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Guatemala: a baby factory no longer?

Will Guatemala's new adoption rule stop exploitation or result in more orphans?

A baby plays in a crib inside a foster home in Antigua, Guatemala, Aug. 14, 2007. (Daniel LeClair/Reuters)

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — When the adoption business was booming here, American couples came by the thousands.

They flocked to the dozens of privately run children’s homes or to lawyers’ offices to adopt Guatemalan babies. They paid upward of $30,000, fueling an industry worth more than $100 million annually by conservative estimates. They stayed in towering city hotels that dedicated entire floors to adoptive parents and they rented rooms stocked with diapers and baby creams.

At the height of the trade, 4,728 children — or one in every 100 live Guatemalan births — were bound for a foreign country and a new family. Guatemala was the world’s largest per capita source of adoptions and second in total numbers only to China, a vastly more populated country.

It all came to a screeching halt in the final days of 2007 when the government took control of the system from the lawyers and adoption agencies that had run it. They imposed a two-year moratorium on international adoptions and promised to investigate the allegedly widespread baby thefts and coercion of birth mothers.

Two years later, the country is set to re-open the doors to international adoptions, but government officials vow it will look nothing like it used to. Instead of nearly 5,000 children a year being sent to foreign couples, some 150 will be available. They won’t be the healthy infants of years past. They will be older children or those with disabilities. And it won’t cost $30,000 or anything near it. Although they’ve not officially decided, officials say the process could be free.

Once the shame of the adoption trade, Guatemala is now being lauded as a potential model for other Latin American countries. But prospective parents aren't always happy that their options for adoption have diminished. There are 900 families, many from the U.S., who were promised children under Guatemala's old system and have spent two years in limbo waiting to see if the adoptions will ever be cleared.

“We were a baby factory,” said Marilys Barrientos de Estrada, a director of the governmental agency created to oversee the process. “That’s how the international community saw us and that’s what we were. For a price, you could get a very, very young baby, younger than almost anywhere else in the world, and take that baby home in a few months, more quickly than most places.”

Human rights groups decried the Guatemalan process as one of the world’s worst examples of the adoption business gone haywire. A few birth mothers had reported their children stolen or being tricked into signing away their babies. In July, 2008, Ana Escobar, a resident of a poor Guatemala City neighborhood, was reunited with her daughter a year after she reported the baby stolen. DNA testing proved the child, Esther, was living with a family in the U.S. After years of ugly rumor, it was the first proven case and officials hailed it as justification for their reforms.

Now those same international observers who’d criticized the former system are throwing their support behind the country.

“What Guatemala has done has been a huge success,” said Justo Solorzano, a child protection with UNICEF in Guatemala. “It broke the cycle of corruption. It stopped the violation of human rights.”