Adoptions of Guatemalan Babies Prompt Closer Look

About 4,000 children from Guatemala are adopted by American families each year. Now, the U.N., the U.S. government and Guatemalan officials are worried that babies have become such big business.

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Last year, Americans adopted over 20,000 children from other countries. The largest percentage came from China. And in second place is Guatemala. In 2006, Americans adopted just over 4,000 Guatemalan babies.

Now, the U.S. government and the United Nations are warning that there are serious problems with Guatemala's adoption system.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The babies are fretful. The prospective parents are bleary-eyed from taking care of their new charges all night. It's breakfast time at the Casa Grande Hotel in Guatemala City.

Half a dozen couples sit in the small, sunny dining room exchanging sympathetic glances, would-be first-time parents who've come here from all over the United States for one reason only - to adopt a Guatemalan baby.

LAURA (Adoptive Parent): Here you go, sweetie.

DAN (Adoptive Parent): There you go.

LAURA: Did you want it?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Laura and Dan, who don't want to have their last names used, feed the baby they're trying to adopt as he sits in his brand new pushchair. They are in their late 30s.

LAURA: I think we were called to adoption primarily rather than really trying to have our own, which we haven't done yet. Just because there are so many children that need good homes, and we felt that we could provide that to someone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Laura says they tried at first to adopt from China where adoption is tightly controlled by the government, but the process is going to take more than three years. They turned to Guatemala because a typical adoption here is fast.

LAURA: We asked for a healthy infant, anywhere from zero to twelve months, a healthy baby boy. They sent us photos of three little boys that needed a family. And it was very difficult to choose, but ultimately our baby was smiling in the camera, and just leapt into our hearts. So we started the process for little Dominic(ph) here in May of 2007. And our prayer is to have him home by December.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What makes adoption in Guatemala so easy is that it is pretty much unregulated.

Mr. MANUEL MANRIQUE (UNICEF Representative, Guatemala): This is an adoption paradise because there are very loose regulations. The only requirement is that you have 25, 30, or $40,000.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Manuel Manrique is the local head of UNICEF, the child protection agency of the United Nations. He is among the many critics of the system here, which he says is rife with corruption from the government on down to the cadre of lawyers and notaries that rule the adoption trade.

Mr. MANRIQUE: Lawyers and notaries, who are private professionals, can do the whole process of an adoption without checking the situation of the biological family and without checking at all the situation of the family that wants to adopt the Guatemalan child.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Guatemala works under a notarial system, which means that the mother can, with the help of a notary and a lawyer, simply sign her rights away and give her baby up. Guatemalan babies have become big business, and people here are making a lot of money at every level, says Manrique.

Mr. MANRIQUE: Children have become nontraditional export product.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sixty percent of Guatemalan children are born into poverty, and UNICEF says that some of these middlemen who are supplying babies for American parents are paying women to get pregnant, or searching out pregnant women in poor villages to entice them into giving their babies away.

At the Casa Alianza shelter on the outskirts of Guatemala City, a young woman named Glendy(ph) works in the kitchen in between tending for her son. They have only recently been reunited. She was 18 when she got pregnant by a man in her town. She didn't want to tell her mother, who physically abused her for what had happened. Then, an older woman in the town offered her a way out of her predicament. The deal was simple: Give your child up for adoption, and I'll take you to a place where you'll be safe. We'll help you deliver your baby, and pay you at the end.

GLENDY (Resident, Guatemala): (Through translator) In that moment, my strength left me. It's like I couldn't talk. I just wanted to cry and cry. I was terrified. And I thought, what shall I do with my baby? The woman told me to give him up, and they offered me money. I just couldn't say anything. I was mute.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They drove her to a house where other young pregnant women where staying. She lived there until she gave birth to her son. Then they took him away.

GLENDY: (Through translator) I felt my heart had been destroyed. I felt I'd been abandoned. There was no one to say to me, don't give him away because he's part of your life. There was no one by my side.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She began to regret her decision. She sought the help of Casa Alianza in recovering him, which she recently did. It's stories like these and the attention that they're garnering that apparently is forcing the Guatemalan government to act.

I'm on the outskirts of the colonial town of Antiqua. In front of me is Casa Quivira, a children's home that is now under investigation. The place is boarded up and locked, but through the windows I can see stacked cribs and baby baths. When this place was raided, children were being housed here waiting to be taken by their adoptive parents to the U.S.

Casa Quivira is owned by an American, Cliff Phillips. NPR spoke to him by phone at his home in Florida about why he thinks he operation was targeted.

Mr. CLIFF PHILLIPS (Owner, Casa Quivira): They wanted to send a message to anyone and everyone working in adoption in Guatemala that we're out for everyone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the time of the raid, Casa Quivira housed 46 children. Phillip says he did not pay mothers for their babies.

For a flat fee of $30,000, Casa Quivira takes care of everything for prospective American parents - foster care, the legal paperwork on the Guatemalan side, the process at the U.S. embassy. The quality of care there was reportedly very high. Still, the 46 children in the home at the time of the raid would've net Phillips' operation just over $1.4 million. Phillips says there are many such establishments across the country and Casa Quivira is being made a scapegoat for the failures of the Guatemalan government.

The Guatemalan attorney general, Mario Gordillo, says that's not true. The raid was launched, he says, by the local police because there were concerns from people in the community about where the babies were coming from.

Mr. MARIO GORDILLO (Attorney General, Guatemala): (Through translator) Over time, adoption here has become a business. American agencies pay a lot of money to the lawyers who handle adoptions and that has made it very worthwhile for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gordillo admits that his own ministry is complicit in this. It deals with the paperwork on the Guatemalan side and there is a great deal of corruption. Phillips is fighting his case in Guatemalan courts and is looking to get Casa Quivira up and running again.

Things may soon change for everyone involved in the Guatemalan adoption industry. Guatemala's congress recently pledged to clean up its adoption business. Lawmakers say that by January, Guatemala will comply with the Hague Conventions, which govern international adoption. This would take the adoption process out of the hands - in theory - of private operators.

Mr. JOHN LOWELL (Consul General, U.S. Embassy, Guatemala): I'm John Lowell. I'm the consul general at the American embassy here in Guatemala City. We are very hopeful that it will begin to address the most significant of these problems.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The U.S. government has already formally warned its citizens about the risks of adopting in Guatemala. The embassy now requires any baby here to go through two DNA tests to make sure that the woman giving the child up for adoption is actually the birth mother. But Lowell says in a year, fewer than 20 children out of the thousands adopted by Americans were rejected because of a non-DNA match. He also says American adoptive parents, too, can be the victim of a system that allows unscrupulous operators to extort money from them. Once a bond has been formed with the baby, a family will do anything for a child they come to see as their own.

Back at the hotel, Laura and Dan cradle baby Dominic. Tomorrow, they'll be heading back to the U.S. and he'll stay here in foster care. Laura says she knows about the problems with the Guatemalan system and she admits she hasn't asked aggressive questions about where her baby has come from and where he's being kept. But now that they found their baby, Dan says they can't let him go.

DAN: Now, I really feel like he's my child and he's mine. He's mine. And I can't go back. I can't. It's an amazing thing. It really is.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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