, who has spent his 9� months in jail teaching English to fellow prisoners and leading Bible study sessions, has not been so lucky.

Although his accusers failed to present any corroborative evidence against him on the kidnapping charges during a hearing late last month, a judge denied his provisional release.

""I've come to accept that this is where I live now,'' he said. ""What still shocks me about all of this is that what's happened to me - like so many of the problems adopting parents encounter - is simply routine here.''

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