GUATEMALA UNDER SCRUTINY FOR ABUSES IN ADOPTIONS

Date: 2007-02-28

Cox Washington Bureau (DC)
Author: Cox News Service
Moving in the international and lifestyle categories

By KEN HERMAN

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala - His name will be Ethan. And if the paperwork goes through, he will live in Washington as part of an adoption wave that put 1 percent of all children born last year in Guatemala on the path toward becoming U.S. citizens.

But if Guatemala does not overhaul its unregulated, profit-driven and much-criticized adoption process, the baby may never become Ethan and thousands of other Guatemalan babies may never come the United States.

The United States plans to bar adoptions from Guatemala unless government officials here comply with an international agreement aimed at protecting potential adoptees. Last year Guatemala climbed to second place on the list of countries providing children for adoption into the United States.

"Young girls are being paid to be pregnant and nine months later they give the child away and they receive money for that," said Manuel Manrique, UNICEF's representative in Guatemala. "We know of cases that have happened of that sort."

Guatemalan lawmakers are working on reform legislation, but there are no guarantees it will pass, according to Jose Guillermo Castillo, Guatemala's ambassador to the United States.

"At the end of the day it's a big business for some people and they are lobbying very firmly against changes in the current legislation," he said.

Last week, the State Department issued an unusual warning "strongly" urging Americans to "carefully consider their options" before proceeding with Guatemalan adoptions.

On a recent morning, the five-month-old foster child who would be Ethan rested securely in the arms of the American who, with his wife, hopes to make the boy their first child. The would-be family was in the lobby of Guatemala City's Marriott, known as the "adoption hotel" because of the flow of Americans picking up adopted babies.

That flow has slowed, noted Monica Abdalla, sales manager of the hotel with a baby lounge and 27 rooms specially equipped for adoptive families. "The number of parents is going down every day," she said.

As President Bush prepares for a March 12 meeting here with Guatemalan President Oscar Berger, the State Department says it will end all U.S. adoptions of Guatemalans if Guatemala does not re-tool what is, according to UNICEF, an unregulated, $150-million-a-year industry rife with abuse born of profit.

Manrique and adoption advocates want Bush to talk to Berger about the adoption situation.

"Five minutes is all it would take to bring it into the forefront and let him know," said Marshall Williams of Edna Gladney Center in Fort Worth, Texas, one of the nation's most respected adoption agencies.

Catherine Barry, the State Department's point person on Guatemalan adoptions, said, "it's a topic that may very well come up" when the two presidents meet.

The State Department's Feb. 21 warning came after a Florida adoption facilitator's arrest on charges of falsifying records to bring a Guatemalan child into the United States.

The case against Mary Bonn, according to the State Department, shows that "the adoption process is not adequately protecting all children." Investigators found evidence of child smuggling and misrepresentation of children's health status.

Recently, U.S. immigration officials in Guatemala have denied visas for adoptions because of "wrong and unethical practices," the State Department noted.

"These include cases where the purported biological mother of a child is not the true biological mother but an impostor and cases where the biological parent or parents have been deceived and there has been no true relinquishment of parental rights," the department said, branding the Guatemalan adoption situation "volatile and unpredictable."

But some say the proposed changes could block many legitimate adoptions.

"My concern is Guatemala will pass this cookie-cutter thing that ultimately causes children to languish in poorly run orphanages," said Kevin Kreutner of Milwaukee, father of two adopted Guatemalan children and spokesman for the guatadopt.com Web site.

Kreutner acknowledges "some need for reform in the Guatemalan system."

Guatemala, population 12 million, last year surpassed Russia, population 143 million, to move into second place on the list of nations supplying the most children for adoption into the United States. In 2006, 4,135 Guatemalan babies were adopted by U.S. parents, placing the small Central American nation second to China, population 1.3 billion, which sent 6,493.

International adoptions rose by 8 percent last year in Guatemala while declining from Russia (down 20 percent) and China (down 18 percent). Overall, international adoptions into the U.S. fell by 7 percent to 20,679.

"There are children down here that need homes. If Americans are willing to go through the process why shouldn't they be able to take the babies home," said the prospective mom in the Marriott lobby, declining to identify herself because the adoption is not final. "It's a sad situation here."

Sad indeed, say State Department officials and adoption advocates who see an out-of-control system dominated by local lawyers collecting up to $30,000 per adoption. The lawyers control all aspects of the process, including working with people who deal directly with birth mothers.

The State Department's Barry, deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services, said Americans who adopt here may not understand the situation.

"They don't know where their money is going," she said. "I'm assuming most American citizens would be horrified at the thought that money was unduly influencing the decision of a birth mother."

But government officials and adoption advocates note that many Guatemalan adoptions are legitimate.

"But the short answer is yes, you have to be careful in Guatemala," Williams said. "For an (adoption) agency that means you must carefully select your attorneys because attorneys, under the current law, are the driving force behind the adoptions."

"A birth mother may be under undue influence from people who may be well educated and sophisticated and throwing a lot of money her way," Barry said. "She may not understand that she is giving up the rights of her child forever. She may think that her child is simply being raised in the United States and that she could join her child at a later date. That is never the case. That's what it means to relinquish the rights to a child."

In Guatemala, Susana Luarca Saracho, a leading adoption lawyer, has been sharp in her criticism of the UNICEF-backed reforms.

"We are more determined than ever to shield the children from the evil agenda of UNICEF, who is using the Guatemalan officers to achieve its ends," she wrote in a statement posted on guatadopt.com.

Luarca declined a request by Cox Newspapers for an interview.

The State Department says it will deny Guatemalan adoptions into the United States if legislators here do not approve procedures required by a Hague agreement on international adoptions. Guatemala has ratified the agreement, but not implemented procedures. U.S. lawmakers, already having approved procedures, are expected to ratify the agreement this year.

Castillo said progress is being made toward reform of the system but there are no guarantees on when, or if, Guatemalan lawmakers would approve it.

U.S. ratification of the Hague agreement would lead to an end of adoption of Guatemalans if lawmakers here have not approved procedures setting up a governmental authority as a clearinghouse for adoptions. Such a move would end the local lawyers' control of a process the State Department finds unacceptable.

"In some cases, these children may have been obtained by illegal means, perhaps even stolen," the agency noted, adding that "these problematic cases are further complicated by the high incidence of corruption and civil document fraud in Guatemala."

UNICEF's Manrique said adoption in Guatemala is "managed by commercial criteria."

"There is a machinery that oils the system and has allowed it to grow from 2,000 (international adoptions) six years ago to almost 4,500 now," he said.

At Fort Worth's Gladney Center, which arranges 70-100 Guatemalan adoptions each year, Williams said major change is needed to erase the "black cloud" over the system. He hopes Guatemalan officials enact the procedures needed to avoid the threatened shutdown.

"If adoption were to be turned off in one fell swoop tomorrow what would happen to these children?" Williams said.

BY THE NUMBERS:

International adoptions into the United States. (For further information about international adoptions, see http://travel.state.gov/family/adoption/country/country_369.html)

Year.................2002.......2003.......2004......2005......2006

China.............6,119.......6,859.......7,044.....7,906....6,493

Guatemala.....2,548.......1,823.......3,572.....3,783....4,135

Russia...........4,939........5,209......5,865......4,639....3,706

South Korea..1,779.......1,790.......1,716......1,630....1,306

Ethiopia...........105..........135......... 289..........441.......732

Source: U.S. State Department

Ken Herman's e-mail address is kherman@coxnews.com.

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