RED TAPE BARS PARENTS FROM GUATEMALAN CHILD
Morning Call, The (Allentown, PA)
Author: MARGIE PETERSON, The Morning Call
New mothers often say the pain of labor is erased by the first sight of their baby.
Scott and Lori Mulvihill believe their three-year struggle to adopt a child will be swept away the day their 18-month-old adopted daughter, Mariela, arrives from Guatemala.
But the Mulvihills might never see the little brown-eyed girl, because the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala has withheld a visa for Mariela to enter the United States. She waits in foster care paid for by the Mulvihills, who live a few thousand miles away in Allentown.
In the past three years, Lori Mulvihill, 34, and her husband, 30, have spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to adopt a foreign-born child.
They are on a first-name basis with immigration officials. They have a vacant room in their West End home decorated with pink bows and stuffed animals.
They thought they did everything right. But the U.S. State Department has denied the visa, claiming the Mulvihills might be victims of a baby-trafficking scheme.
The Mulvihills have tried since June to bring Mariela to the United States. Before that, they spent two years trying to adopt babies from Thailand and the Philippines.
They stopped dealing with the adoption agency that found homes for Filipino children because they believed it used questionable practices. The adoption agent who worked in Thailand went bankrupt without finding them a child and sent the Mulvihills a letter saying he spent their $3,500.
"You learn to expect a lot of disappointments," Lori Mulvihill said. "For a day, you think, `I cannot go on, I cannot do this again.' Then two days later, you pick up again."
After two bad experiences, the Mulvihills hired attorney Jim Shrybman of Silver Spring, Md., who specializes in adoptions. He recommended Adoptions International, which has offices in Florida and New Jersey, and the Mulvihills checked the agency's license and references.
Unlike many couples, who only want newborn babies, the Mulvihills were willing to take a toddler. Shrybman told them about Mariela, who then was about a year old, and they started trying to adopt her.
The Mulvihills and Shrybman gave this account of their experience:
Last July, Mariela's birth mother gave up her parental rights. The Mulvihills' adoption of the baby was investigated and approved by a Guatemalan court-appointed social worker and the Guatemala Ministry of Justice.
On Aug. 24, the birth mother was interviewed at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City. On Oct. 4, the adoption was decreed and a new birth certificate identified the Mulvihills as Mariela's parents.
The Mulvihills were told by Adoptions International that they probably would have their baby by Thanksgiving.
They hurried to decorate Mariela's room. Lori Mulvihill's co-workers at Sammons Communications held two baby showers for them.
But Thanksgiving came and went and the Mulvihills waited. Adoptions International told them the baby's passport was delayed.
As Christmas neared, the Mulvihills called the U.S. Embassy and talked with the State Department's Donald Stader, brother of Barbara Stader, director of the Allentown Health Bureau.
After a flurry of phone calls, the Mulvihills learned the U.S. Embassy was denying their daughter a visa because of suspicions the woman who gave her up was not the birth mother.
It was just before Christmas, and Lori Mulvihill realized Mariela would not be with them for the holidays and might have no presents to open.
"She's sitting somewhere, I don't know where she is, she's not going to have a Christmas," Lori Mulvihill recalled thinking. "I made myself nuts with this."
The only way she could calm herself was to say "She's coming home soon. No matter when she comes home, that will be Christmas."
Embassy officials told the Mulvihills that a DNA test was needed to prove the woman who gave up Mariela is the birth mother. The problem is that no one can find the woman. After being interviewed at the embassy in August, she left Guatemala City.
The Mulvihills' Guatemalan attorney has taken out newspaper ads and radio spots and put up billboards trying to find the mother and even journeyed to the remote village from which she came. The lawyer heard there that she may have gone to Honduras.
The birth mother, who is illiterate and travels around for work, was available from June till the end of August and did everything that was asked of her for the adoption, Lori Mulvihill said.
If embassy officials had doubts about the identity of the birth mother, they should have asked for a DNA test Aug. 24 when she was available and their Guatemalan attorney offered it, said Mary Ann Cacacie, who with her husband runs Adoptions International.
The embassy did not request a DNA test at the August interview because such expensive tests -- they cost $700-$850 and are paid for by the adoptive parents -- are a last resort, said Gary Sheaffer, spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Sheaffer said the embassy had hoped that other evidence would be enough.
Embassy officials hate to play the heavies in adoptions but must make sure the United States is not an unwitting participant in baby trafficking, Sheaffer said.
A letter from Donald Stader to the Mulvihills says suspicions that Mariela did not belong to the woman who gave her up were partly based on the fact the woman didn't register the little girl's birth until she was about 11 months old.
The letter also said the midwife who claimed to have attended the birth was not a registered midwife in the district where the baby was born. And the woman claiming to be the birth mother had four identity cards.
"We must take care in investigating alleged birth mothers because the appearance of a false birth mother to release `her child' is the usual method chosen by unscrupulous operators to create a paper trail for an illegally obtained child," the letter said.
"Establishing reality in these problematic cases is further complicated by the high incidence of corruption and civil document fraud in Guatemala."
But there are explanations for the inconsistencies, said the Mulvihills, lawyer Shrybman and Cacacie. Because registering an infant born at home means paying a fee and filling out paperwork, many poor Guatemalan women don't act within 30 days after birth as required by law, Cacacie said.
"Most birth mothers can't read and write," Cacacie said. "Most of them make about $25 a month, and that's about what it costs to register the baby."
Mariela's mother registered her because the agency's Guatemalan attorney told her it was required for the adoption, Shrybman said.
That attorney also provided the embassy a letter from a doctor who directs the local health center, saying the midwife notified him of the birth of Mariela, Shrybman said. While the birth mother had four identity cards, all were under the same name, reflecting her transience but not fraud, Shrybman said.
"What they want us to do is prove a negative, that is, that the baby was not stolen," Shrybman said. "I don't know how to prove that negative, other than now trying to go through all of Guatemala and find this woman and get her blood."
The Mulvihills said that, if they had reason to believe their daughter was stolen from her birth parents, they would do whatever they could to have the baby restored to them.
"The last thing we wanted was to take a child that was stolen," Scott Mulvihill said.
But the embassy has provided no missing persons reports fitting Mariela's description or any other evidence that anyone is looking for her.
"There is no record anywhere of any missing child that fits that baby's description," Adoptions International's Cacacie said. The Guatemala Ministry of Justice has checked to make sure the baby is not reported missing, Cacacie said.
In the past six months, the Mulvihills' Guatemalan attorney has had DNA tests performed in eight or nine cases to satisfy the embassy, and all matched, Cacacie said.
Adoptions International also has a perfect record for matching DNA tests, she said.
Cacacie said she fears speaking out about the case because she doesn't want to jeopardize other cases her agency has pending.
There is no motive for fraud in this case because the adoption agency and its attorneys do not pay the mother for the child, Cacacie said. They pay only medical expenses from the pregnancy and for the child or expenses incurred by the adoption, such as cab fare to the embassy, she said.
"There's no financial gain for the birth mothers," Cacacie said.
Sheaffer said the embassy does not need to prove the baby is stolen or that someone is looking for the child.
"People don't have to be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be ineligible for a visa," Sheaffer said. "It's not the same standard as criminal law."
The embassy has seen other cases where American couples adopted babies, then found out the woman who gave up the baby was not the birth mother.
"This one has a lot of the same indicators as those," Sheaffer said. "That's why the embassy has taken the investigative route." The baby's delayed registration and the mother's recent disappearance are red flags, he said.
Most cases are not nearly so problematic, Sheaffer said. Last year, American parents adopted 512 Guatemalan children.
If the Mulvihills cannot get a visa for the baby, the baby would become the ward of the government, he said.
That means growing up in an orphanage, the Mulvihills said.
The embassy urges Americans interested in adopting babies from abroad to work with the embassy in that country before the adoption so such problems can be avoided, Sheaffer said.
"This is really an awful case," Sheaffer said. Embassy officials are not "out there to try to burn people. It's very possible that (the Mulvihills) were defrauded, that they're the victims here."
But the Mulvihills believe the only people victimizing them are the embassy officials.
In late January, the couple sought help from Jim Wiltraut, director of constituent services for U.S. Rep. Paul McHale, D-15th District, in Washington, D.C. Wiltraut sent a letter to the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, Marilyn McAffe, pleading their case.
He also helped the Mulvihills apply for "humanitarian parole" for Mariela from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. If approved, it would allow Mariela to stay with the Mulvihills in the United States while the complications are being resolved.
"If we had any feeling at all that this was an illegal adoption, we would not make any attempt at all to bring this baby to the country," Wiltraut said.
The longer it takes to bring Mariela to the United States, the harder it will be for the baby to leave her foster family, the Mulvihills said.
They said they have blocked out thinking about all the places they want to take her and things they want to do with her because they are afraid to set themselves up for more pain.
"With this baby, I don't see how we can give up on her, knowing what her future is if we do," Lori Mulvihill said.
"If we don't fight for her and bring her home, she will have no future," her husband said.
PHOTO by CLARENCE ELIE-RIVERA, The Morning Call
CAPTION: Scott and Lori Mulvihill have set up a baby's room in anticipation of bringing their daughter to Allentown.
PHOTO by UNKNOWN.
CAPTION: Mariela Mulvihill opens a gift sent to her in Guatemala by her adoptive parents.
See also "Adoption changes pending" by LAURAN NEERGAARD, AP which appears on the same page and "Couple warns others to avoid adoption pitfalls" by MARGIE PETERSON, The Morning Call which appears on page A04, FIFTH EDITION