Cleaning Up International Adoptions

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Rodrigo Abd / AP

Seven Guatemalan children sit in bouncing chairs at the Casa Quivira children's home in Antigua, 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Guatemala City Tuesday Aug. 14, 2007.

Earlier this month, dozens of Guatemalan police, soldiers and government officials raided Casa Quivira, a foster home in the colonial town of Antigua. They took custody of 46 babies and accused the home of failing to issue the proper paperwork for adoptions. Worse, says Carmen de Wennier, Guatemala's Secretary for Social Welfare, Casa Quivira is being investigated for illegally trafficking infants, an accusation that its owners vehemently deny: "If these children were bought in the womb," de Wennier says, "that is a crime."

News of the raid, a story that rivaled Guatemala's upcoming presidential election for headlines, was especially alarming for women like Ana Escobar, a Guatemalan, and Ann Roth, an American. Last spring, armed gunmen held up Escobar in the storage room of her Guatemala City shoe store while two female accomplices stole her 6-month-old daughter Esther. Escobar, 26, is convinced the baby was put up for illegal adoption, and she came to Antigua to see if Esther was one of the infants found at Casa Quivira. "We are not animals to be bought and sold," she says, clutching Esther's photo. Meanwhile, in Chicago, Roth had been waiting with her husband David to adopt a boy and a girl from Casa Quivira — but now, after having paid half the $30,000 fee, she finds everything in a precarious state of limbo. "I feel," says Ann, 37, "like someone has kicked me in the stomach ten times."

That feeling, which more and more Guatemalan mothers and adoptive mothers in the U.S. are experiencing these days, reflects the growing awareness that adoption in Guatemala is all too often a multimillion-dollar underworld trade. The nation's ill-regulated adoption business, run by private lawyers and notaries, is rife with corruption, including forged paperwork, payoffs to women who agree to hand over their children and, in some cases, newborns stolen from hospitals or mothers' arms, according to the government human rights ombudsman's office. One U.S. couple spent almost two years and $50,000 to adopt their Guatemalan daughter, Ella, only to find out later that her biological mother "was essentially a baby factory" who had sold many of her eight children to a dealer, says the adoptive father. "It felt almost dirty, like we were involved in a child brokering scheme."

The activity is driven largely by surging U.S. demand. With adoption in the U.S. still a bureaucratic nightmare, and with fewer babies available in distant places like China and Eastern Europe, Guatemala has become an increasingly popular adoption source for U.S couples. Almost 5,000 babies were adopted last year from the nation of 13 million — the world's highest per capita adoption rate — and 95% of them went to the U.S. Since 1990, in fact, more than 25,000 Guatemalan children have been placed in American homes.

Reports and rumors of shady adoption dealings in Guatemala have surfaced for several years, but the country's authorities are now under increasing pressure from Washington as well as their own citizens to clean the adoption scene, and that could cause the adoption surge to slow. After hearing of cases in Guatemala in which babies were switched in the middle of adoption processes, for example, the U.S. recently announced that it would require two DNA tests on babies to ensure that a child issued an exit visa is the same one originally given up for adoption. More important, Guatemalan lawmakers earlier this year ratified the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which will tighten controls — by closely tracking the use of adoption fees and by creating a centralized adoption authority that can be easily regulated — in both Guatemala and the U.S when it takes effect January 1. As stories appear in the Guatemalan media about child traffickers rushing to find children before the year's end, citizen mobs in several small towns have attacked suspected baby-snatchers, in some cases beating or burning them alive.

Florida resident Clifford Phillips, who runs Casa Quivira with his Guatemalan wife, insists they're victims of the spreading anti-adoption hysteria and persecution. "This is an injustice that needs to be stopped now," says Phillips, arguing that Guatemala is treating him as if he were "guilty until proven innocent." The adoptions of two of the Casa Quivira children, in fact, were found to be legal, and those infants have since left for the U.S. But the rest have been removed to other private facilities, and nine were hospitalized with lung problems and other sicknesses.

For Ann Roth, the situation is "horrific. We are praying as hard as we can for these babies." So is Ana Escobar. None of the Casa Quivira children — their names, dates of birth and arrival at the home pinned to their crib headboards — turned out to be Esther. But "I won't give up until I find my daughter," says Escobar. "There are a lot of people who adopt children without really knowing if the mother wanted to give them up or if they were stolen. Without knowing if the mother is suffering."