GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA — Wendy Villatorro's mother told her if she got pregnant again she'd throw her out of the house. Wendy already had one child. But when the young woman got pregnant again, she sought advice from a friend, who told her a lawyer might help place her baby with a foreign family.
"She said they'd give me $640 if it was a girl and $380 if it was a boy," Ms. Villatorro says, underlining how the "market" can fluctuate depending on demand. Wendy named her baby boy Joshua, because she was told the lawyer's clients liked American names. A few days after he was born, Wendy handed Joshua over to a woman contracted by the lawyer to care for the baby until legalities were completed.
But Wendy still hasn't received her $380 - with second thoughts, she's trying to get Joshua back.
Last year, more than 3,000 women like Wendy gave up their Guatemalan babies for adoption.
Most went to families in the US. Guatemala is fourth in the world for the number of babies provided for adoptions, just behind China, Russia, and South Korea. But the skyrocketing adoptions figures, coupled with mounting reports of cases in which mothers are either offered money, recruited, coerced, or even robbed of their children has unleashed a public backlash that Guatemala's prolific adoption rate is nothing more than trafficking in children. Some allege adoption is a multimillion-dollar-a-year business.
"Our laws don't put many requirements on adoptions, making it as easy as possible for people to adopt," says Hector Dionicio, a lawyer with Guatemala's office of Covenant House-Latin America, a children's rights organization. "But some people have taken advantage of the laws and see a good opportunity to make money in a fast and simple way, and this has converted the noble institution of adoptions into a successful business."
Young ones better off abroad?
However Jorge Carrillo, a lawyer who specializes in adoptions, cautions against sensationalism, saying the young ones are often better off with adoptive families from abroad. "If they close the doors of adoption to these children," he says, "they will be in the streets."
While many stories of baby-nappings are reported widely, child advocates say the problem with Guatemala's adoptions is far more subtle. They say the root of the problem does indeed lie in Guatemala's adoption laws, deemed unique by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and permitting private adoptions with little state oversight. According to a recent UNICEF report on adoptions, fully 99 percent of adoptions in Guatemala are processed this way.
"Everyone says they are letting illegal adoptions go through, " says Juan Francisco Flores, a lawyer with the federal attorney general's office. "That's not true. The problem is that they are legal.'
"We don't know which adoptions are legal and which are not," says Elizabeth Gibbons, UNICEF's representative in Guatemala. "The legal system is so intransparent that legal adoptions go through, and so do illegal ones."
In the recent report, UNICEF recommended that extra-judicial adoptions stop until Guatemala passes an adoption law in line with The Hague Convention for International Adoptions and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.
One of the stipulations of these conventions is that nationals should be given preference to adopt over international couples. In Guatemala, 98 percent of adoptions are international; 62 percent of all adoptions go to US families. The US Embassy in Guatemala estimates that American families pay an average of $24,000 to adopt a Guatemalan baby. Gibbons says there are 200 lawyers who work on adoptions, and that last year adoptions represented a $60 million business for these lawyers.
Lawyers who work in adoptions say the recent UNICEF report and press reports exaggerate the situation. Mr. Carrillo says UNICEF's ulterior motive is to restrict the flow of Hispanic babies to the US. Another lawyer, Susana de Umaa, says that organizations like UNICEF and Covenant House are trying to stem international adoptions so there will be more street children, further justifying the existence of these organizations. Lawyers maintain that their rates include care for the child while the adoption is being processed.
No culture of adoption in Guatemala
Carrillo says he and a group of colleagues have been offering pro bono adoptions to Guatemalan couples. But he says there aren't any couples interested. He asserts that Guatemalans have a long tradition of racism, and that most children up for adoption are indigenous or dark-skinned. Further, the strong strain of machismo here has discouraged a culture of adoption, because the men don't want to raise another man's child.
"If a law of the kind UNICEF recommends is passed, these children will stay in their country and die in their country before the age of five," Carrillo says.
Indeed, Guatemala and Haiti share the highest mortality rate in Latin America for children under 5. This, some lawyers say, coupled with the fact that Guatemala has one of the highest fertility rates in all of Latin America, would be a recipe for disaster were adoptions to be restricted.
Gibbons also maintains that one of the most tragic aspects of the adoption situation in Guatemala is that it is not the children who most need homes that are being adopted. "There are some 300 orphanages in the country that are overflowing, and only 12 percent of the children being adopted come from institutions," she says, adding that it often takes years for a baby in an orphanage to be declared abandoned and eligible for adoption. By then, it is often too late for the children, since most adoptive parents prefer babies. "The supply of children [for most foreign adoptions] is coming from completely different sources," she says, emphasizing the importance of legislation.
According to Mr. Flores of the attorney general's office, there are currently 18 proposals to change adoption laws before congress. Yet neither he nor UNICEF's Gibbons has much faith that acceptable adoption legislation will be passed. Apart from the current turbulent political situation in Guatemala, many advocates say adoption lawyers constitute a strong lobby.
The solution to the problem, Gibbons says, is more likely to come from receiving countries. One positive step she expects to have a significant impact is the United States' vote in Congress this month to sign The Hague Convention for International Adoptions.
Once this convention takes force, 18 months from now, US citizens will only be able to adopt children from countries where there is a central government authority for adoptions and in which the court system plays a role.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society