The adoption quandary

Elizabeth Larsen is a writer whose work has appeared in anthologies and numerous publications, including Mother Jones, Utne Reader and Child.

Two adoption researchers have put this question to me in recent weeks: What are we going to tell the children adopted from Guatemala?

It’s a personal question -- and also a politically charged one. I have my own daughter, adopted in 2005 from Guatemala, to consider. And now, after years of scrutiny, criticism, news exposes and international pressure, that nation has passed a law to clean up its intercountry adoption system. More than 25,000 Guatemalan children have been adopted by U.S. families, so in this country there is no shortage of opinions about the new law.

Some hail it as long overdue. Others say it will end adoptions to the United States and leave children stranded. American families whose adoptions are not yet completed are bracing for more delays and uncertainty.

Still, nearly all agree on one very key point: Guatemalan adoptions need reform. There have been confirmed illegal activities, such as impostors purporting to be the biological mother of a child (a practice that required the U.S. Embassy to require DNA tests), and reports of parents deceived into placing their children for adoption. Whether these problems were isolated incidents or more widespread isn’t clear.


The larger ethical issue has been the role of buscadoras, recruiters hired by Guatemalan adoption lawyers to search for pregnant women willing to relinquish babies, in some cases offering them money. As the demand for babies has grown, so has the power of the buscadoras; to connect a lawyer to a pregnant mother, they demand up to $8,000. Meanwhile, Guatemalan children who have no living parents, who aren’t infants or who have special needs constitute only a tiny fraction of completed adoptions.

It’s hard to say there isn’t a problem But how do you ethically reform an adoption system in a country already too strapped to guarantee the welfare of its kids? The Guatemalan government’s plan is to root out corruption by starting over completely. That is, eliminate the private adoption system in which mothers relinquished babies to lawyers, who in turn represented both the child and the adoptive parents to complete the adoption.

The new law, passed last month, requires the creation of a centralized government authority to oversee adoptions and mandates that any private orphanages, such as those run by charities, be registered. These changes will allow Guatemala to comply with the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (an international agreement designed to prevent human trafficking). It’s an approach that is endorsed by the U.S. State Department, the United Nations Children’s Fund and several researchers doing work in Guatemalan adoptions.

The new law favors family preservation first, then adoption by relatives, followed by domestic adoption. When those options are exhausted -- or not in the best interest of the child -- intercountry adoption is the next choice. Intercountry adoption, the law’s advocates say, should be one component but not the driver of all other child-welfare decisions.


Critics of this approach -- a diverse group that includes Guatemalan lawyers, some agencies, adoption experts and many adoptive parents -- argue that such wholesale reform is overly idealistic. Guatemala has severely limited social welfare services -- and in fact has never previously provided care for abandoned children or struggling families. There is no guarantee that the new system will be fully funded or implemented. The law will stop corruption, they contend, in as much as it grinds intercountry adoption to a halt.

Accusations slung from all sides have been polarizing and unproductive. When the U.S. State Department issued warnings to not start an adoption from Guatemala, an adoption lawyer accused the State Department of racism and xenophobia against Latino children. Adoptive parents were derided as willfully naive.

Curiously, the only players to largely escape takedown were the American agencies that facilitated these adoptions in the first place.

Although some agencies have done good work in Guatemala, other unscrupulous entrepreneurs (who in some cases have no training in adoption) took advantage of Guatemala’s weak system to make a lot of money from prospective adoptive parents, more than a few of whom never brought home a child.

Plenty of the more reputable adoption agencies turned a blind eye too, even as corruption in Guatemalan adoptions became a public hot topic. These agencies could have used their sizable influence to promote change by refusing to pay for buscadoras, or providing training to develop a child-welfare sector in Guatemala. They could have set up sponsorship programs to aid the birth families participating in intercountry adoption.

For good or ill, Guatemala has stepped up to the plate. It’s time for the other players in the debate to offer the resources needed to care for affected children and to give the new system a chance to succeed.

Whatever the outcome, agencies need to ask themselves the hard questions about how they are going to support the birth parents, adoptees and adoptive families who will be left with questions and, in some cases, grief. If adoptions do continue, they need to hire culturally competent and qualified staff to serve both U.S. and Guatemalan families and to be able to account for every penny spent on an adoption. They need to work harder as advocates for older children and children with special needs.

Our children will grow up in the shadow of these stories and shortcomings. Some will have questions that are not easy to answer. So what will I tell my daughter about her adoption? We have the privilege of knowing her Guatemalan family, so I can safely say that her adoption was legal and that I’m confident that the majority of Guatemalan adoptions were the same. But whether the system was ethical is a question I think the adoption community may be asking for years.