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Why adopting in Guatemala is getting harder

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

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Some in Guatemala, including the attorney general's office, are pushing for a law to complement the process. The law would mandate that adoptions be decided by a judge and would prohibit any kind of economic incentive, says Mr. Gordillo. "Now we only have control after the paperwork arrives, but we don't know what the will of the mother was, or if her will was violated," he says.

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Some say the program's reputation has been undermined by a few corrupt players. Laura Beauvais-Godwin, director of Carolina Hope Christian Adoption Agency in Greenville, S.C., says she is not against more controls if they are carried out expeditiously, but that the media has overstated the problem – to the detriment of Guatemalan children. "It's not fair to close the whole country program because a few people are doing it incorrectly," she says. "It's such a poor, poor country ... [and] a lot of this needs to be addressed."

The Guatemalan lawyers feel particularly under attack. "The adoption system is safe, efficient, and relatively rapid," says an adoption lawyer who did not want his name published because he says his profession is unfairly judged in the media. "I believe it's the best adoption program in the world."

Others claim that, while many adoptive parents and their US agencies are working in good faith, the industry is so riddled with corruption that legitimacy cannot be guaranteed. Norma Cruz runs a women's rights organization called "Survivors" and last year began helping a handful of mothers who reported their children were kidnapped.

This June, her organization, working with local authorities, helped find a newborn boy who had been taken from his mother and grandmother by two armed gunmen who had stormed the tortilla shop where they worked. The baby was found a month later in a foster home with falsified papers and a new name, Ms. Cruz says. "It is so easy that a child is stolen, and then they have new parents."

They kidnapped my baby

Cruz is helping Ms. Lopez, who says her baby, Alene, was kidnapped a year ago. Three women knocked on her front door. Lopez had left Alene with her grandmother while she went to retrieve a baby walker from a friend's house. The three women snatched her baby from Lopez's mother's arms. She has scoured foster homes across Guatemala City but has not found her. She says the justice system has done nothing to help. Officials, she says, suggest that she sold her baby. "Every day my anguish is greater. Babies change day by day," she says sobbing. "But I have not lost hope that I will find her."

The prospective American parents interviewed at the Marriott say they are working with legitimate agencies and support tighter regulations. Ms. Conner, who received custody of her son in March and is still waiting for approval from Guatemala's attorney general's office to bring him home, says that already the process has slowed down. But she adds that the wait is worthwhile. "You hear some stories of selling or stealing; you want to make sure it works well," she says.

But some doubt the situation will change significantly with a new law. "[The lawyers] are getting more and more powerful. They say they are helping poor people," says Anders Kompass, head of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala. "They are fomenting an illegal, terrible business. They force poor people to make children. It's disgusting."

Mr. Kompass doesn't expect the US to put too much pressure on Guatemala since it is under pressure itself from adoptive parents. In a recent case, Guatemalan officials raided an adoption home near the city of Antigua, saying they wanted to make sure the children were not taken illegally. Since then, American adoptive parents who had babies in that home have desperately posted messages on adoption websites and flooded the US Embassy with calls, saying the raid was politically motivated, he says.

Cruz, who has received anonymous threats since she began handling kidnapping cases, also worries that real change is not going to come because the industry wield such clout. "We will get a new law," she says, "but not the one we need."

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