Corruption in international adoptions

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Adoption: Guatemala

 Click to follow link Capsule overview of adoption issues in Guatemala
 Click to follow link Capsule history of international adoptions from Guatemala
 Click to follow link News reports of adoption irregularities in Guatemala
 Click to follow link Resources & Related Documents

NOTE: This page from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism website offers documentation of and background about serious irregularities in international adoption. For the systemic analysis of corruption in international adoption, please read “The Lie We Love,” Foreign Policy magazine, Nov./Dec. 2008, and visit our webpages dedicated to international adoption. For ideas about fairer policy solutions, please read “The Baby Business,” Democracy Journal, Summer 2010.

Capsule overview of adoption
issues in Guatemala

The numbers. Guatemala is widely considered to have had the worst international adoption improprieties over the longest period of time. In 2006 and 2007, Guatemala sent almost as many children to the United States for adoption as China, despite a hundred-fold difference in size: In 2007, China sent 5,453 out of its population of 1.3 billion. In the same year, Guatemala sent 4,728 out of its 13 million. In that year, and several years before, an astonishing one out of every 110 Guatemalan children born was adopted in the United States.

Number of US Orphan Immigrant Visas Issued to Guatemala, FY 1990-2008 

The money & the attorneys. Money was the key to international adoption in Guatemala. The country closed to international adoption on January 1, 2008, so that its system could be reformed. Until then, during the early years of the millennium, roughly 98 percent of international adoptions from Guatemala went through private “notarios,” attorneys who had the legal power to oversee both sides in the adoption. A single notario could witness the birthmother signing away her parenthood and could legally assign the child to foreign parents, for a sizable fee—all without any oversight, intervention, review, or questions from a judge or social service agency.

  By the time Guatemala closed to U.S. adoption, these notarios were charging $35,000 or more per adopted child,1plus monthly “foster care” fees while the children were housed in private “hogars” or foster homes between families—foster homes managed by the attorney.
How sizable was that fee? By the time Guatemala closed to U.S. adoption, these notarios were charging $35,000 or more per adopted child,1plus monthly “foster care” fees while the children were housed in private “hogars” or foster homes between families—foster homes managed by the attorney. That’s an astonishing amount of money per child in a country where 56 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, on less than $500/year, and where the per capita GDP is $4700/year. 2

Consider that U.S. per capita GDP is $46,000/year, or roughly ten times that of Guatemala. Imagine paying an American attorney $350,000, a roughly comparable amount, per adoption—and allowing her, without anyone’s oversight, to oversee both the birthmother’s decision to relinquish the child and the purchaser’s adoption. “Think of the amount of organized crime that would be out there!” said Jeffrey Klinke, a former journalist who has been keeping a close eye on intercountry adoption since his niece was adopted from Nepal. “And [the U.S.] is a country with a strong legal tradition and law enforcement tradition. Then translate that to a third world country with limited law enforcement: What would happen?”3

Healthy infants were adopted, not the abandoned children in institutions who needed homes. What happened is that many children were bought, defrauded, coerced, or kidnapped away from their parents. The children adopted were not the children who had been abandoned or institutionalized. In the fall of 2007, a survey found that Guatemalan institutions housed 5600 children and adolescents; one-third of those were free for adoption. More than 4600 of these children were four years or older. Fewer than 400 were under a year old, which suggests that roughly 130 infants were available for adoption.4

And yet each month, more than 270 Guatemalan babies—all less than one year old—were being adopted in the U.S. In 2007, nearly 9 out of 10 Guatemalan children adopted in the U.S. were less than a year old; almost half were younger than 6 months old. Americans were not adopting the children who needed homes. Rather, they were adopting the babies that their homes wanted—infants procured for pay by the notarios.

Buying, coercing, and kidnapping healthy children. Unbeknownst to the adopting Americans, the attorneys were acquiring children by buying, defrauding, coercing, and kidnapping children away from their families.

  •  Buying. A 2007 Hague fact-finding mission reported that, despite community disapproval, some rural Guatemalan families spoke openly about selling babies for $300 to support their families. Manuel Manrique of UNICEF Guatemala reports that thirty percent of children sent abroad were relinquished by women who gave up several children—not all at once, but year after year, suggesting that pregnancy had become a salaried job. For these informal surrogate mothers, a successful pregnancy brought in the same earnings as a year’s domestic servitude.
  • Defrauding or coercing. A variety of frauds were used to acquire children. A November 2007 report by several Guatemalan NGOs, “Adoptions in Guatemala: Protection or business?”, noted that some young pregnant women were told they can stay in “maternity homes” or strangers’ houses for free or in exchange for light housekeeping. But once the girls gave birth, their putative benefactors present them with an impossible bill for prenatal expenses and services, which would be waived if the new mother signs away her baby. The same report also identified medical “adoption rings,” in which the same few midwives, nurses, and obstetricians delivered many of the babies later relinquished for adoption. Some were later found to have drugged the mother so as to steal the child, or to have coerced her into relinquishment by presenting her with an inflated bill.5
  • Kidnapping.A number of women reported having their children kidnapped from them: in the family shoe store, while working at a tortilla stand, or between buses. In 2006, Raquel Par, another Guatemalan woman, reported being drugged on a bus, waking up to find her year-old baby missing; in 2007, Par learned that her daughter had been adopted by an American couple. In July 2007, Telma Christina Sol’s son was stolen while she worked at a tortilla stand; when she found him, the false identity paperwork for his adoption had been prepared. Perhaps the most famous of these was Ana Escobar, who campaigned to draw attention to the problem of mothers whose children had been kidnapped for adoption. She and Olga Lopez, whose infant daughter Arlene Scarlett was stolen from her grandmother’s arms, visited government offices two or three times a week, searched through daycare centers and “hogars,” and held a five-day hunger strike to draw attention to the problem. Escobar finally found her daughter Esther, stripped of her identity and renamed, just a few weeks before Esther was to be taken home by a couple in Indiana.
             Several news organizations have been able to document other cases of kidnapped children in Guatemala; Dateline NBC, for instance, helped reunite a five-year-old named Candida with her birth family, although at the time of broadcast, Candida’s older sister—kidnapped with her—remained missing. In 2003, Guatemala’s National Commission for the Search for Missing Children documented 1,084 cases of missing children. While the older ones were presumed taken for sex or labor, 500 were under a year old, and were presumed to have been abducted for adoption. (Note: all these stories are told on our News Reports of Guatemalan Adoption Irregularities page.)

Capsule history of international
adoptions in Guatemala

After Guatemala’s long civil war ended with a peace treaty and new laws in 1996, adoptions to other countries began to increase each year. The government of Guatemala’s PGN (the attorney general’s office) recorded this number of foreign adoptions per year: 6

Adoptions in Guatemala  

By the late 1990s, reports were circulating that some Guatemalan adoptions involved intermediaries who were buying, defrauding, coercing, and kidnapping babies for the purposes of adoption. Because of concerns that some babies being offered for adoption were not knowingly relinquished by their birthparents, in 1998 the U.S. Embassy began requiring DNA testing of a birthparent and the relinquished child, to determine whether the person signing the child away was in fact the child’s mother.7

Reports of serious irregularities continued to mount. In 2000, UNICEF commissioned the Latin American Institute for Education and Communication (ILPEC) to conduct a study of Adoption and the Rights of the Child in Guatemala. The ILPEC report concluded that these direct and private adoptions were what they called a “labor market” conducted for financial gain, not for the child’s best interests.

   ...some hospital staff members were defrauding new mothers out of their babies, and that other “child finders” were contracting with women to bear a series of children specifically to be sold for adoption in other countries.

In 2000, the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, Ms. Ofelia Calcetas-Santos, investigated these reports and issued findings citing widespread child buying, coercion, and kidnapping of children for adoption. Her report included allegations that some hospital staff members were defrauding new mothers out of their babies, and that other “child finders” were contracting with women to bear a series of children specifically to be sold for adoption in other countries.

On November 26, 2002 Guatemala ratified the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, a treaty created to end adoption trafficking, which entered into force in Guatemala on March 1, 2003.8 Several developed countries (including Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom) filed official objections to Guatemala’s accession to the Convention, citing Guatemala’s widespread questionable adoption procedures, which, as the Adoption Council of Canada wrote in 2004, included widespread “illegal and unethical practices … and issues of child trafficking.” These countries stopped all their citizens’ adoptions from Guatemala. For the next six months, as Guatemala attempted to revise its adoption laws, adoption processing slowed down. However, by the fall of that year, reportedly after lobbying by wealthy Guatemalan adoption attorneys, including one who had been married to a constitutional court justice, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court overturned the Hague ratification, and private adoptions resumed.

After 2002, the United States remained the lone developed country allowing adoptions from Guatemala, despite its record of questionable practices. That’s in part because the United States had signed but not yet ratified the Hague Convention, and therefore did not use reported violations of the Hague convention to halt adoptions from Guatemala. For several years 97 percent or more of all children adopted from Guatemala went to American parents.

Reports of questionable adoption practices continued, as can be read on our page News Reports of Guatemalan Adoption Irregularities.  In response, in August 2007, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala began requiring a second DNA test, to ensure the child being adopted was the same child who had been relinquished—and hadn’t been replaced with another child in the meantime.

During 2007, the Guatemalan government—under pressure from the U.S., world opinion, and its own human rights activists and NGOs such as Casa Alianza, the Myrna Mack Foundation, the Survivors Foundation, and its own Catholic Archdiocese—once again began efforts to overhaul its adoption laws so that Guatemala could attempt again to enter the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. On Dec. 11, 2007, the Guatemalan government passed new adoption legislation intended to meet Hague Convention requirements, including mandating a new central adoption oversight bureau and adding regulatory safeguards. As part of this law, as of January 1, 2008, Guatemala ceased new adoptions to the U.S., as the U.S. was not yet a full party to the Convention. More than 2,000 adoptions to the U.S. that were already “in process,” with referrals and documents already under review, were allowed to continue, albeit under stricter scrutiny. Guatemalan officials have been interviewing birthmothers in person, and in some cases re-testing to see whether the prospective adoptive children’s DNA matches that of women whose babies have been kidnapped. Officials report finding a very small percentage of kidnapped babies; some experts believe that many of the birthmothers who are agreeing to relinquish their children have been paid.

On April 1, 2008, the United States fully enacted the Hague Convention, putting the State Department’s enabling regulations into force—14 years after the U.S. had signed the treaty, and 8 years after the U.S. Senate had passed enabling legislation. The U.S. State Department has already announced, on January 9, 2008, that it would not allow any more American adoptions from Guatemala until Guatemala’s adoption procedures were fully Hague-compliant, in which only a handful of licensed agencies would be permitted to handle adoptions, and in which children in need of adoption would be referred to those agencies by a central authority (not privately) after social services had tried to find that child a home within his or her family or community, keeping the child’s best interests in view.

[1] From “Intercountry Adoption Guatemala,” from the U.S. State Department’s online guide for prospective adoptive parents, September 2007 (accessed 10/21/2008). The relevant paragraph reads:

ADOPTION FEES:The Solicitor General’s office (PGN) does not charge any fees for adoptions. Based on the results of a survey of prospective adoptive parents conducted by the U.S. Embassy in 2005, families should expect to pay an average of $27,000 (in a range from $17,300 to $45,000) to adopt a Guatemalan child. According to Guatemalan press reports, some Guatemalan lawyers charge up to $35,000 for each adoption. One lawyer quoted in the local press said that he earns between $15,000 and $20,000 per adoption.

[2] CIA Fact Book, Guatemala, , updated August 7, 2008.

[3]From a 12/30/07 telephone interview with E.J. Graff, confirmed via email.

[4] “Situation Faced by Institutionalized Children and Adolescents in Shelters in Guatemala,” conducted by the President’s Office for Social Welfare together with the support of Holt International Services and UNICEF, May 2008.

[5] "Adoptions in Guatemala: Protection or Business?” by Casa Alianza Foundation and Myrna Mack Survivors Foundation, with the support of the Social Movement for the Rights of Children and Adolescents; Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala (ODHAG); and Guatemalan Social Welfare Secretariat (SBS), November 2007.

[6] This chart is taken from "Adoptions in Guatemala: Protection or Business?” by Casa Alianza Foundation and Myrna Mack Survivors Foundation.

[7]  "Frequently Asked Questions: Prospective Adoptive Parents of Guatemalan Children," Joint Council on International Children's Services. 

[8]In addition to the specifically cited sources, more information about this sequence of events can be found at the websites of two organizations concerned with international adoption: the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS)’s Guatemala page and at Ethica, Inc.,’s Guatemala page. Other information comes from the news articles pointed to later in this section. Additional information comes from interviews on file with the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.

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Last page update: March 8, 2012