exposing the dark side of adoption
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A Place to Call Home

A Place to Call Home
The anger, tears and frustrating runarounds of a Guatemalan adoption case

Author: Alan Zarembo

With dad proudly watching and the coach shouting his name--"Rico! Rico!"--a scrawny 12-year-old crouches into position at second base. He is a head shorter than most of his teammates, and darker-skinned, too. The ball bounces toward him through the glare of the lights, and he snaps it up in his glove and fires to first. With his team up 8-0, Rico glances over to the first-base line. Dad smiles. What could be more perfect than a father and son at a Little League game in the Pittsburgh suburbs? Every few months, however, the bliss is shattered when yet another reporter calls wanting to know if it is true: was Rico stolen?

Kathleen and Richard Borz, Rico's parents, almost always refuse to comment and hang up the phone. Like the growing number of Americans who go overseas to fulfill their dreams of parenthood, they believe that adoption--especially from an impoverished country--is inherently a good thing for the child. But critics of Guatemala's adoption system, including Rico's biological parents, who want him back, describe his adoption as a crime. "To know that somebody is out there thinking that we were dupes in a scheme to take their children, or that we had an active role in it--that's upsetting," says Richard Borz. "It's always on your mind, every time the phone rings."

What the Borzes are going through now brings into sharp relief a troubling question about international adoptions: are the lightly regulated adoption systems in some poor countries turning children into commodities? Critics charge that profiteers manipulate corrupt systems to take children from their birthmothers and sell them to well-intentioned but unsuspecting couples desperate for children. Because Americans adopt more foreign children than anybody, Washington has taken notice. Last December the Immigration and Naturalization Service suspended adoptions from Cambodia because of concerns about baby selling. It was the only time the United States has blacklisted a country for adoption, and the decision stranded more than 200 Americans waiting to complete adoptions. Still, the weight in Washington sits firmly behind prospective American parents. While he supported efforts to stop baby trafficking, Rep. Henry Hyde said recently, "there is nothing to be gained by forcing innocent babies to spend the rest of their childhood in orphanages instead of with loving parents in the United States."

Guatemala and Cambodia each has about 13 million people. But Guatemala sends four times as many kids to the United States, making it the world's leading exporter of children per capita. Adoptions in significant numbers began there in the early 1980s, during the worst violence of a 36-year civil war, and then ballooned in the mid-1990s, as lawyers realized the potential for profits and, in some cases, opened their own orphanages. At an average fee of $20,000 per adoption, the Guatemalan adoption industry now brings in more than $50 million a year--or only slightly less than the country's growing textile-export industry. About two thirds of the children go to U.S. families, a share that has risen as Canada, Spain and the Netherlands have outlawed adoptions from Guatemala over the past two years.

Kathleen and Richard Borz turned to adoption after they failed to conceive a second child, even after fertility treatments. But available U.S. babies were in short supply. With greater access to birth control, U.S. teenage girls are having fewer children. And those who do become pregnant often choose to keep their infants. The result has been a boom in adoptions abroad--from 6,472 in 1992 to 19,237 last year.

An international adoption agency lined up a boy in Russia for the Borzes, but he vanished in a web of bureaucracy. In 1994 came a new urgency: the couple's 9-year-old son, Matthew, died of a brain seizure. Kathleen, 36, a teacher, and Richard, 40, who operates homes for mentally disabled people, were childless. Then a friend who'd adopted from Guatemala told them of an orphanage and adoption agency, the

Asociacion de los Ninos de Guatemala

. Its founder,

Susana Luarca

, 51, portrays herself as a do-gooder, combating abortion and poverty from the leather-rich office in her home. "I have a master's degree from New York University," says Luarca. "I am bilingual. I really care for the children."

Most adoptive parents have two goals: finding a child young enough not to remember his or her biological parents, and avoiding bureaucratic delays. Guatemala offers both. Ninety percent of the children adopted there are babies. And unlike in China and Russia, the government rarely gets involved in the process. Nearly all Guatemalan adoptions are so-called relinquishments--in which a mother "voluntarily" signs over her child--and are handled by private notaries or lawyers like Luarca.

The Borzes wanted two babies, a boy and a girl, and Luarca's agency quickly found them. Fabiola and Eric were born two weeks apart in July 1995. The adoption of Fabiola was easy. But Eric's case became bogged down. Frantic, the Borzes sent out letters explaining their predicament to senators and representatives. "HELP! HELP!" they wrote to Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum on March 15, 1996. "We have our passports and are ready to leave at a moment's notice to pick up our children." But U.S. Embassy officials in Guatemala had learned that Eric's biological mother was planning to give up two sons--a red flag at a time when adoption practices in Guatemala were coming under greater scrutiny. According to embassy officials, the mother said she and her husband had been paid to give up the boys--and that she expected to be able to see Eric monthly, even after he joined a new family. The adoption was rejected, though the Borzes maintained hope for some sort of appeal.

In August 1996, the Borzes traveled to Guatemala to pick up Fabiola, whom they later renamed Holly. They also got to keep Eric with them for five days. But the Borzes had to leave him behind in the orphanage. Sometimes friends from their support group for adoptive parents would travel to Guatemala to pick up a child and return with pictures of Eric. They also brought back stories of Rico, an older child at the orphanage.

Rico, whose full name at birth was

Osmin Ricardo Tobar Ramirez

, was born on June 24, 1989. Less than a year later his parents, 20-year-old Gustavo Amilcar Tobar and his 18-year-old common-law wife, Flor de Maria Ramirez, split up. Rico's upbringing was chaotic. He rarely saw his father, who was usually in Mexico driving trucks. "I was the mother and the father," says Flor, who earned less than $50 a month handing out food samples in grocery stores. Home was a one-room cardboard-and-corrugated-tin shack. Rico attended school sporadically. Flor had little choice but to leave him in charge of his baby half brother, Jeffrey.

Neighbors say Flor rarely left food for the children and occasionally became so frustrated with life that she yelled at and hit Rico. "She didn't take care of her children, but she loved them," remembers neighbor Eric Alexander, now 17. Rico himself confirms the stories of abuse. "My mom drank every night," he remembers. "One day she got drunk and lost her keys and she blamed me. She started hurting me." One day in late 1996, the police received a call from a neighbor saying that Flor routinely neglected and abused her children. A few weeks later a white police van arrived and took away Rico and Jeffrey.

The caller was the sister-in-law of the driver for Luarca, the adoption lawyer. When Luarca heard about the case, she persuaded a judge to place the children with her orphanage while their fate was decided. The judge, Aida Marizuya, handled most abuse and abandonment cases in Guatemala City. She says that Luarca's orphanage was just one of several homes where she placed children. Luarca knew that the baby Jeffrey could easily be adopted. It would be much harder to find a home for Rico, then 7 years old.

Meanwhile, Rico's biological mother was pleading to get back her children. Flor denies that she was ever abusive, drunk or neglectful. "I only gave them love," she says between tears. But Judge Marizuya disagreed. She also ruled out giving custody of Rico to the maternal grandmother, because she is a lesbian. An aunt offered to raise Rico, but Rico told the court that the aunt's husband had hit him. Nobody bothered to look for Rico's father. On Aug. 6, 1997, the judge declared Rico and his half brother abandoned.

After an Illinois family adopted Jeffrey, the Guatemala agency made the Borzes an offer: they could adopt Rico for $2,000 and pick him up when they came to get Eric--who by this time had also been declared abandoned and therefore eligible for adoption after all. Kathleen and Richard agreed in late 1997. "It was pretty much presented to us as a cut-and-dry scenario," says Richard. "It seemed like the right thing to do. We wanted to expand our family."

By that time, however, Flor's case had been taken up by a respected child-rights group led by Englishman Bruce Harris. A mailman turned activist who landed in Latin America in the 1980s, Harris has made himself a leading voice on child-trafficking issues. Harris charged that Luarca had sped up adoptions by invoking the name of her husband at the time, Ricardo Umana Aragon, who was the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Harris argues that Rico and his half brother were confiscated illegally, with Luarca pulling the strings. The case made headlines, but Harris couldn't find a judge to listen. And as the Borzes saw it, the biological mother's fight was baseless. In August 1998, the Borzes picked up their new sons and returned to Pittsburgh. "We decided to go in before somebody changed their mind," Kathleen says.

But the fight was not over. In late 1998, Rico's biological father, Gustavo, reappeared. Now Harris's outfit, Casa Alianza, could argue that the abandonment decree was illegal, since the father had never been considered for custody as required under the law. No matter that it took Gustavo two years to learn that his son had been taken into state custody, adopted and brought to the United States. "You react because it is your son," Gustavo says. "And although lots of time has passed, you know that it is your blood."

Gustavo became an unlikely spokesman against fraudulent adoption, and his appearance threw the spotlight back on Luarca. In the best sense, she is what any lawyer should be, an aggressive advocate for her clients. But her vehemence has gotten her in trouble. In more than three hours of interviews with NEWSWEEK, Luarca portrayed herself as a victim of activists. She even blames them for the breakup of her marriage, saying her husband "was tired of seeing his name in the newspapers." Umana, for his part, says his ex-wife "is an independent lawyer" and that he has "always been neutral."

Luarca argues that stricter regulations and a central adoption authority--two reforms being pushed by activists--would ultimately hurt children by delaying or stopping their adoptions. Luarca is unapologetic about paying biological parents "humanitarian assistance," a practice that is common in the United States but has drawn criticism in poor nations. "If I don't do it, somebody else will do it," Luarca says, scoffing at the notion that such payments amount to baby buying. "Don't you think that somebody who is willing to take money for a child is living proof that he or she is not a fit parent? And that the children should be taken away immediately from them, instead of making them live in limbo?" Because embassies don't agree, Luarca tells the mothers how to answer questions from embassy officials. "We instruct them to say 'No, we don't receive anything'."

Luarca's battles continue, partly because she refuses to let them rest. When Gustavo publicly accused her of arranging the illegal adoption of his son, she filed a defamation suit against him that is still pending. One afternoon in February 2001, two days before a court date in that case, two men climbed on the empty bus Gustavo was driving and attacked him with a machete. They cut him across his arms, fingers, hip and temple. He says one of the men told him: "This is because you keep talking." Luarca later told him she had nothing to do with the attack--not that the idea had not once been proposed to her, she says. "A judge came to me and said, 'Why do you take him to court? You should have him killed. That is the best way to fix things in this country.' I don't want him to be killed. I want him to be judged."

In 2000, two years after Rico moved to the United States, a judge in Guatemala ruled that there was enough evidence to question his abandonment decree--a decision that Casa Alianza views as a gateway to annulling the adoption. But so far the court process has stalled. Harris says he's planning to take the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to force the Guatemalan courts to act. "The truth is, at this point, the best place for the kid is with the adoptive family," he says. "But you can't just tell the biological father, 'Sorry, you got screwed'."

The chances of Gustavo's getting Rico back are close to nil. He's now been an American citizen for more than three years. Still, Gustavo believes that he and his new wife could offer Rico a stable home. Everything Gustavo and Flor know now about their son's life they learned from NEWSWEEK. They were relieved that their worst fears--that he was being mistreated or that his organs had been stolen for transplant--were not true.

Rico's life in suburban America hasn't been altogether easy, however. Soon after his arrival at the Borz home, Rico began hoarding food, drinking glasses and toys in his bedroom. The couple took him to a psychologist. There were also disagreements between parents and child that escalated into tantrums. "You are not my mother," Rico would sometimes tell Kathleen. At school, some kids told him, "Go back where you come from," and called him "retardo" instead of Ricardo. But Rico followed his new father's advice to ignore them. And quickly he learned English and the Pledge of Allegiance. He earns A's and B's in junior high school, plays clarinet in the band and stars on his soccer team.

Recently, Rico announced that he was thinking of changing his name to Richard, after his dad, who is encouraging him to stick with Rico. Though he has fused into American culture, Rico has become interested in his birth land. "My blood is Guatemalan," he says. "My skin is Guatemalan." His sixth-grade class constructed family trees and instructed the students to include a baby picture. The earliest picture Rico has of himself is at the age of 7. So he used a picture of a dark-skinned baby clipped from a magazine. His memory of Guatemala is like that--a collage of random details. He can't remember the name of his half brother and, strangely, has forgotten how to speak Spanish. Rico began crying when asked about the possibility of seeing Gustavo again some day: "I just don't want them to die. I want to see him again."

The Borzes have followed the controversy on the Casa Alianza Web site, with a great deal of pain. "We're not ripping a family apart," says Richard. "We're not trying to save the world either. In adopting two children who needed a family we came across another child who needed a family." On any day in any luxury hotel in Guatemala City, a pale American husband and wife can be spotted in the lobby, cradling an olive-skinned child, waiting for the final clearance to return home and start a new life. Most likely, the parents will trust their lawyer and not think much about how the child came to them. As their plane takes off, they will take comfort in the fact that, like Rico, the child will not grow up in the impoverished land fading away below them.


BROKEN HOME: Rico is at the center of a transnational custody battle. He was adopted by a family in Pennsylvania, but his biological parents, Flor de Maria Ramirez (right), and Gustavo Amilcar Tobar (left), want him back in Guatemala

2002 Jul 15