They flocked to the dozens of privately run children’s homes or to lawyers’ offices to adopt Guatemalan babies. They paid upward of $30,000, fueling an industry worth more than $100 million annually by conservative estimates. They stayed in towering city hotels that dedicated entire floors to adoptive parents and they rented rooms stocked with diapers and baby creams.
At the height of the trade, 4,728 children — or one in every 100 live Guatemalan births — were bound for a foreign country and a new family. Guatemala was the world’s largest per capita source of adoptions and second in total numbers only to China, a vastly more populated country.
It all came to a screeching halt in the final days of 2007 when the government took control of the system from the lawyers and adoption agencies that had run it. They imposed a two-year moratorium on international adoptions and promised to investigate the allegedly widespread baby thefts and coercion of birth mothers.
Two years later, the country is set to re-open the doors to international adoptions, but government officials vow it will look nothing like it used to. Instead of nearly 5,000 children a year being sent to foreign couples, some 150 will be available. They won’t be the healthy infants of years past. They will be older children or those with disabilities. And it won’t cost $30,000 or anything near it. Although they’ve not officially decided, officials say the process could be free.
Once the shame of the adoption trade, Guatemala is now being lauded as a potential model for other Latin American countries. But prospective parents aren't always happy that their options for adoption have diminished. There are 900 families, many from the U.S., who were promised children under Guatemala's old system and have spent two years in limbo waiting to see if the adoptions will ever be cleared.
“We were a baby factory,” said Marilys Barrientos de Estrada, a director of the governmental agency created to oversee the process. “That’s how the international community saw us and that’s what we were. For a price, you could get a very, very young baby, younger than almost anywhere else in the world, and take that baby home in a few months, more quickly than most places.”
Human rights groups decried the Guatemalan process as one of the world’s worst examples of the adoption business gone haywire. A few birth mothers had reported their children stolen or being tricked into signing away their babies. In July, 2008, Ana Escobar, a resident of a poor Guatemala City neighborhood, was reunited with her daughter a year after she reported the baby stolen. DNA testing proved the child, Esther, was living with a family in the U.S. After years of ugly rumor, it was the first proven case and officials hailed it as justification for their reforms.
Now those same international observers who’d criticized the former system are throwing their support behind the country.
“What Guatemala has done has been a huge success,” said Justo Solorzano, a child protection with UNICEF in Guatemala. “It broke the cycle of corruption. It stopped the violation of human rights.”
UNICEF had urged the government to pass its new law and to bring its standards in line with those set forth under the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions, which declares countries should first try to place children in country, ideally with family members, before seeking a foreign adoption.
So far, that’s exactly what’s happening in Guatemala. Key to the new system’s success has been the willingness of Guatemalan families to adopt children that would have formerly been made available to foreign families.
More than 500 families have signed up to adopt a child. Only 400 or so children have been deemed "adoptable" by judges, meaning demand outpaces supply. The government recently launched a publicity campaign aimed at attracting more Guatemalan families to the process. The campaign, centered on the Mendoza family, which last year adopted an abandoned girl, Carmen, is expected to attract as many as 2,000 families a year.
“People said Guatemalans don’t want to adopt, and they certainly don’t want to adopt other Guatemalans. This breaks that myth,” Solorzano said. “Guatemalans did want to adopt. They just couldn’t compete financially with Americans.”
Yet, as the country sets to make its children again available to foreign families, it faces criticism by adoptive parents, directors of children’s homes and international observers who say that in seeking reforms the country threw the baby out with the bathwater.
“I was appalled by the moratorium put in place under pressure from UNICEF and the U.S. and I’m appalled by the new law,” said Elizabeth Bartholet, faculty director at Harvard Law’s Child Advocacy Program and an advocate for international adoptions. “These were 5,000 children that were being released and given an opportunity. Now we go to a few hundred? I wonder what UNICEF is thinking it’s doing.”
Most agree that foreign adoption provides enormous opportunities to children of impoverished countries, such as Guatemala, which has one of the world’s worst rates of chronic malnutrition for children under 5. But many believe those children should be kept in their countries and in their cultures.
The changes in Guatemala underscore a worldwide drop in international adoptions. After a steady increase since the end of World War II, foreign adoptions to the United States peaked in 2004 at 22,884 children. In fiscal year 2009, U.S. parents, according to State Department statistics, adopted 12,753 children — a drop of 45 percent from 2004 levels and the fewest since 1996.
“UNICEF’s anti-international adoption position has intensified with the rise in international adoptions in recent years. They have focused on countries with the most adoptions, suggesting that numbers signals that there is something wrong,” Bartholet said.
In Guatemala, directors of children’s homes say the changes have put more pressure on their services. They’ve been converted from homes for children awaiting adoption to institutions where children are growing up. But paying for that care has come entirely at the expense of the homes, which formerly used adoption fees to keep their operations running.
“It costs $40,000 monthly to run this place and the fees from adoptions were covering the costs of the staff, food for the children, specialists, and nearly everything else,” said Nancy Bailey, owner of Semillas de Amor, a home that has placed 500 adoptions over the years, mostly to U.S. parents at a cost of about $18,000 each. “Now we’re relying on donations. We don’t have any money left.”
Among the 35 children at Semillas de Amor, roughly half are awaiting their adoptions to U.S. families to be finalized. Those children were some of the 3,033 adoptions left dangling when the new law took hold. Although authorities ruled those cases could proceed under the rules of the old system, 900 families are still waiting for children.
One of the children still in limbo is Olga Pana Sagui. She was removed from Semillas de Amor after a 2008 raid on the home, one of several raids the government carried out while the new law was being implemented. Despite claims of wrongdoing, little evidence was found that the homes were involved in child trafficking.
In fact, Carmen, the poster child for the current domestic adoption campaign, sparked the Semillas de Amor raid after she was reportedly being held without the consent of her birth mother. The mother, who lives on the streets and purportedly suffers from a mental illness, was aware that Carmen was living at Semillas de Amor, Bailey said, but was not mentally competent to sign an authorization form.
The government said it had to delay the cases because there were irregularities that required investigation and that the investigations will conclude next year. Yet, hundreds of children, such as Olga, were left waiting while authorities investigated their cases.
Olga’s mother, an indigenous Mayan who lives in an eastern Guatemalan village, has testified 16 times in favor of the adoption, but authorities are trying to place the child with relatives.
Meanwhile, Olga, 2, has spent more than half her short life in a Catholic orphanage housed in a crumbling building in downtown Guatemala City. And a family in California waits.
“It’s not a pleasant situation. She doesn’t know who we are anymore. The last time we went to meet her, she just cried,” said Bridget Harrington, a restaurant owner who adopted her son, Mark, 4, through Semillas de Amor. “My son is always asking me ‘When is Vivian coming home?’ He has totally bonded to her. We all have. But it’s all been torn apart for no reason.”