International adoption: A big fix brings dramatic decline
International adoption has fallen sharply under tougher scrutiny caused by issues like Haiti's post-quake orphan scandal as well as stricter global regulations.
When Silvia Sebac’s birth mother made the five-hour bus ride through the mountainous countryside to leave her at an orphanage in Guatemala City, the infant had every prospect of an international adoption – of captivating adoptive parents from the US or Europe.Skip to next paragraph
That was four years ago, when the adoption business was booming and people from rich countries were traveling the globe from China and South Korea to Russia and Ethiopia to find a child to complete their families. At the time Silvia arrived in Guatemala City, her country was giving up nearly 5,000 children annually – 1 in every 100 births. Adoption was an estimated $100 million industry that attracted thousands of international families willing to pay more than $30,000 to lawyers and agencies and to the capital city’s towering hotels that dedicated entire floors to adoptive parents, catering to their every diaper and baby cream need.
But by the time her two-year wait to be declared legally abandoned was up, dark-eyed Silvia had no takers. Intercountry adoptions had begun to plummet.
Once a secretive or shameful process in many countries, adoption – particularly the heartwarming gesture of rich people traveling to the ends of the earth for a baby – became iconic in modern culture. The likes of Madonna and Angelina Jolie adopting in Africa injected glamorous publicity as well as drew suspicion and cynicism to the process.
Along with the growth of international adoption came publicized scandal and consequently a chillier new adoption climate, with stricter government controls. It has caused the number of international adoptions to plummet, and left behind – if also protected – many orphans around the globe.
Silvia is one of them, prevented from joining a new family in what is considered the most adoptable period – the infant to toddler years. In the final days of 2007, with the system beset by allegations of baby theft and coercion of birth mothers, Guatemalan lawmakers placed a moratorium on international adoptions. It put in place a new system that
followed the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which is an international standard – and it implemented UNICEF-inspired policy dictating that a family within the country, preferably a relative, should be sought before international families.
Today when asked who her mother is, Silvia points to an orphanage caretaker, and says, beaming, “Mama Nico.” A slight, pretty girl, Silvia flashes four stubby fingers when asked her age: “Cuatro.”
And, says Alejandra Diaz, the director of the orphanage, “Hannah’s Hope,” Silvia is probably going to spend many more birthdays in the orphanage: “It is hard to say it, because I knew her when she was a baby, but she’s going to be here for years.” Ms. Diaz says her facility, which used to process 90 adoptions a year, now has 31 seemingly permanent orphan residents, and cannot afford to take in more of the estimated 4,000 Guatemalan children now backed up in state and private orphanages.