Guatemala: a baby factory no longer?

Will Guatemala's new adoption rule stop exploitation or result in more orphans?
By Ezra Fieser — Special to GlobalPost
December 23, 2009 / GlobalPost.com
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — When the adoption business was booming here, American couples came by the thousands.

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.”

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Foreign v. Domestic

“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.”

It fascinates me how someone like Elizabeth Bartholet keeps pushing the foreign adoption agenda, especially when one reads the following:

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.”

Far too many countries sell children to foreigners, (at a much higher price per head), making international child trade far more attractive than the domestic adoption-option.  But these are issues international adoption advocates don't want to address.

Meanwhile, it's good to see smaller countries are beginning to see how domestic adoption benefits a child, even if Harvard educated adoption advocates in USA do not agree.  [See:  Netherlands limits adoptions of US children ] 

Last resort

Apart from the histrionics of Elizabeth Bartholet, who is more and more becoming the crazy lady of the over the top pro-adoption fringe, one specific remark stood out for me:

“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.”

This points out a problem that has been observed in many sending countries. Inter-country adoption, when being the epi-center of child welfare measures, makes it impossible to implement other forms of child placement in sending countries. More than fifty years after Holt started its programs in South Korea, the country, despite its current affluence, still barely has a domestic adoption system.

It is is not without reason the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), speaks of inter-country adoption as a last resort. The implementation handbook of the UNCRC, says the following about inter-country adoption as a last resort:

Intercountry adoption only “if the child cannot be placed in a foster or an adoptive family or cannot in any suitable manner be cared for in the child’s country of origin”

In other words, intercountry adoption is clearly viewed as a solution of last resort. This was spelt out to Mexico by the Committee:

“intercountry adoption should be considered in the light of article 21, namely as a measure of last resort” (Mexico IRCO, Add.13, para. 18).

States are thus under an obligation to take active measures to ensure that all possible efforts have been made to provide suitable care for the child in his or her country of origin. This “last resort” provision is consonant with article 20(3) requiring due regard to be paid to “the desirability of continuity in a child’s upbringing and to the child’s ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background”; with article 7, upholding the child’s rights to know and be cared for by parents, and with article 8, the child’s right to preserve identity. It is confirmed in the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in respect of Intercountry Adoption, which establishes the “subsidiarity principle” that an intercountry adoption should only take place “after possibilities for placement of the child within the State of origin have been given due consideration”.

Unlike Ms. Bartholet's conspiratorial mindset reflects, the United Nations is not a group of rabid anti-adoption lunatics, trying to ruin the lives of poor orphans in Third World countries, but a slow working body working on behalf of all people this planet inhabits, not just affluent Americans that desire to receive other people's children.

Unlike the United States, countries like Guatemala have to abide by the UNCRC. The ratification of the treaty means Guatemala, like all other countries in the world except the US and Somalia (which has stated it will ratify the UNCRC in the near future), have agreed on the principle that inter-country adoption is a last resort.

Maintaining extreme levels of inter-country adoption, such as seen in the past in Romania and Guatemala, and which now can be observered in Ethiopia, not only means these countries do not live up to the principles they signed up for, it also creates an atmosphere where inter-country adoption becomes the default option, because it outcompetes all other child welfare measures.

"In other words,

"In other words, intercountry adoption is clearly viewed as a solution of last resort. This was spelt out to Mexico by the Committee:"

And that is exactly my problem with this. Longterm institutionalization should be the last resort. The wording is such where institutionalization for "indetermined" period domestically could be percieved as preferable to ICA. THAT is a crime. Preserving identity and culture in an institution is complete garbage. THAT is prejudice and racism ironically from the very camps who soapbox against it. I cannot believe ivory towers can sleep at night about the interests of children and protecting childrens rights who would actually argue for institutionalization over family because of language or what GD cartoon character a child identifies with. It is beyond amazing to me.

protect children from predation

I'm very glad the UNCRC states that inter-country adoption is considered a solution of last resort.

There are good reasons to do so. If institutionalization were defined as a solution of last resort as you seem to prefer, the system can be rigged so that inter-country adoption effectively becomes the preferred solution under any circumstances. This is exactly what Families for Orphans Act does. This proposed law, under consideration of Congress at the moment, redefines institutionalization to include long term foster care (See: S.1458 Sec. 3. Art. 5.H) or informal family care (S.1458. Sec. 3. Art. 5.I).

The system of inter-country adoption, due to the unpreventable influence of money, is effectively a predatory industry with undue political influence in receiving countries. Children need first and foremost protection from this industry that, though pretending to work in the best interest of children, in effect works in its own best interest and that of its customers (prospective adopters in receiving countries).

Based upon research in the most horrible of institutional settings, a gladly recited piece of selective science, those that promote the predatory interests of the adoption service providers, have created a most Dickensian image of children languishing in large and cold institutions. The language used to describe institutions mimicks that in which the phenomenon of 143 million orphans is being described.

Just like the 143 million orphans are not all in need of immediate rescue, neither do all children living in institutional settings.

The real crime is that many infants, the most in demand prey of the inter-country adoption system, are being put in institutional care for the purpose of adoption abroad. If there is one group for whom institutionalization is most detrimental, it is infants. And yet, the inter-country adoption system, that so clearly claims to be for de-institutionalizations, fuels the influx of infants into institutional settings. Only when placed in a baby-home for a long enough time, can infants in sending countries be called abandoned and therefore become adoptable. If inter-country adoption is stopped or brought back to low levels, these baby-homes disappear. What remains are institutional settings for older children, a group for whom such solution is often the only reasonable alternative.

domestic adoptions

Ms. Bartholet's positions (or lack thereof) on international adoption have been nothing short of astonishing for many years. Her evidently complete lack of interest in curbing human rights abuses mainly directed at women and children is nothing short of shocking, esp for an attorney and academic at one of the world's leading institutions of higher learning. Finally, that she is not troubled by the profiteering and obvious corruption in adoption is utterly mystifying.

Guatemala has apparently learned the lesson Romania so courageously embraced. That is, that their own citizens will embrace children of all ages, races and special needs esp when financial barriers are removed. In our work in Romania we saw the numbers of domestic adoptions skyrocket when Romanians were "allowed" to adopt. So an interesting study would be to see how domestic adoptions in sending countries have risen as intercountry adoptions have fallen. More importantly, it would be extremely important to examine how US foreign aid programs and philanthropy can encourage such practices.

Jeff Katz's recent important work looking at interstate adoptions involving children in foster care underscore our own hypocrisy about cross jurisdictional adoptions. Only a handful of foster children in the US have been adopted across state lines, shocking esp in light of the Adoption and Safe Families Act's mandate to allow interstate adoption. We should be far more concerned about the bureaucracy hold American children hostage before we run around the world telling foreign governments what to do.

Accurate Info.

"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."

Actually, this is not accurate. Ana's daughter Esther Sulamita never left Guatemala and was found prior to leaving the country--- and prior to the adoption being finalized. However, as horrifying as it is to imagine, Esther was granted immigration pre-approval by the US Embassy based on a fraudulent DNA test, and was probably a few weeks from being immigrated where she likely would never return to Ana. It is important to note this because I believe the sole reason Ana is reunited with Esther is she was found prior to leaving Guatemala, unlike the daughters of Olga Lopez, Raquel Par, and Lloyda Rodriguez, whose daughters are living in the US --- as US citizens.

All I want to know is when is the Movie going to be released?

With all the twists and turns we have now found out about Guatemala adoptions: the Military selling kids, adoption agencies opening, then closing solely for making a quick buck off of Guatemala adoptions, the lawsuits, the corrupt executive directors (one that comes to mind is the ex-exotic dancer / director of Waiting Angels), etc., etc., .................

When is someone going to write a script for the movie of the week on this?
Think of a title here:
For the Love of Guatemala
Guatemala adoption story

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