PARAGUAYAN ADOPTIONS SPUR PATHOS AMID CHAOS

Date: 1990-06-09

Miami Herald, The (FL)
Author: KATHERINE ELLISON Herald Staff Writer
Dateline: ASUNCION, Paraguay

The moment Pablo was born, he had a price on his head.

His mother, a destitute villager, sold him while she was still pregnant, police believe, to a woman who hoped to resell him to a lawyer who would sell him to a couple from the United States.

The deal fell through when the would-be baby broker was arrested. And now 3-month-old Pablo lives in a state home, his fate up in the air.

The problem with Pablo is part of an adoption crisis in Paraguay, a 1990s mecca for U.S. couples seeking babies. Faced with embarrassing international publicity based on evidence that babies had been sold or even stolen, Paraguay suspended foreign adoptions last September. Still, adoptions go on -- including 350 cases initiated before the moratorium -- with babies such as Pablo paying the price for the chaos in the system.

The U.S. government is a bold actor in Paraguay's adoption drama, lobbying hard for citizens who were promised babies before last year's ban.

"In my 20 years of diplomatic service, I've never been in an embassy where we've advocated as relentlessly for American citizens on a single issue like we do here," said U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission William Harris, who has even met with Paraguayan judges to urge them to move ahead with cases.

In his talks with judges, Harris has touted the U.S. Embassy's "internal controls" to guarantee legitimate adoptions. Yet the case of Pablo shows how easily those controls can fail.

Troy Stiffler, 34, who wanted to be Pablo's father, is the embassy's assistant army attache. He was introduced to Dorian Flores, who claimed to be Pablo's mother, by Jose Luis Serratti, a Paraguayan lawyer hired by the embassy to investigate suspicious adoptions. Moreover, Stiffler found Andres Nissen, who police suspect had hoped to profit from the deal, on the embassy's list of adoption lawyers.

No legal action has been taken against Stiffler or Serratti, who remain employed by the embassy. U.S. Ambassador Robert Service described Stiffler's involvement as "bad judgment . . . in good faith." Nissen, however, has been taken off the embassy's lawyer list.

Serratti had known that Stiffler and his wife wanted to adopt a Paraguayan baby, Stiffler told The Herald. What isn't clear is how much Serratti knew about Flores.

Flores told police, according to court documents, that she had already sold two of her own children -- a 3-year-old girl and an 18-month-old boy. She said she planned to sell Pablo -- the son of a woman named Zully Gimenez from Villarrica, southeast of Asuncion -- for $1,000, complete with forged documents claiming him as her own son.

Serratti was unavailable for comment, embassy officials said.

Like many would-be adoptive parents, Stiffler had heartfelt motives.

'Worth the effort'

"To me, to be able to pull out one child who would be living on the streets -- it would be worth the effort," he said.

In practice, however, it turned out to be more complicated.

Stiffler said he first met Flores and Pablo on April 29, at his embassy office. On May 7, he and his wife, having decided to go ahead with the adoption, picked up the woman and the baby at the Asuncion bus station and took them to Nissen's law office. Only then, Stiffler said, did they find that Flores lacked a valid birth certificate for Pablo.

She promised to go back home and get one, but told Nissen she didn't want to take the baby, Stiffler said. So the Stifflers took Pablo home.

Stiffler said he knew his having taken the baby without papers might seem improper but added, "That's the way things are done here." He also said he was sure the ban on foreign adoptions didn't apply -- although it did -- since two lawyers told him he would be treated as a Paraguayan national because of his temporary resident status.

Matter of money

Flores, he said, had never asked him for money, other than minor expenses such as bus fare, and Nissen had told him that his own fee would be just $1,000. Asked if he thought either one might have tried to raise the fees later, Stiffler nodded, saying, "It might have been a setup. I don't know."

On the morning of May 8, however, Stiffler got a call from Nissen, telling him that Flores had been arrested. Vendors at the bus station had called police after seeing her repeatedly arrive with babies and leave without them.

Stiffler called the police that same day to try to return the baby, but it wasn't until five days later, for various bureaucratic reasons, that he was able to do so. "We ended up with a baby we couldn't keep . . . but getting more attached to him in the week we were caring for him," he said.

Paraguay's adoption boom exploded in the 1990s, shortly after the country held its first modern democratic elections.
From 1990 through 1995, the U.S. Embassy granted 1,900 visas for adopted Paraguayan babies. In many cases, those babies fulfilled dreams of infertile U.S. couples discouraged by long waiting periods and hefty fees for U.S. adoptions.

Sensitive subject

Locally, however, the adoptions have ignited controversy, as nationalists condemn the specter of children becoming discretionary purchases of rich foreigners, while press reports in and outside the country have exposed tremendous corruption in the system.

In a few sensational cases, mothers have given detailed testimony of having babies stolen from them. Yet more commonly, special prosecutor Ruben Riquelme said, poor and unsophisticated women from Paraguay's provinces or urban slums are cajoled or deceived into selling their babies to brokers working for adoption lawyers.

Rosa Maria Ortiz, director of a children's advocacy foundation, says both Paraguayan case law and the 1989 United Nations Convention for the Rights of Children say foreign adoptions should be considered only when a baby can't be placed in his own country.

"Paraguayan families want to adopt, but the state doesn't make any effort to find them" when babies become available, she said. "It leaves everything to the free market."

Hoped-for reforms

Adoption activists here hope that before Paraguay's Congress lifts its temporary ban on foreign adoptions, it will provide funding for hospital care for indigent mothers, make adoption procedures public and hire social workers to investigate babies' backgrounds.

But meanwhile Pablo and possibly hundreds of other babies are in trouble.

One of the eight babies sharing Pablo's room last month at the National Minors Home was a little girl of uncertain identity. She was found in a raid on a home on New Year's Day 1995, after which two women claimed her as their daughter. One said her 4-month-old baby had been stolen from the home where she had worked as a maid. The other alleged mother, a 15-year- old, said she had given the baby up willingly for adoption. A third woman, from the United States, had custody of the baby but had been traveling on the day of the raid.

The case has remained in the courts ever since. A lawyer for the mother who said her baby was stolen has asked for a DNA test to establish the little girl's identity. But a change in the judge handling the case has caused delays. Meanwhile, the lawyer said the 15-year-old has disappeared, while the U.S. woman who wanted to adopt has found another infant and left Paraguay. The baby with no name remains in limbo, as she has for the past 18 months.

Unknown numbers

Harris, the embassy's deputy chief of mission, says he is most concerned about an unknown number of infants now waiting in nurseries for their adoptions to be formalized. The nurseries -- some licensed, others clandestine -- are funded by adoption lawyers who charge prospective parents as much as $300 per month per child.

"As it becomes more difficult to extort money due to reform efforts . . . the lawyers' profit margins are being trimmed, which means they have less to give the nurseries," Harris said. "So what happens to the babies?"

Prosecutor Riquelme said that even before Paraguay's adoption crackdown, babies would stay in nurseries for four to five months.

"We have found them in the worst conditions, with six kids in a bed with one baby bottle, cared for by women with no training," he said.

Pablo is lucky in one sense: At the minors' home, he is cared for by trained nurses.

Still, no one visits him. Not Dorian Flores, who had claimed to be his mother -- she is locked up in a women's jail next door. Or Troy Stiffler, who wanted to be his father, although his office is a 10-minute drive away.

"We had thought about possibly trying to keep track to see if the child becomes available for adoption," Stiffler said. "But we only have 10 months left for our tour, so there probably won't be enough time."

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