Colombian mothers and the adoption process

''What can a woman do with four children suffering from hunger, when she can't give them an education?'' asks Maria Cristina Bernat de Bonilla. ''To me it seems more unselfish - she's a better mother - if she gives up a child so it may have a better future.''

If you live in Colombia, as Mrs. Bonilla does, this is a controversial line to take. But it's a view this lawyer from the city of Cali defends with passion.

Mrs. Bonilla is talking about destitute Colombian mothers who sign release forms allowing their children to be adopted. Over the past nine years, she says, she has helped place some 150 Colombian children with adoptive parents throughout the United States - and about 300 with Europeans.

Although shifting government policies prohibit her from participating at present in the adoption process, Mrs. Bonilla still keeps in touch with the adoptive families she has brought together. During a recent visit to Boston, she described how some of the Colombian mothers who gave up children have come to her later for news.

''They often say to me, 'How is my child? Is she well?' I never tell them where they are. 'Where are they?' 'Abroad.' Abroad could mean Europe, the United States - they never know.

'' A lot of times I show them photographs. The other day I ran into a woman who told me, 'I've never been sorry for a single minute to have given up my son. I have such a difficult time with the ones I have that I wanted this boy to be happy.'''

Harsh economic conditions in Colombia, Mrs. Bonilla explains, combined with widespread ignorance of contraception, create a situation in which large numbers of women find themselves with too many children and no means to care for them. To them, abandonment can appear to be the only solution.

All too often, such mothers simply deposit an unwanted child with relatives, or dump him on the street. Others, like the ones Mrs. Bonilla cites, take the extra steps necessary to facilitate their child's adoption.

Mrs. Bonilla acknowledges that foreign adoptions are a sensitive issue in her country, especially in light of headlines about baby selling. One view is that Colombian children should remain in orphanages rather than be removed from their land of birth.

''But that's absurd,'' says Mrs. Bonilla. ''No matter how good the institution is, no one will give (the child) a home - nor the love of a home.''

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