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Guatemalan Children In Limbo of Orphanages

Parents Push U.S. Officials to Help

By N.C. Aizenman/Washington Post

Thursday, June 18, 2009

More than a year and a half after Paul Kvinta and his wife began what they expected would be a seven-month process to adopt a newborn girl from Guatemala, little Marcela and an estimated 700 other children are languishing in orphanages there as their cases wend through a maze of legal hurdles and bureaucratic snags.

"It's Kafka-esque," said Kvinta, an Atlanta magazine writer who was among several dozen people who demonstrated in front of the Capitol yesterday and urged U.S. officials to advocate more aggressively on their behalf. "And the real killer is that we don't have a clue how much longer it will go on."

Marcela and the other children are holdovers from a decade in which Guatemala sent more than 4,000 children a year for adoption to the United States, more than any country except China. At the start of last year, after months of hotly debated allegations that adoption brokers were paying women to give up their children or even stealing them, Guatemala's congress enacted tough regulations that effectively ended international adoptions.

The roughly 3,000 cases in progress were supposed to be exempt from the new rules. But Guatemalan officials interpreted the law as a mandate to subject the pending cases to new levels of scrutiny.

Kvinta and others said they do not fault the Guatemalan government for its caution. Under the old system, no government agency was charged with matching mothers who sought to give up their children with adoptive parents. A network of private notaries and attorneys sprang up to fill the void, charging adoptive parents $20,000 to $30,000.

Critics said this was a huge markup, that, combined with Guatemala's severe poverty and history of corruption, created opportunities for abuse. Stories circulated of lawyers paying jaladores, or touts, to roam the countryside in search of women to pressure, pay or trick into giving up their children. Although the Guatemalan solicitor general's office had to sign off on all international adoptions, critics said that it did a poor job of catching such cases.


Now, however, adopting parents say that Guatemalan officials have become so guarded that they nitpick, victimizing the children they are supposed to protect.

"Eighteen months is more than enough time to determine whether these cases had any type of corruption associated with them," said Tom DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, a child welfare organization that is advocating on behalf of many parents. "Meanwhile, you have these children sitting there suffering the debilitating effects of institutionalization."

At least six months of the delay was because of a decision by the new government agency tasked with overseeing adoptions, known by its Spanish initials CNA, to reinterview all biological mothers in pending cases.

Elizabeth Hernandez de Larios, president of the CNA, said she regrets the delay. But she said the interviewers identified 37 cases of baby buying or stealing. She said she suspects that many of what she said are 1,032 cases in which neither the mother nor the child came forward also might have involved fraud.

"Children were being ordered up like in a factory," she said. "It was an industry."

In the meantime, hundreds of cases were approved by the CNA, only to hit roadblocks within the solicitor general's office, which must sign off on them. Marcela's adoption was delayed one month when officials found a typographical error on her birth certificate, then another month when the same officials rejected the amended birth certificate, demanding that Kvinta get an entirely new one.

Franklin Azurdia, an official with the solicitor general's office who works with adoption cases, said that if his agency seems cautious, it is because investigators have come across 15 cases in which children adopted and taken to the United States turned out to have been stolen or bought. Some cases involved the collusion of officials within his agency, he said.

"We want to finish this process up as soon as we can, too," Azurdia said. "But we're checking and re-checking every detail because we don't want to approve any new cases in which there's the most minimal suspicion that it's not legitimate."

Once Marcela's birth certificate was resubmitted to the solicitor general's office, her case was delayed yet again when a birth records official was charged with corruption. Although Marcela's birth mother reaffirmed her desire to give up the girl, government officials put a hold on all adoption cases that the accused official had handled. The hold was lifted last month, but by then Marcela's case had run into a new barrier: The Guatemalan government is standardizing all birth certificates, so Marcela must get another certificate under the new system, a process that could take as long as a year.

Kvinta, who said he worries that Marcela will have a hard time bonding with him and his wife after so much time in the orphanage, has decided to move to Guatemala so he can visit the girl every day. His wife, whose job is less flexible, will remain in Atlanta. "It will be hard on our marriage, but we don't know what else to do," he said.

Rhonda Felgenhauer, a customer service representative from Bolivar, Ohio, said she wishes she could do the same. After almost two years of delays, she and her husband were granted full custody of their 5-year-old daughter, Julia, in the fall, only to learn that they cannot bring her from the orphanage because it is under investigation. The holdup is all the more perplexing because the couple adopted Julia's 8-year-old sister from that orphanage in months with no complications.

Unable to visit the child more than a few days at a time, Felgenhauer said she relies on news from other parents with children in the orphanage, and it is not promising.

"Everyone tells me that whenever someone walks in, Julie is the first child to run up and take their hand," Felgenhauer said. "She so badly needs affection, to have a family. I worry that she is going to have attachment problems if this goes on much longer."

2009 Jun 18