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Guatemala's crackdown on adoptions leaves Michigan families with broken hearts


Guatemala's crackdown on adoptions leaves Michigan families with broken hearts

Marney Rich Keenan / The Detroit News

May 11, 2007, was one of the happiest days of Tom and Kristin Civitanova's lives. That was the day the phone call came telling them a baby girl born in Guatemala two days before was available for adoption.

"We accepted right then and there," Kristin Civitanova says. "At that moment, this little girl was already our daughter in our hearts."

Six weeks later, the couple broke ground on renovations to their house in Plymouth to make room for their expanding family. Their biological son, Nick, 8, and Brando, 3, (adopted from Guatemala in 2004) took pictures to school to show off their baby sister.


But on Aug. 11, all those happy plans came crashing down. At night, Guatemalan military police carrying assault rifles raided Casa Quivira, a licensed private foster care home in the town of Antigua. Accused of having "stolen babies," authorities over the next few days confiscated all of the children's adoption and medical records and arrested staff lawyers and nannies. Maria was one of the 46 babies removed from their cribs by the authorities.

The raid on Casa Quivira tore at the hearts of dozens of Metro Detroit parents. Casa Quivira is the Guatemalan adoption facilitator of choice in this state. Since its inception 17 years ago, more than half of the 800-plus babies adopted from Casa Quivira to the United States are now home in Michigan.

Guillermo Castillo, Guatemalan ambassador to the United States, defended the raid. "There were allegations presented by parents that stolen children were in that place," Castillo told The Detroit News recently. "While most of the adopted children come to this country to loving, caring families, I have also witnessed women becoming wombs for rent to produce babies for adoption, stolen babies, false identities and misrepresentation. The children are not merchandise."

Because they were the only foster home raided, Clifford Phillips, who owns Casa Quivira with his Guatemalan wife, Sandra Gonzalez, believes they were targeted as part of a larger government scheme to shut down adoptions in Guatemala altogether. "They were trying to make a point to everyone else working in adoption in Guatemala that if we can shut down the gold standard for adoption, we can surely close down everyone else," Phillips says.

He says the agency does not deal in stolen babies nor are the babies bought or sold. He insists their only goal is to save children from poverty and make American families whole. According to the U.S. Department of State, 80 percent of the Guatemalan population lives in poverty, and two-thirds of that number -- or 7.6 million people -- live in extreme poverty.

Phillips says: "The reason so many parents come to us is because of our high standards for ensuring that every child's adoption is handled in a legal, ethical and transparent process for the birth mother and the adoptive parents. The accusations that we would in any way mistreat or neglect any of these children is terribly painful."

While Guatemalan authorities reported nine of the babies had to be hospitalized after the raid, Phillips says that's because Casa Quivira's pediatrician was denied access when Casa Quivira was shut down. "They would not even allow us to give the babies their prescribed medicines and specialized milk formulas," Phillips says.

As Phillips began to work through the courts to secure release of the babies, prospective parents such as the Civitanovas are tormented. "We have no idea, to this day, where Maria is," Civitanova says. "We hope and pray that she is being fed, held and loved. The fear we are in day in and day out is insane."

Guatemala to halt adoptions

The raid on Casa Quivira is part of a threatened shutdown of all international Guatemalan adoptions. Guatemala has become an increasingly popular adoption source for Americans. Last year, U.S. families adopted 4,135 Guatemalan children, making the Central American nation second only to China as a source of babies for Americans.

Earlier this year, Guatemalan lawmakers vowed to clean up the largely unregulated but lucrative industry. Fees for adopting a Guatemalan child can cost up to $30,000. At Casa Quivira, the fee for adoption is $29,500.

This summer, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger said he would suspend all adoptions by Jan. 1 in order to implement the Hague Treaty, an international standard that requires each country to designate a national authority to oversee international adoptions.

Compliance with the treaty would abolish Guatemala's present use of independent notaries and lawyers facilitating adoptions.

UNICEF has been long pushing for Hague implementation, especially in Guatemala where the global child welfare organization has been a vocal critic of international adoptions. UNICEF's position is that abandoned or orphaned children should remain within their own country. International adoption should be only a last resort.

The prospect of tightened restrictions on adoptions concerns many U.S. child welfare organizations such as the Joint Council on International Children's Services, who fear that as many as 5,000 abandoned children a year will be condemned to a life of poverty.

Some 67 percent of indigenous children in Guatemala suffer from chronic malnutrition. Infant mortality rates have skyrocketed (around 30 per every 1,000 live births) and there is little chance of education for those who survive, according to UNICEF.

The very prominent Catholic and Evangelical churches in Guatemala all but forbid birth control. The average Guatemalan woman has more than six children in her lifetime -- and some more than 10.

Says Casa Quivira's Phillips: "I have personally seen children in the dumps of Guatemala competing with vultures for scraps and food. This reality is that the children come from a culture of death and destitute poverty."

In response to the Guatemalan president's ultimatum, the U.S. Department of State in September issued a notice on its Web site, reading in part: "Warning: The U.S. Department of State urges American citizens not to commence an adoption process at this time."

Parents try to beat deadline

Understandably, as many as 3,000 U.S. parents with adoption applications in process are in a state of panic. They are now rushing to complete their adoptions in order to get their babies home before the end of the year.

As if the deadline wasn't frightening enough, because of the raid on Casa Quivira, almost a dozen in-process Michigan adoptions have been effectively frozen. And, a gag order issued by the presiding Guatemalan judge in the investigation has prevented these parents from knowing where their children are.

These parents say Casa Quivira is above reproach. The home was one of the first to comply with the U.S. embassy's requirement of two DNA tests on babies and birth mothers at the beginning and end of each adoption to verify the child's identity. Casa Quivira birth mothers are given multiple opportunities over several months to change their minds before the adoption is approved. The babies are attended to by well-trained nannies, a 24-hour nurse and daily visits by a doctor, Phillips says, as do parents who have adopted babies from Casa Quivira.

In early October, CNN aired a story on the Guatemalan adoption controversy. Tapes of the raid were followed by a reporter's interview with mothers who claimed they were either forced or manipulated to give up their babies, leaving viewers to connect the dots. The following day CNN's Web site was full of angry comments. One posting was typical: "It is virtually impossible for Casa Quivira to have 'stolen' children. They abide by strong legal protections to ensure us that the children we adopt are not sold, prostituted or victims of trafficking."

'There's been no information'

"I've been to Casa Quivira three times and I've recommended it to many people," says Juli Liebler, a deputy chief of police in East Lansing. When Liebler brought home her son Julian, now 3, from Casa Quivira in 2005, she says, "our pediatrician just couldn't believe how healthy he was."

Now adopting her second son, 8-month-old Alex, Liebler had hoped to bring her new baby home at the end of August. But now there's no telling when the adoption will be finalized. "This has been so stressful I won't believe it's over until (Alex) is actually home."

Nancy Moylan, a court administrator for East Lansing who lives in Okemos, adopted her daughter, Lilly, from Casa Quivira nine years ago. Now she is adopting a second baby, a 6-month-old she named Jack. She was near the end of the adoption approval process at the time of the raid. Jack was supposed to be home by now.

Last month, Moylan and her daughter, Lilly, spent a week in Guatemala getting acquainted with baby Jack under Casa Quivira's supervision.

"They hand you this baby and you fall in love instantly," Moylan says. "The minute you hold him, is the minute you know he's your son and that he was always meant to be your son.

"Then, you have to leave and the only thing that allows you to leave is to know that your child is well taken care of and that the next time you see him, you'll be taking him home."

Sadly, the raid happened only hours after Nancy and Lilly Moylan left for home. "It has been a heartbreaking experience," Moylan says. "We used to get information every month, a picture, his height, his weight, to see how much he'd grown. There's been no information since Aug. 11."

When the Civitanovas found out that baby Maria's complete file was taken during the raid, the two set about the task of rebuilding her dossier all over again. It is an extensive task, considering the amount of required paperwork: power of attorney, updated home study including another home visit, INS fingerprinting, birth and marriage certificates, passports, bank letters, personal reference letters, state police clearance forms, medical reports for both. All of it had to be notarized a second time, authenticated, and finally certified at the Guatemalan consulate in Chicago.

Agency chief meets parents

In mid-October, after seven weeks battling a very slow-moving Guatemalan justice system, a somewhat beleaguered Phillips stood at a podium in a hall in Livonia to update the assembled group of parents on the legal quagmire at Casa Quivira.

Many parents were there to get information on their prospective adoptive children. Past clients also came to offer their support. Among them was Dr. Patricia Moylan, Nancy Moylan's sister and a pediatric neuropsychologist at Children's Hospital of Michigan. Moylan flies to Antigua regularly to assist Phillips with special-needs babies and serves as a consultant to help Casa Quivira parents with any developmental or health issues, all on her own time.

"There is not a person more passionate or more devoted to the children of Guatemala," Moylan said. "Not just children available for adoption, but all children trapped in that horrible poverty."

Soon after the raid, the parents flooded congressional offices in Washington with phone calls, visits and e-mails. Many members of Congress, including Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, issued a letter critical of the Guatemalan government's raid at Casa Quivira.

Raid ruled abuse of power

On Oct. 12, a Guatemalan judge ruled that the raid on Casa Quivira was "an abuse of prosecutorial power," according to news reports.

Of the 46 children, eight adoptions have been approved and those children have been united with their U.S. families. But Phillips says he is fighting a political battle to recover the remaining babies, now being housed in several undisclosed orphanages and foster homes.

In a letter to parents Nov. 5, Phillips wrote:

"We have demonstrated to the courts and all we are doing is legal and with the consent of the birthmothers of these children. Yet the authorities continue to use these children to promote their own political agenda. Every day that the processing of these cases is delayed is one day closer to the January 1, 2008 deadline. Every day, time is running out for these children to be able to come home to their adoptive families."

While the U.S. Department of State has formally asked the Guatemalan government to allow for the more than 3,000 pending adoption cases to proceed to completion, the Guatemalan government has said it wants cases already in the process to be re-examined to ensure that babies were not stolen or obtained under duress.

For now, it is unclear whether in-process adoptions will be grandfathered into law before the end of year, leaving these adoptive parents in uncertain and frightening emotional territory.

"Right now we are praying at least that Maria can go home to Casa Quivira," says Kristin Civitanova.

"So at least we can go to sleep knowing where our baby is and that she is being held and loved by those brave nannies. This would bring a great amount of peace to our hearts."

You can read Marney Rich Keenan at (313) 222-2515 or mkeenan@detnews.com

2007 Mar 11