The Children of Guatemala

Date: 2000-10-28

[Audio includes Nancy Bailey, Casa Quivira]
Guatemala is one of the most popular countries in the world for international adoption and last year over 1,500 Guatemalan babies started new lives abroad. But reports of illegal adoption and baby trading have dogged Guatemala for years – of mothers being forced, or paid, to give up their new born and of a booming private adoption business worth millions of pounds.

Assignment looks behind the sensationalist headlines, at the allegations of abuse and asks is illegal adoption taking place? If so, how widespread is it? And what is in the best interests of the children of Guatemala?

Listen to the documentary programme here…

‘My name is Elivia and I am 32 years old. It was a very painful time for me. I wasn’t looking to give up my baby. I just wanted work and a Guatemalan couple offered me a job in their house. I was kidnapped. They kept me locked up in the house until I was ready to give birth. I was given drugs to make the birth quicker and then the baby was pulled out of my stomach. I didn’t see it, I didn’t know whether it was a boy or a girl. Then the couple told me I was too poor to be a mother and they were going to put my baby up for adoption.’

Elivia’s story is not unique and whilst organisations, such as UNICEF, do not claim that all of the adoptions coming out of Guatemala are illegal or abusive, the new report issued from the organisation does highlight the increasing problem of child trafficking.

International adoption
International adoption arose directly out of Guatemala’s harrowing history. The 36 year civil war – which ended officially only four years ago – left nearly a quarter of a million dead or disappeared and one million homeless, half of them children.

Elizabeth Gibbons is the director of UNICEF, and a leading critic of adoption as practised in Guatemala:

‘Many, many orphaned children were taken into adoption by military officers – sent into international adoption. Originally a humanitarian activity, but it became obvious that it had the potential for being a lucrative business. And the higher demand in the West – the more birth control, more access to abortion – so you have the problem of a huge demand, therefore a supply must be created.’

A number of embassies have, in recent years, tightened their controls. The US, British and Canadian embassies now carry out DNA tests of birth mother and baby to check that the woman giving up the baby is really the biological mother. So how is abuse still possible? Gibbons explains:

‘The existence of DNA doesn’t in any way tell you whether the mother is willingly giving up the child or whether she is being coerced. The second concern is that the children who pass the DNA test are not the same ones who go with the adopting parents on the plane, they could be switched. And thirdly, that the child who is rejected for having a negative DNA result by one of three embassies that offer this test, can then be offered to another embassy with parents of a another nationality.’

'No one respects the law or the state; everybody just does their own thing. And it’s the same with adoptions'

Children’s code

So why hasn’t Guatemala done anything to stop these abuses? Guatemala itself is in chaos – military rule is only just over; some of the old structures and some of the old rulers are still in place. It’s difficult to operate here and hard to know who is responsible for what. There is no minister responsible and no government department to oversee adoptions.

Nineth Montenegro is a vigorous critic of her own system. She is Chair of the Commission on the Child and the Family in parliament. She has been campaigning to pass “The Children’s Code”, to protect the rights of the child in Guatemala. She explains:

‘We’ve been working on it for three years now and parliament still hasn’t passed it. They say, if we try to regulate adoption in this way we will deny children better opportunities in wealthier countries. There has been terrible resistance to the new law. You know Guatemala is a democracy only in name, not a real democracy. No one respects the law or the state; everybody just does their own thing. And it’s the same with adoptions.’

With no specific adoption law, no law to protect children and no international treaty on children, adoption is mainly in the hands of lawyers. It’s the lawyers who negotiate with all of the parties, earning an average of £10,000 per adoption.

Fernando Linares is probably the most successful lawyer in Guatemala. He sees nothing wrong with the system because in his eyes it benefits everyone:

‘I think that there are irregularities in a very small percentage and illegalities in an even smaller percentage. What we are talking about is a failure rate at much less than 1% and what we should talking about is the success rate of 99%.…That means that we have a happy birth mother because she did away with an encumbrance. We also have happy adoptive parents because they have gained someone new in their life, but the person who gains the most is the child, who is going to be a million times better off because he is not only going to have a prosperous home, but he is going to have loving parents.’

'If we look at our own kids, what would we feel if someone took them away from us? Guatemalan mothers feel just the same'

Street children

The strongest argument in favour of international adoptions lies in the fact that currently there are about 20,000 children in orphanages and at least 5,000 children leaving on the streets of the capital, abandoned by vulnerable mothers, too poor or simply unable to keep them.

Casa Alianza is the main charity working with street kids across Central America. Their main Guatemala City office serves as a drop-in centre for children seeking help of all kinds. Bruce Harris, is the regional director and a well-known campaigner for children’s rights. For him adoption is a moral issue. He explains:

‘There are thousands of kids in orphanages who we would love to see adopted. The problem is that adoptive parents are deciding what child they want before they know what is available. When we have a shopping list like this, it creates an artificial supply of babies. Adoption in its purest form is looking for the best family for the baby. What’s happening here is that we’re looking for the best child for the family.’

Having worked with street children who’ve run away from abusive homes, does he not think that it is better that they be adopted by a loving family rather than ending up on the streets or in the orphanages? His response is clear:

‘Is that the right criteria for adoption? Shouldn’t we be introducing social programmes to eliminate these problems? Poverty should not be the reason for adoption. If we look at our own kids, what would we feel if someone took them away from us? Guatemalan mothers feel just the same.’

Guatemala itself has to change before the situation for its children improves. But with half the population now under 15, this is a young country with promise and with a bright and committed young generation.

Marco Ovalle Bergh is one of these dedicated idealists. He is in his 20s and works for the National Health Service in Sweden and in Britain. He was born in Guatemala and adopted as a child. He has his own views on what the future of international adoption from Guatemala should be:

‘Guatemala needs change. It’s not a question of right and wrong about adoption, it’s a question of how the Guatemalan government can start allocating support to its own people. In my case, yes of course, being adopted helped me forever, but hopefully in future, people don’t just have to be adopted to have this potential.’

All you need is love?

A young girl called Ruth has reported to the children’s charity, Casa Alianza, office several times. She gives her story:

‘I was breast feeding my baby when these men drove up with guns. They put a pistol to my boyfriend’s head and snatched my baby away. That was the last I saw of her. I want to kill myself I feel guilty that I was a bad mother to her because I was living on the street. I want to have her back to tell her how sorry I am. How can you take a woman’s child away? I don’t know. I know there are many material goods for children outside Guatemala, but we can still find our daily bread here. If I ever see my daughter again, I’ll tell her she’s the only thing that I am living for.’


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