A gift from Guatemala

Date: 2007-01-22

Gazette, The (Colorado Springs, CO)

Adoptive parents focus on a top foreign source

Author: BILL RADFORD THE GAZETTE

Denise DeLeo wept when she saw the baby who was to become her daughter.

And she can't recall the moment without tearing up again.

The Manitou Springs woman adopted her daughter, Melina, from Guatemala. Melina was about 8 months old when DeLeo brought her home in August 2005. Now she's a cute-as-a-button 2-year-old, her raven hair in pigtails and her dark eyes smiling.

Americans are increasingly turning to Guatemala in search of children to fill their hearts and homes. While the number of foreign adoptions by Americans dropped last year — the first significant decline since 1992 — the number of kids adopted from Guatemala increased. Americans adopted 4,135 children from there in 2006, making Guatemala the No. 2 source for foreign adoptions. China was No. 1.

The future of Guatemala adoptions, however, is in doubt. The United States is expected this year to ratify the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which governs adoptions between ratifying countries. More than 70 countries have joined.

Guatemala acceded to the Hague Convention in 2003 but doesn't meet standards spelled out in the accord. Without changes to its procedures, adoptions from Guatemala will be banned once the U.S. ratifies the agreement.

"It's really up in the air," says Charlotte Allen, executive director of Adopt a Miracle, a Colorado-based, nonprofit adoption agency. "Guatemala has said they want to be part of the Hague Convention, but they haven't done what it takes to meet the requirements."

Several factors make Guatemala popular for foreign adoptions. A key one for Americans is proximity.

"I like the fact that Guatemala is nearby, relatively, so when Melina's older and wants to visit, we can do that with ease," DeLeo says.

Guatemala also has a system that commonly places infants awaiting adoption in foster care rather than orphanages.

"The children are in private foster families where they're getting a lot of attention, and for the most part it is excellent foster care," says Hannah Wallace, founder and director of Adoptions International, a Philadelphia-based adoption agency used by DeLeo. "Pediatricians here consider the kids from Guatemala to be the healthiest and most on target developmentally of all the countries."

Another plus for DeLeo is that Guatemala is open to adoptions from single parents. Many countries aren't.

DeLeo, 47, is divorced. "After my divorce," she says, "I decided if I didn't remarry in several years, I would adopt." She looked into domestic adoption, as well, before deciding to go the international route.

Adopting a child from Guatemala costs about $30,000 and typically takes about nine months to a year. "My friends will say, 'well, you didn't have labor pains,' but I had paper pains," DeLeo says of the mounds of paperwork she had to complete.

DeLeo took 2 1/2 months off from her job as a financial adviser after bringing Melina home and now works a threeday week.

"I think spending a lot of quality time has been good," she says. "We've been having a ball."

DeLeo is starting a group for area parents who have adopted kids from Guatemala — a way for the parents and children to share experiences and explore Guatemalan culture.

Mel Johnson is helping spearhead the effort. She and her husband, Brett, adopted their daughter, Clara, 2, from Guatemala, and they're working to adopt a boy from there.

The process isn't easy, Johnson says. With Clara, "we ran into snag after snag." They thought they would get her in March 2005, but she wasn't in their arms until November of that year.

"There were hard times, but she made it all worth it," Johnson says.

Even if the U.S. were to ratify the Hague Convention tomorrow, the Johnsons' pending adoption wouldn't be affected. U.S. law allows for a transition period, and orphan petitions — which are required to bring a foreign-born child to the U.S. for adoption — won't be subject to the new regulations if submitted before the accord takes effect. But what happens down the road is unclear.

Compliance with the Hague Convention will require changes to Guatemala's notarial system, in which private attorneys control most aspects of the adoption process. "The birth mothers typically relinquish the child without counseling and without the benefit of any public entity ensuring that the relinquishment is truly voluntary," Catherine Barry, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services, told a congressional panel in November.

Wallace, of Adoptions International, is optimistic. "I really believe that Guatemala is going to have some legislative changes and that the intent of the Guatemalan Congress is to develop Hague-compliant legislation."

Linda Donovan, international adoption program director for Adoption Alliance Inc., a Colorado-based nonprofit agency, says adoptions from Guatemala have often been tinged with uncertainty. Rumors circulated last fall that adoptions would be ended immediately under a decree by Guatemala's president.

"There have been a lot of years where we thought, 'Oh, you know, it's just not going to be possible to complete adoptions in this country,'" Donovan says. "But they've always managed to work things out."

Johnson, who hopes to claim her new son, Cadence, in the next few months, says all countries involved need to look at the bigger picture. While some change may be needed, she says, there already are safeguards in place in Guatemala, such as DNA testing to prove the connection between baby and birth mother.

It's not an issue of babytrafficking but of providing new lives for children born to impoverished moms, Johnson says.

It's also in Guatemala's selfinterest to institute change, she says, since Americans visiting the country to adopt provide a significant economic benefit to the country.

"I don't see how they could close it down totally."

CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0272 or bill.radford@gazette.com

DETAILS

Denise DeLeo and Mel Johnson are starting a group for individuals and couples who have adopted children from Guatemala. A meeting is set for 2 p.m. Feb. 4 at DeLeo's home. For details, call 685-1372 or 930-3908.

For country-by-country information on adoptions and details on the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, go to www.travel.state.gov/family.

Caption:
Denise DeLeo adopted Melina, who recently turned 2, from Guatemala in 2005. Adoptions from Guatemala increased in '06.
PHOTOS BY CAROL LAWRENCE, THE GAZETTE - Denise DeLeo said that although she didn't go through labor pains to adopt her daughter, Melina, 2, she had "paper pains" from the vast amount of paperwork required in the adoption process. Melina was adopted from Guatemala, the No. 2 source for foreign adoptions (after China).

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