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Why adopting in Guatemala is getting harder

Second only to China for Americans seeking children, Guatemala is tightening its rules.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2007

Guatemala City

American parents cradle their new babies in cotton blankets and feed them bottles of formula. They clog the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Guatemala City with strollers. Penny Conner, from Medfield, Mass., says she cannot wait to bring her 9-month-old boy home. It's a joyous scene: Guatemala is one of the most popular places to adopt for American families – second only to China.

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But across town, Angelica Lopez cries and can't stop. A year ago, three women kidnapped her 2-month-old baby daughter, she says. Her story is the underbelly of the country's multimillion-dollar adoption industry.

When it comes to red tape, Guatemala is one of the easiest places to adopt a child in the world. And depending on who you ask, the adoption program is either a godsend for thousands of needy children, or a nefarious business that has given rise to kidnappings, coercion, and mothers reproducing for compensation. In either case, 95 percent of the babies end up in the US.

Now Guatemala is moving to more strictly regulate the adoption process, under internal and international pressure. Due to lack of government oversight and emerging problems, the US government announced earlier this year that it no longer recommends that US parents adopt from Guatemala. As a result, Guatemala is set to implement the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption Dec. 31, which sets international standards for adoptions and could greatly limit the program.

Critics, including adoption agencies and Guatemalan lawyers, say that tighter regulations will leave thousands of babies without safe homes in this Central American nation, in which 80 percent of residents live in poverty and the infant-mortality rate is one of the highest in the hemisphere. But many others say that more restrictions on the process is crucial to the children's well-being.

"We are not against adoption. On the contrary, we believe that in our country, a poor one, it is very important and necessary," says Guatemala's Attorney General Mario Gordillo. "But we need stricter control in finding our children a family and not the inverse – finding a child for the families."

The rate of adoption in Guatemala has outpaced that of any other country, growing tenfold over the past decade. This nation of 12 million people has the world's highest per capita adoption rate. At the Marriott Hotel, alongside the tourist trinkets, the gift store sells formula and diapers. Competing hotels have "Adopting a Child" packages that offer guests with sterilized bottles and baby bathtubs.

Last year, US parents adopted more than 4,000 babies from Guatemala. Katie Nyblom was one of them. She and her husband, Mark, who have two biological children, adopted twins who had been abandoned. They relocated to Guatemala for eight months to care for the babies, and brought them back to South Carolina in February.

"My heart just always went to Guatemala," says Ms. Nyblom. "I didn't know much about process; all I knew was that the babies were beautiful."

A child in half the time

Many adoptive parents choose Guatemala because of its relative ease: the process has averaged six months (but is now stretching to nine months, the US Embassy here says), half the time of what it takes in other countries, experts say. That is because there is no central state authority that oversees the process. Instead, it is run by private lawyers or notaries who work with brokers, foster mothers, and adoptive parents. The average adoption here costs $27,000, according to the US State Department.

But that could soon change. In March, the US State Department said it was concerned that all parties involved were not being protected, including mothers being financially induced to relinquish custody of their children. In August, the US Embassy in Guatemala mandated a second DNA test to finalize the adoption and further safeguard the process.

That has already made it a longer wait, say parents and adoption agencies, but bigger changes are to come when the Hague Convention, ratified by Guatemala on May 21, goes into effect. It calls for a state authority – not a network of notaries – to oversee international adoptions.