Special Report: International Adoption from Americas.org [Latin America]
Before his adoption last year, Diego lived in Guatemala City with foster mother Felipa ‘Estela’ Mateo.
Last year, 16,396 children were adopted into the United States from overseas. That’s more than double the number of a decade earlier and more than to any other nation. The major Latin American sources were Guatemala and Colombia, arguably the hemisphere’s most violent nations and the ones doing the least to protect birthmothers from thieves and hustlers in the adoption industry.
This section examines international adoption through three lenses. First we look at human rights abuses and their social and historical context. Second, a U.S. woman tells her personal story of adopting a Guatemalan baby. Third, we profile a young woman’s quest for balance between her Colombian roots and the white-dominated culture of Minnesota, her home since she was adopted as a baby.
An underlying question is whether adoption-related abuses are isolated or endemic. In impoverished, war-torn countries, there are few judicial or sociological resources to generate data for a solid answer. Reports from a watchdog such as UNICEF often are dismissed as anecdotal. It’s often impossible, by the same token, to guarantee a baby or “orphan” wasn’t taken from the birthmother against her will.
Other troubling questions arise in comparing the fate of a child adopted into the United States with the fate of an orphan remaining in Latin America. It’s ironic that Casa Alianza, one of the most vocal critics of international adoption, is also one of the most passionate defenders of Central American homeless children.
AMERICAS.ORG visitors approach this topic from a variety of perspectives, including many that are not represented in this section. Some visitors are adoptive parents or close to families with internationally adopted kids. Others question the ethics of adopting from a war-torn country such as Guatemala or Colombia. And many have experience with adoptions of U.S.-born children, a process fraught with its own difficult issues of race, class and identity.
The perspectives don’t correspond neatly to left-right political lines. The Resource Center of the Americas, publisher of AMERICAS.ORG, takes no position. The organization seeks only to illuminate the complexity and promote a constructive discussion.
AMERICAS.ORG is eager to publish your thoughts and reactions in a forum that appears as part of this section. E-mail up to 300 words to the editor. The letters also will be considered for publication in the site’s companion magazine, Connection to the Americas.
In Guatemala City, where the international adoption industry runs with little government oversight, Elivia Ramírez Caño wins back her 12-month-old boy from an adoption attorney. Photo: CASA ALIANZA.
SPECIAL TO AMERICAS.ORG
Elivia Ramírez Caño lost her baby moments after giving birth August 13, 1997, in a Guatemala City hospital. The nurses took him away, saying he had been adopted. The arrangement had been made by an attorney, Javier Oswaldo Villatoro Morales, who found the pregnant 29-year-old Ramírez unemployed, abandoned by her husband and homeless. She says Villatoro Morales loaned her money and, during the birth, tricked her into signing adoption documents. A Spanish couple had contracted him to obtain the baby.
Casa Alianza, a children’s rights group based in San José, Costa Rica, waged a legal battle that eventually convinced a Guatemalan Supreme Court judge to order the baby, Pablo Ramírez Caño, back to his mother. By then, he was 12 months old.
The Guatemalan government offers birthmothers few protections against a burgeoning international adoption industry that took shape during a military dictatorship two decades ago. Unprincipled attorneys, adoption agencies, foster home networks and even smuggling rings help produce 2,300 children a year for adoptive parents, mostly in the United States. The adoptions pump at least $25 million a year into the local economy.
International adoption of Latin Americans began on a large scale in the early 1980s, when wars and dictatorships wracked the region. Today Guatemala, Colombia and Belize are the only Latin American countries that still allow relinquishment from birthmothers directly to private parties. The Guatemala system all but invites adoption practitioners to abuse the birthparents. Other countries have reformed their adoption laws, but still struggle against a black market in babies. The child “abandonment” rulings behind many legal adoptions, meanwhile, tend to discriminate against poor families.
The driving factor in all cases is a growing North American and European demand for Latin American babies. Every year thousands of couples part with huge sums, as much as $30,000, to get a healthy one. The United States, in particular, plays a pivotal role in the global adoption industry. Last year, 16,396 children immigrated here via adoption, according to the State Department. That’s more than double the number of a decade earlier and more than to all other nations combined.
Washington’s ability to choke the demand by approving fewer visas gives it enormous power to reform the industry. A significant step was a September vote by the Senate to ratify a seven-year-old treaty that creates the first global ground rules for international adoptions.
The stakes are high. Children adopted into the United States gain a significant material advantage over what was in store for them in their birth country, but they lose their name, family, language, nation and culture—rights enshrined by the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Searching for personal identity may be a lifelong struggle. And the suffering of birthparents unwillingly separated from their kids is immeasurable.
SPOILS OF WAR
UNICEF says international adoptions are unethical in times of armed conflict, natural disaster, massive displacement or other widespread chaos, because authorities can’t guarantee a child is an orphan. In the 1980s, Latin America was rife with wars and dictatorships. Thousands of children disappeared at the hands of military regimes. Few of the parents had the resources to mount a search; many couldn’t complain without incurring retribution.
Military officers conceived of the disappearances as a means of repression, but quickly saw the potential for making money from foreign couples wishing to adopt “war orphans.” Most of the children ended up with U.S., Canadian and European families that didn’t know their role was anything other than “saving” children from the violence.
In El Salvador, U.S.-backed troops took thousands of children from villages sympathetic to the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. Some of the children went to the families of officers and soldiers, but most are believed to have left the country with smugglers or adopting families. The Association for the Search for Disappeared Children has located 120 people adopted overseas, mostly in the United States and Europe.
A similar process was underway in Guatemala during the early 1980s, the bloodiest period of the nation’s 36-year civil war. As many as 1,100 children disappeared, according to an August report by the human rights office of Guatemala’s Catholic archbishop. Officers delivered many of them for international adoptions, according to the report. The office’s seven-month investigation adds flesh to similar findings by a U.N.-sponsored truth commission last year. Guatemala’s military dictatorship started changing the nation’s adoption laws in 1979. Soon the regime had removed the court system from the process and shortened the adopting family’s waiting period to three days. Military officers helped set up foster homes and dispatched agents to the countryside to gather children. From 1979 to 1983, U.S. families adopted about 438 Guatemalan “orphans,” according to the State Department.
In Colombia, the number of internationally adopted children increased throughout the 1980s as paramilitary groups formed. These private armies worked closely with government forces, committing numerous massacres aimed largely at scaring peasants off valuable land and eliminating leftists. Adding to the chaos, the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted in 1985, causing a mudflow that killed 21,000 people in the central town of Armero, Tolima. The slayings and the volcano separated thousands of children from their parents; many kids ended up in international adoption channels. By the end of the decade, U.S. families were bringing home more than 700 Colombian “orphans” each year, the State Department reports.
In other South American countries, U.S.-backed military dictatorships were still fighting dirty wars against political opponents. The tactics included baby stealing. In Argentina, where dictators ruled from 1976 to 1983, a human rights group called Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo has pushed the government to end impunity for the officers behind the crimes. Gen. Jorge Videla, the dictator from 1976 to 1981, is among several former top officers under arrest after indictments alleging they trafficked children. The Grandmothers inspired portions of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, completed in 1989.
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
By the early 1990s, most Latin American wars and dictatorships had ended, but international adoption rates were still increasing. In Paraguay, Gen. Alfredo Stroessner’s 35-year rule ended in 1989; within five years, the number of adoptions from the country to the United States had almost doubled to 483 per year, according to the State Department.
Behind this phenomenon was a growing demand for the babies among North Americans and Europeans. This demand owed to widening acceptance of adoption, declining fertility rates and increasing tolerance of child rearing by people who were single, gay or middle-aged. Families were choosing to adopt from overseas primarily because it was faster than adopting a local baby and because it reduced the chances the birthmother would try to reclaim parental rights.
In those years, the private international adoption industry enjoyed direct access to birthmothers across most of Latin America. The only government role in many countries was a hasty determination of whether a child had been “abandoned.” Such rulings most often targeted families for whom survival was a day-to-day struggle; it was easier for a government to remove a child from birthparents than to invest in employment, housing, education and other programs to help the family. In Paraguay, 80 percent of children “abandoned” during the early 1990s went to foreign families, according to Rosa María Ortiz of the Asunción-based Global Infancia.
In recent years, Latin American countries have begun to update their adoption laws, capping legal fees, setting up government adoption programs, banning birthmother relinquishments directly to private parties and trying harder to place babies with local parents. In Paraguay, a 1996 law has all but eliminated international adoptions.
The stronger laws haven’t eliminated baby smuggling. In April, two women in a New York City suburb were sentenced to 15 months in federal prison and ordered to pay restitution of $43,500 each for smuggling 17 Mexican children into the country between 1990 and 1999. The women, Arlene Lieberman, 48, and Arlene Reingold, 47, were partners in adoption businesses. An Arizona lawyer who worked with them was sentenced to 30 months with restitution of $125,000. The lawyer, Mario Reyes, 41, admitted to defrauding Mexican authorities by forging documents and having women pose as biological mothers. The three allegedly arranged adoptions and charged fees of up to $22,000 per baby.
Stories of misconduct have led embassies, including those of the United States, Britain and Canada, to introduce DNA tests to ensure that the woman signing over a child is the real mother. The testing has made black-market operators craftier; instead of stealing, they issue threats, devise tricks and make purchases.
The coercion is most widespread in the countries that have not banned private international adoptions. In Colombia, eight private adoption houses operate, with only perfunctory oversight by the nation’s family courts. Last year, 231 Colombian “orphans” came to the United States via adoption, the State Department reports.
The hemisphere’s only country sending more children to the United States is Guatemala. As the war there was winding down, the number of international adoptions kept rising. In 1996, the year Guatemala’s peace accords were signed, 731 children left the country in adoptions. By last year, the annual number had reached 2,300, according to UNICEF and the Geneva-based International Social Service, making Guatemala the world’s fourth-largest exporter of children for adoption.
The largest share goes to the United States. Last year, according to the State Department, U.S. families brought home 1,002 Guatemalan “orphans.” That’s more than from all other Latin American countries combined, and more than from any other country except Russia, China and South Korea, despite Guatemala’s population of just 10 million people. Neighboring Honduras allowed an annual average of only 45 adoptions to the United States between 1994 and 1999.
The flow of Guatemalan children is due partly to economic misery there. An estimated 80 percent of the Guatemalan population lives in poverty and 40 percent is illiterate. Some mothers who relinquish a child are prostitutes; others are struggling to care for kids already.
A related factor is Guatemala’s birth rate, Central America’s highest. The Catholic Church campaigns vigorously to keep abortion illegal and contraceptives inaccessible. Many teenage women migrate from rural areas to Guatemala City to look for work. In the capital, some get pregnant, feel compelled to carry the fetus to term, and decide they can’t return home with the “illegitimate” child.
The demand for Guatemalan babies, meanwhile, has increased sharply as other Latin American countries have clamped down on their adoption industries. Guatemalan attorneys get away with charging as much as $15,000 for an international adoption, more than 50 times the rate for an adoption to local parents. The adopting family pays thousands more for adoption agency fees, travel, food, lodging and, often, the birthmother’s expenses.
In Guatemala, the birth mother (or sometimes the father) signs a consent release. All the paperwork is handled by an attorney, often the person representing the adoptive parents. The only Guatemalan governmental roles are a review of the documents by the attorney general’s office, and a social worker’s report on the biological and adoptive parents.
Gustavo Amílcar Tobar Fajardo, 30, learned about Guatemala’s adoption system in 1997, when his 6-year-old son Osmín and infant stepson Jeffrey were taken from him. Tobar says an adoption lawyer convinced the boys’ nanny to report abuse. A juvenile judge who is friendly with another adoption lawyer declared the boys “abandoned.” Eight months later, two U.S. couples in Pennsylvania adopted the brothers. Today, Tobar and his ex-wife Flor de María Ramírez Escobar are still trying to prove the adoptions were illegal, saying no social worker ever reviewed the case.
A U.N. investigator reported in March that most international adoptions from Guatemala are illegal. Ofelia Calcetas-Santos, the U.N. special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, says she found evidence that lawyers, doctors and judges with a stake in adoptions do everything from falsify birth records to drug illiterate birth mothers and force them to sign over their babies. Pregnant prostitutes and indigent single mothers are frequently threatened or tricked into handing over their children, the report adds. Other poor women are contracted to produce babies. The women usually assume they are powerless because they have accepted money and spent it. If they change their minds, according to the report, their kids sometimes are stolen.
Meanwhile, about 20,000 Guatemalan orphans languish in inadequately funded government institutions because most adoptive parents seek babies instead of older children and because processing papers for adoptions to Guatemalan parents can take years.
Efforts to reform the Guatemalan adoption industry have hit a brick wall. In February, the nation’s congress suspended a 1996 child-protection law that would have put convicted child traffickers in jail for six years. The code’s main impediment is a web of lawyers, judges, doctors, military officers and international agencies with a stake in exporting children. The most powerful of these is Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, president of the congress and head of the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front. Ríos Montt was dictator from 1982 to 1983, when the military was stealing children and establishing the industry.
International pressure may be the key to adoption reform. On September 20, the U.S. Senate unanimously agreed to ratify the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, the first global adoption standards. The vote marked a defeat of members of Congress who delayed ratification in an effort to restrict adoption by gay men and lesbians.
The convention, completed in 1993, protects children from being sold, mandates cuts in bureaucratic hurdles for finding homes for babies and orphans, and lays out standards for preventing coercion of biological parents. Under the treaty, each country establishes a “central authority” for international adoptions. (In the United States, that agency will be the State Department.) The central authorities set standards and procedures for their own nations, and deal with central authorities in other nations so that practitioners don’t have to do so individually. The convention also requires countries to set up accreditation standards for adoption agencies.
President Clinton is expected to sign the bill soon, making the United States the 41st country to ratify the treaty or accede to it. The others in the hemisphere are Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela. Most conspicuous among those that haven’t ratified it is Guatemala, Latin America’s largest exporter of children. Washington, in addition to its ability to regulate immigration, exercises considerable influence over Guatemala City.
“The U.S. government knows about the illegalities in Guatemala and the weakness in the local laws,” says Bruce Harris, executive director of Casa Alianza. Until Guatemala ratifies the convention and reforms its adoption laws, he adds, the United States “should have the political courage to walk away from adoptions from that country.”
Nine Months in Guatemala
The author plays with her new baby’s 4-year-old brother Juan in Santiago Atitlán. Photo: Norma López.
BY LAURIE STERN
For years, I liked coming around the Resource Center of the Americas, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit publisher of AMERICAS.ORG. I loved the building the organization renovated last year, and expected it to be helpful and welcoming for our Guatemalan-born baby son. When I brought Diego to the Resource Center, however, I was surprised that while many people were delighted to see us, others seemed to be passing judgment. Were they assuming I came by my son unethically? I soon quit attending my Spanish class and “storytimes” at the Resource Center and began mulling it over.
Adoption is dicey by definition, a transaction between unequals. This is true for both international and domestic adoptions. It takes money to adopt, and desperation to relinquish a baby. The business is dominated by nonprofit agencies but still largely unregulated. There is plenty of room for opportunism and abuse, especially in poor countries, where more people need a hustle to make ends meet. It’s an imperfect system in an unfair world. My own experience illustrates the complexity and explains why I get angry when people prejudge us.
I almost didn’t adopt at all. I could barely stand the thought of exercising my North American middle-class privilege to acquire a child from a woman who had the disadvantage of being born an indigenous Guatemalan. If I were a better person I might have donated our hard-saved $20,000 to the Resource Center or found another way to care for a child.
In my 20s and 30s, I had a lot of fun traveling and indulging my journalism career. Then, two years ago, I decided that reporting on social dilemmas and other people’s lives was not enough. I wanted motherhood and all its complex commitments. I was that cliché of a woman who had waited too long to have a baby biologically.
I chose Guatemala because I’ve long cared about the place and its people. I speak some Spanish, anticipated visiting as our child grew up, and researched enough to know that most adopting parents got young healthy babies. I also learned about allegations of corruption, but reassured myself they were mostly unsubstantiated and didn’t involve my adoption agency.
I went to meet Diego (Guatemalans gave him the name) in February last year when he was 5½ months old. I thought we’d come home to my husband in three weeks. I didn’t know my agency was working with a bad lawyer and unscrupulous “facilitators,” the go-betweens who locate birth mothers and sometimes provide them with counseling and medical services. It was nine months before the adoption was finalized and we left Guatemala. I’ll never be sure whether what happened was incompetence or extortion.
I started out living with Diego’s foster family, then he and I moved into our own place. During the wait, I got to know three dozen adopting families, a dozen Guatemalan foster parents, at least four orphanages (one state-run and three private), six facilitators, six adoption lawyers and directors of several adoption agencies. I also met six birth mothers.
Guatemala has Central America’s highest rates of birth, child mortality and illiteracy. A 36-year civil war ended with 1996 peace accords, but the fighting and its aftermath left 150,000 orphans. Many of them languish in institutions where conditions range from heartbreaking to insufferable. Some of these orphanages work with adoption agencies.
But most foreign adoptions rely on a network of private foster homes. Foster parents are paid by foreign adoption agencies through lawyers and other intermediaries, some of whom reminded me of pimps or street gang leaders. I knew babies abducted from foster homes under one facilitator’s control and placed in homes on a rival facilitator’s turf. I met one birth mother who worked with a facilitator to withhold documents in order to squeeze money from an agency. I learned about rival facilitators instigating official investigations against each other. In a country where 80 percent of people are officially poor, babies bound for foreign families are precious commodities.
During one of my husband’s five visits, he spoke with a pregnant young woman about why she was giving up her baby. She explained she was 17, unmarried and jobless. He told her he and a girlfriend had been in a similar situation 30 years earlier. Thanks to public aid, they could afford to keep their son. The pregnant girl shook her head in regret or disbelief. She knew adoption was her best choice.
The birth mothers I met were desperate. One worked 60-hour weeks in a Guatemala City garment sweatshop and relinquished her infant because she had no time or money to look after her other child, a toddler. Diego’s birth mother, Isabel, was supporting two children, 4 and 7, and gave birth to another the month after we left. She sold peanuts in the market and picked coffee with her kids for $1.25 a day. I met the family several times. They spoke Tzutujil, one of Guatemala’s two dozen Mayan languages, and hardly any Spanish. Still, we made an affectionate and respectful connection that none of us will forget.
Most foster mothers I met were loving and responsible, though their homes were very poor. They subsisted on $100–$250 a month per baby. They took care of one or two babies (two is the legal maximum), and they had to supply food and diapers. Most had children of their own and no other income. If not for agency adoptions, they said, they’d be in factories away from their kids or on the streets.
In Diego’s adoption, our lawyer and facilitators wrote that he was Isabel’s second child, not her third. To cover up the mistake, they filed another birth certificate and got his birthplace wrong. The authorities, discovering inconsistencies in the story, began an investigation, which prompted more lies. Eventually the agency hired a new lawyer for our case. Methodically and lawfully, he corrected the record.
A highly publicized report by U.N. official Ofelia Calcetas-Santos says most Guatemalan adoptions are illegal. But the report cites no source, admitting the information is mostly anecdotal and based on only 11 days of investigation. In our case, the Guatemalan attorney general’s office had rejected the adoption five times. These rejections may exemplify what Calcetas-Santos calls illegal but, to me, they signal that the regulators are doing their jobs.
Aside from the attorney general’s review, there are other safeguards. The U.S. Embassy requires DNA tests to verify the birth mother’s maternity. Embassy officials also interview her to make sure she’s not being paid or coerced. Most other “receiving” countries have similar precautions.
As for the adopting families, some of the ones I met in Guatemala were wealthy, but most were middle-class professionals or working-class. Some established long-lasting relationships with the birth mothers. A friend of mine who adopted two unrelated infants is helping both birth families start small businesses in Guatemala City. Other families are contributing substantially to nonprofits that support Guatemalan families. Most feel a new, permanent connection and responsibility to the country.
We love our son and don’t feel as if we bought him. What we did was exercise a privilege. Diego will know that he laughs just like his biological sister and that children in his village wear traditional clothes and go barefoot. We hope he will care about his connection to Guatemala and the Tzutujil.
In a better world, the choices in the adoption process would be different. In the real world, Diego’s birth mother can afford to keep her fourth child, his foster mother earned a few months’ living by caring for him, and my life has been immeasurably enriched. All three of us trust that Diego’s new life will offer more opportunity than he would have had otherwise.
Maybe he and his generation will do a better job than ours has at keeping kids from becoming commodities.
Bumpy Road to Identity
Mónica Dooner was one of Minnesota’s first children adopted from Latin America.
BY ALEXANDRA STEIN
On the coffee table in Mónica Dooner’s St. Paul apartment is a book with Spanish text, glossy pages and big photographs—all about Colombia. The book is a reminder of her roots in that country, where her white parents traveled 27 years ago to adopt a baby. Brought from a Bogotá orphanage to Minnesota, she became one of the state’s first adopted Latin Americans.
Since her childhood in northeast Minneapolis, Dooner has faced distinct challenges in both white and Latino cultures. Today, as she begins her first year as a Hamline University Law School student, she says finding a balance between the cultures and developing pride has been a struggle. Only through education, travel and community work has she found her way. “It has been a bumpy road, but now I’m content,” she says.
When Dooner was growing up, she had no friends who could relate to her experience. At her Catholic grade school, she and her brother (who was born in El Salvador) were the only Latinos. And the Twin Cities had few resources for parents who had adopted from Latin America. “People labeled me. They would say I was African American or black. Or I’d get comments like, ‘Where’s your real mom?’ ” she says. “I had a difficult time responding to those statements.”
In sixth grade, Dooner asked her parents to enroll her in the International School, a private facility in Eden Prairie. There she took her first Spanish course: “It changed me completely. I had a passion for it.” In eighth grade, a young Spanish teacher from Mexico became her mentor, encouraging her Latin American identity. Dooner traveled with the teacher to meet her family in Mexico, and she took a liking to Spanish-language TV, music and books.
By her early 20s, Dooner had rejected almost everything having to do with the United States. She immersed herself in Latin American culture, developing her language skills, majoring in Spanish and Hispanic Studies at St. Olaf College, and traveling to Latin America and Spain. She proudly identified herself as Latin American.
But Dooner didn’t always find acceptance among Latinos. The few at St. Olaf tended to measure her by Latin American standards; they deemed a Colombian from Minneapolis to be upper-class. She eventually did find a place for herself and became an officer in a campus Latino group.
Dooner also has faced misconceptions in Latin America, where people expect her to be fluent in Colombian culture and the Spanish language.
She found a niche to use her Spanish and serve the Latino community at Centro Legal Inc., a St. Paul nonprofit provider of legal services to Latinos. During her three years as a paralegal there, Dooner didn’t make her adoptive status known unless it came up in conversation. Adoption is accepted less in Latin America than in the United States, she says.
Some people in the United States still speak of international adoption as if it were essentially a charitable act, like sending off $50 to Save the Children. Others cast a disapproving eye, as if the adopting parents were little more than imperialist child snatchers. Reflecting on the chasm, Dooner calls herself “a child advocate.”
“If Colombians aren’t going to adopt these children, or Hondurans aren’t going to adopt these children, they still need a home,” she says.
At age 18, Dooner returned to Colombia with her parents and brother for the 50th anniversary of the orphanage, La Casa de La Madre y El Niño. As her plane landed Bogotá, she recalls, she had the feeling she was coming home. The reunion drew 100 adoptive families from around the world. “Though we didn’t share a language, we felt we’d known each other all our lives,” she says. “For once I didn’t feel like a minority.”
At the orphanage, the kids waiting for adoption seemed happy and cared for. One wing of the facility housed birthmothers. “I respect the birthmothers for choosing to make an adoption plan,” she says.
Latin America’s widespread poverty has not alienated her. She feels lucky to have grown up without such hardship, yet she feels connected to the people she has worked with and met in different countries. “I live life believing that anybody I encounter could be my birthparents, so I must respect them,” she says.
Dooner is curious about her birth family but hasn’t begun searching for it. “It’s an ongoing process for all adoptees,” she says.
She’d like to adopt children herself one day: “I need to give that back to my birth country. I would make sure my child is exposed to and appreciates their birth country and is proud of it.”
Dooner says children adopted from Latin America must come to grips with, on one hand, how U.S. society sees them and, on the other, how Latin American societies see them. The task is to take pieces from both cultures that feel right and comfortable and to integrate them. Dooner’s advice to adoptees is to be proud of who they are and enjoy the beauty in the culture of their birth country.
The growth of Minnesota’s Latino population, now 125,000 strong, means adoptees have more resources for learning about the complexities of their cultures. They also have the challenge of proving themselves; many Latinos expect adoptees to be Latin American. For adopted children, having lunch at Mercado Central and then going back to the suburbs can feel like having to put on different masks.
Adoptive parents should make sure the topic of adoption is always open for discussion, Dooner says. “Parents have a duty to provide kids with resources and education to learn about their birth country.” An important part of this education is learning the language, she adds.
Dooner says parents also should be supportive when their children encounter bigotry and prejudice. “It’s hard for adoptees to come to grips with racism because, internally, we are American,” she says. “We love hamburgers and French fries, and we have Caucasian parents.”
And parents should help their children connect with Latin American mentors. Dooner herself volunteers at the nonprofit Children’s Home Society, Minnesota’s oldest adoption agency, where she provides a positive influence for kids adopted from Latin America.
Today’s adoptive parents have many more resources than Dooner’s mother and father did. They can take advantage of everything from bilingual Resource Center storytimes to La Semana, a weeklong summer camp for adopted Latin Americans (see Parents of Latin American Children).
Internationally adopted children must be raised so they have opportunities to appreciate both their cultures. Then it’s up to them to decide how to integrate the two.
Forum: Round 1
I WAS ANGERED and disheartened to read “The Baby Trade,” which explored alleged abuses in international adoption. My concern does not lie with exploring this complex issue but with the simplistic, biased and unsubstantiated treatment of it. The introduction stated that the “big question is whether the instances of abuse are isolated or endemic.” Next to that introduction, “The Baby Trade” simply did not explore this “big question.” From the headline to the ubiquitous use of quotes around the word orphan, the article lacked serious analysis.
Then came two small additional items. The three pieces, according to the introduction, constituted a view of international adoption through three lenses. To imply that two short personal stories, no matter how informative and courageous, provided a counterpoint to a lengthy feature article with a large and, arguably, inflammatory headline again shows the flippant Resource Center of the Americas attitude toward these complex issues. It was unfortunate the staff did not take more care to ensure that a balanced perspective was presented.
I would like to end by thanking authors Laurie Stern (“Nine Months in Guatemala”) and Alexandra Stein (“A Bumpy Road To Identity”) for providing personal experiences with international adoption against such a negative backdrop. Their stories begin to explore the complexities and are an excellent starting point for what I hope will be the Resource Center’s ongoing dialogue on this complicated issue.
– Virginia Carr, Minneapolis
I AM THE BRITISH adoptive parent of two children adopted from Guatemala. “The Baby Trade” was misleading: “Unprincipled attorneys, adoption agencies, foster home networks and even smuggling rings help produce 2,300 children a year for adoptive parents, mostly in the United States.” This states categorically that all attorneys, adoption agencies and so on are unprincipled. The language is emotive and negative. There is no interest in showing specific evidence (all of which refutes this) or any other potential side of the story.
The article states further: “A U.N. investigator reported in March that most international adoptions from Guatemala are illegal. Ofelia Calcetas-Santos, the U.N. special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, says she found evidence that lawyers, doctors and judges with a stake in adoptions do everything from falsify birth records to drug illiterate birthmothers and force them to sign over their babies.” But there was no indication of how much evidence was found or against how many individuals.
Contrast this with Laurie Stern’s article. Her reference to Calcetas-Santos covers both sides and neither makes nor invites judgment: “A highly publicized report by U.N. official Ofelia Calcetas-Santos says most Guatemalan adoptions are illegal. But the report cites no source, admitting the information is mostly anecdotal and based on only 11 days of investigation.” The rest flows with similar balance: “Adoption is dicey by definition, a transaction between unequals. . . . It takes money to adopt, and desperation to relinquish a baby. . . . There is plenty of room for opportunism and abuse, especially in poor countries. . . . It’s an imperfect system in an unfair world. . . . In a better world, the choices in the adoption process would be different. In the real world, Diego’s birthmother can afford to keep her fourth child, his foster mother earned a few months’ living by caring for him, and my life has been immeasurably enriched.”
“The Baby Trade” is potentially very damaging to the self-image of any child adopted from Guatemala. Editors should be guardians of the human rights of adopted children. If there is a constituency genuinely concerned about helping curb the abuses of the intercountry adoption system, it is surely adoptive parents.
– Stevan Whitehead, London
I WAS SO INFURIATED by your inflammatory coverage that I could not decide what aspect of it irked me the most. If the Resource Center was trying to begin an honest and fair discussion, you blew it.
First, the choice of market phrases (“Baby Trade,” “helped produce,” “demand for Latin American babies”) was inappropriate and put those of us who have adopted from Latin America in an extremely defensive position. The terminology was just one of the ways the article demonstrated its contempt for adoption. The focus on “trade” totally skewed the personal and complex issues.
Second, numerous anti-adoption statements clearly reflected the authors’ ignorance of the issue. For example: “Families were choosing to adopt from overseas primarily because it was faster than adopting a local baby and because it reduced the chances that a birthmother would try to reclaim parental rights.” This assumption is not only unsubstantiated but patently untrue for many adoptive families. We, for example, decided to adopt from Guatemala precisely because there was a greater chance of being able to meet, and possibly stay in contact with, our children’s birthmothers. Numerous other statements, irrelevant to alleged misconduct in international adoption, reflected an anti-adoption bias. I don’t know if I want AMERICAS.ORG to do a follow-up. Based on the November pages, I don’t trust the reporting staff to do the topic justice.
– Kellie Jones, Minneapolis
I WAS SO MOVED to read about all aspects of the traffic in Central American children. It was frightening to find that a situation I “invented” in my novel Goodness (Spinsters Ink, 1996) is far from fictional. One of my characters found a sleazy lawyer who relieved her of several thousand dollars and then claimed the sickly infant he found for her had died. My invention was based on stories from friends and acquaintances, some of whom found happy endings, like several writers in your issue. AMERICAS.ORG is so good. Thanks for keeping the quality high.
– Martha Roth, Minneapolis
THANK YOU for covering this sensitive issue. I hope to adopt a child someday. I have met wonderful parents who have adopted children from many countries. Many of these parents have become champions for peace and justice in their child’s birth country.
I spent a semester studying in Bogotá, Colombia. I saw many adoptive families. I could recognize adoptive parents just by the look in their eyes: a mix of fear, love, hope and frustration, and an altruistic sense of “saving” a child from the violence and poverty.
Every time I saw an adoptive family I felt respect for what they were doing, but I also wondered about the realities alongside the parents’ good intentions. Were these families saving children from having to work and live on the streets someday? Or were the children born on purpose for rich families in Europe and the United States? What are the economic and social injustices at play? What drives a woman to give up her child? AMERICAS.ORG approached many of these of issues.
One day I was working with the street children at a residential treatment facility in the mountains. A chubby-cheeked, mischievous 8-year-old asked me whether I had any children. I replied, “No, but I would like to adopt a child someday.” This child looked at me with tremendous heartache and said, “Adopt me!” To this day, I wish I could have.
If you are thinking of adopting, consider an older child. If you are an adoptive parent, please do stand up for standards. Organize. We should applaud AMERICAS.ORG efforts to raise awareness about this issue. Instead of feeling guilty for acting out of love, we should continue to monitor international adoptions and demand standards so parents can adopt children out of their good intentions without contributing to the very problems parents are seeking to solve.
– Stephanie DeFrance, St. Paul
ALTHOUGH THE ADOPTION section attempted to provide information from a balanced perspective, it lacked information on the numerous orphanages and organizations that do honest, ethical and loving work with Guatemala’s 150,000 orphans.
I have had the honor of working with one such organization, Casa Guatemala, for the past five years. It has existed for 24 years. Director Angie DeGaldemez, who has never worked for a salary, only for room and board, has worked tirelessly under overwhelming circumstances to keep the orphanage open and expand it to provide a home for more children. No child is ever turned away.
During the war, women would attempt to follow the army to try to save the children whose parents had been killed. They took the children to places such as Casa Guatemala to save them from death or life on the streets.
At one time, Casa Guatemala existed only in Guatemala City. Angie, the director, sought a place where the children could run and play. She contracted with the Kekchi on the Río Dulce to share their land. To build the complex, Angie worked right along side the men to clear the jungle.
Today Casa Guatemala not only shares the land with the Kekchi but also a school, a corn grinder and a medical and dental clinic. Casa Guatemala employs people in the village to help with the children and work the farm that provides their food.
Many of the 200 children at Casa Guatemala have families but need medical treatment or schooling that is not available in their own villages. Some children truly are orphans and need a family. All the children available for adoption are older or have special needs.
Last year, just a few months after Hurricane Mitch flooding, an earthquake completely destroyed Casa Guatemala. The children had to live under tarps and drink rainwater until the buildings and water tower could be repaired or rebuilt. The Guatemalan government would not send out a call for international relief because it did not want to “hurt tourism,” but Angie and the other volunteers never gave up. Today 75 percent of the buildings have been rebuilt.
Recognize organizations and individuals that give everything and ask nothing in return. My fear is that programs such as Casa Guatemala will lose support from U.S. readers afraid they are donating time and money to something unethical.
– Roxanne Gould, Minneapolis
AS A FORMER Resource Center of the Americas staff member and board chair, and as an adoptive parent of an internationally born child, I read “The Baby Trade” amid feelings of great sadness, alienation, anger and judgment. I am responding out of respect for an organization that I have admired and been proud of for the past 10 years. The article didn’t reflect the openness, commitment to the struggle, or search for the complex truths that I have come to expect. I hope other adoptive parents who share my hurt will stay connected to the Resource Center and not view this article’s agenda as representative of the organization.
Moral ambiguity surrounds international adoption. Privilege is exercised during every step of the process. I own this reality. But adoption isn’t solely about privilege. It’s a complicated issue with many angles, struggles, inequities, heartaches and questions. “The Baby Trade” was written in one moral voice and left no room for the ambiguity that most of us experience. Acknowledging the struggle would open the discussion, encourage reflection and hopefully contribute to improved adoption policies.
I struggle every day with the knowledge of what my son gave up when we brought him to the United States. I wish I had a magic wand and could transform his history. But I can’t. What I can give him is a family that cherishes him, nurtures him, finds great joy and laughter in his antics, and cries when he struggles. I take offense at the article’s insinuation that the only thing an adopted child “gains” is “a significant material advantage over what was in store for them in their birth country.” The author distrusts and dismisses adoptive parents’ intentions, motivations and struggles. Of course, an even trade between a child’s birth family/culture and adoptive family isn’t possible. Choices are made; losses are endured. It’s part of the moral ambiguity.
I am sure that some birthmothers are coerced, that attorneys are profiting, and that judicial systems are corrupt. I don’t know how widespread the problem is, but the hurdles and roadblocks we have faced in adoption lead me to believe that good watchdogs are in fact doing their job. While more reform is warranted, I disagree with the conclusion to shut down Guatemalan adoptions. This conclusion followed an admission that data was inconclusive. I have many questions to examine before I’m willing to accept the fate of the 20,000 Guatemalan kids living in institutions as being preferable to international adoption.
My intuition tells me that “The Baby Trade” was not about systemic change or overhauling a flawed system. The underlying moral voice was critical of international adoption, regardless of the way it happens.
Finally, I want to defend the birthmothers who make the excruciating decision to give up their babies for adoption. “The Baby Trade” never talked about the women who willingly made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure a better life for their child. Are poor women incapable of making decisions regarding their children? The author states that pregnant teenagers in Guatemala City “feel compelled to carry the fetus to term.” Compelled? It seems patronizing and judgmental to me that the author has all the answers for these women.
I welcome honest discussion surrounding the complexities of international adoption and I hope I can rid myself of the defensive residue left by “The Baby Trade” and move to more reparative efforts, efforts that ensure a fair and legal international adoption system. Additionally, I hope that the Resource Center is willing to present future discussions of international adoption with more than one moral voice.
– Chris Dooley-Harrington, St. Paul
AMERICAS.ORG COULD HAVE raised difficult questions, provided information and invited dialogue. Unfortunately, “The Baby Trade” only passed judgment, alienated people from an important resource and spoiled future dialogue.
The method of persuasion was troubling. The article started with a very emotional issue, children, labeled adoption as “The Baby Trade” and proceeded with heart-wrenching stories. Then came hysterical data about abuses during horrible wars. Anecdotal data and incomplete research were used liberally to polarize the issue. Readers had two choices: (1) If you love babies and the Americas, you will think international adoption is bad. (2) If you support international adoption, you are exercising your imperialist North American privilege. The conclusion was to support a baby embargo. This resembles how our government has persuaded people in the United States to tolerate a Cuban embargo.
“The Baby Trade” was disrespectful to the birthmothers of internationally adopted babies. Most of us North Americans cannot even begin to know what they have experienced during the wars and the aftermath. Clearly one of the tragedies of the wars is not being able to care for your child. An important question is whether adoption adds another trauma or whether it’s a complex attempt to alleviate some of the pain. I do not know the answer, but I do know that part of finding the answer is respecting the birthmother enough to work on solutions. The last thing she needs is a North American telling her what is best for her by removing the option of international adoption. This would be patronizing.
“The Baby Trade” barely addresses the children. A child belongs with his or her family, but this is not always possible, evidenced by the 20,000 Guatemalan children in government institutions and thousands more on the streets. The U.S. role in the wars does not erase the fact that the children are growing up in institutions. Is a child better off in an institution, keeping her or his name, language and culture, or is a child better off in a home, being part of a family with a different language and culture? Unlike the writer, I do not see easy answers.
Many adoptive parents are trying to raise their children with a knowledge, respect and love of the culture where they were born. This is not an easy task. The Resource Center could be a resource for families, but the attitude that permeated “The Baby Trade” only alienates people. In Laurie Stern’s article, she noted feeling judged. I would suggest she experienced this attitude.
– Kevin Harrington, St. Paul
AMERICAS.ORG DID exactly what a radical site should do. It sparked heated debate about a fundamental issue. Radical means getting to the heart of an issue, and this debate has certainly pulled emotional heartstrings. Unfortunately, the debate has taken on another attribute of radicalism, as we know it, and that is demonizing people who disagree with you. It’s imperialist baby stealers vs. mean ideologues.
My wife Deborah McLaren and I are beginning the international adoption process. I thought all the articles dealt with this difficult issue honestly and added important insights. The lead article (“The Baby Trade”) contained valuable revelations about how profiteers have exploited families in Latin America in horrible ways. Still, it seemed to imply that all Latin American adoption organizations are tainted by baby stealers linked to death-squad militias. From what I understand, this is not true.
At the same time, the article raised uncomfortable issues that any adoptive parent in the global upper class (and that includes most middle-class professionals in Minnesota) must understand. Adoption, even in this country, is usually a class issue. In large part, birthparents who choose to relinquish a child do so because they are in extreme economic hardship. To adopt a child, on the other hand, you must prove that you can provide for her or him. The problem in this debate is that a huge dose of guilt now comes into play. Because we are in a relatively privileged class position doesn’t mean we are bad people. At the same time, we have to recognize that we live in a grossly unjust world.
I understand how some adoptive parents can feel offended when a personal act, motivated out of love and a healthy desire to parent a child, is criticized as contributing to an exploitive industry. The fact is that the market-driven madness we call globalization has distorted virtually everything, even, or especially, international adoptions. So, just as we need to be aware of the source of the clothes we buy, we have a responsibility to be aware of the conditions and relationships in the orphanages and adoption agencies where our children come from. I hate to say it, but prospective adoptive families are consumers and they need to act as responsible ones.
After children are adopted, the issue becomes even more personal. They still have roots in countries the global economy has devastated. And the adoptive parents now have some of their own roots there. The issue becomes how we can nourish those roots in another world and still help children live in this world. This is a purpose of a place like the Resource Center of the Americas and a site like AMERICAS.ORG. By figuring out such complexities, our community can contribute to the larger debate of how to create a multicultural society in a monocorporate economy. To do this, we need to be brutally honest and respectful at the same time. We need to listen and learn from each other.
– Rob Ramer, St. Paul
Forum: Round 2
I CAN UNDERSTAND the anguish of adoptive parents faced with the prospect that a corrupt lawyer or profit-minded adoption agency has taken them for a ride and that their baby may not have been willingly given up by the birthmother. But it’s sad when adoptive families (Forum: Round 1) refuse to acknowledge the level of corruption in Guatemala’s adoption process. Instead of lobbying or pressuring for an adoption law in Guatemala (there is none at present), they scream at the messengers of the bad news, claiming the United Nations and Casa Alianza are against adoptions.
Three years ago, Casa Alianza and the Guatemalan attorney general’s office investigated complaints from the Canadian Consul in Guatemala about babies who had been given away by women who were not their biological parents, as DNA testing had proven. The six-month probe led to criminal charges against 18 lawyers and others. As happens in Guatemala, impunity reigns, and the cases have never been fully investigated.
Then the United Nations sent its special rapporteur on the sale of children to Guatemala last year. The conclusion was the same: There is trafficking of babies in Guatemala. UNICEF has stated the same. Other nations are cracking down either through obligatory DNA testing (Britain, United States, Ireland) or outright bans (Iceland) on adoptions from Guatemala. The Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec bar adoption of babies through private channels in Guatemala.
No one wants to deny a child a right to a family. Adoptions should be about finding the right family for a child, not about looking for the best child for a family (“We want a little girl, less than four months old, good health, no diseases, not too dark, not cross-eyed, etc.”) It has been proven that many biological mothers give their children into adoption because they cannot afford to keep them. Compared to the biological mother, the adoptive couples are rich. It boils down to money, not love. If adoptive parents truly wanted to help with what’s best for the child, they would provide economic support to the biological mother so that she could afford to keep the child she loves.
Last year was a bumper year for Guatemalan adoptions. More lawyers are driving nice cars and more poor people are giving away their babies as the only means to provide them something better than squalor. We are not helping with education to reduce the growth of the population. We are not helping decrease the abject poverty. We are using our mighty dollar to take children away from their mothers, who love them, in order to fill our own emotional needs.
We need to work for an adoption law in Guatemala that regulates legal, transparent adoptions and creates mechanisms that stop “private” adoptions, which account for 98 percent of adoptions from Guatemala and a similar percentage of corruption, while we maintain an agile mechanism so that babies do not pass away their formative years in orphanages. Other countries have shown how to do this. But if we are interested in only “easy” babies that we can order like a pizza over the Internet—yes, Guatemalan lawyers even deliver to some countries—then we should continue just the way we are going now.
– Bruce Harris
San José, Costa Rica
The author is executive director of Latin American programs of Casa Alianza.