International Adoption: Guatemala
Responding to John Stossell’s editorial. How can we best help the children of Guatemala?

In a Feb. 6 editorial in The New York Sun newspaper, John Stossell wrote about the international adoption mess in Guatemala.  He stated, “The adoption-broker system — which relied on entrepreneurs providing a service for a fee — worked well enough that Guatemala was an adoption success story.”  Although I believe international adoptions can be a vital part of a country’s child welfare system, and I pray nightly that they will continue from Guatemala, I think Mr. Stossell missed the mark.

I spent two weeks in Guatemala last May interviewing the major players in international adoptions including the U.S. State Department, the Attorney General of Guatemala, UNICEF (a surprisingly big player in this drama), Guatemalan adoption attorneys, birth mothers, adoptive parents, and many orphanages directors, including spending a day at the same orphanage Mr. Stossell used as an example in his editorial.  The only thing clear about Guatemalan adoptions is that nothing is clear.

I suppose the free market approach to child welfare could work where there are tight governmental controls and services to support poor families so that adoption is not their only option.  But this is far from the case in Guatemala.  Guatemala, only 12 years out of a 36-year civil war, is one of the poorest countries in the world, and social services are nonexistent.  And yet it cost more to adopt a baby from Guatemala than from most other countries in the world.

Anytime this much money is being thrown around in a very poor country, the situation is ripe for fraud.  And even though I doubt that the fraud was as rampant as the US and Guatemalan governments and UNICEF claim, the potential for fraud was high, and the suspicion of fraud was even higher.  Every single Guatemalan not associated with adoptions that I spoke to said some variation of “international adoption is a business and the children are the merchandise.”

The whole international adoption system that Mr. Stossell champions was designed to find babies for American families and make money for Guatemalan adoption attorneys in the process.  I have nothing against American families finding a child or attorneys making money.  As an international adoption researcher and writer, I strongly support international adoption because it’s good for kids and families; as an attorney, I’m all in favor of attorneys making money.  There is, however, something wrong with this being the goal of a child welfare system.  The guiding principle should be what’s in the best interest of the children, not the adults.  Social scientists agree that it is in children’s best interest to stay with their biological family when possible, if not, to find a home with extended family or in their country of birth.  Only then should a home be sought outside the country.  The old Guatemalan system turned this principle on its ear.

But my real beef with the Guatemalan adoption-broker system touted by Mr. Stossell is that it undermines international adoptions by fueling the existing suspicions held by many NGOs, including the very powerful UNICEF, and even some in the US government.  UNICEF and other NGOs use Guatemalan adoptions as an example of human greed run amok over the best interest of children, and as justification to push for restrictive international adoption systems designed to be immune from all fraud or corruption.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to prevent all fraud in international adoption, and systems designed with this goal in mind end up preventing adoptions, and children who might have found an adoptive family end up in orphanages.  Mr. Stossell is right about this happening in Paraguay, and I would add Honduras, El Salvador, Cambodia, and Romania to the list.

Even one incidence of a child being placed for adoption because his birthmother was paid, or even worse, because he was kidnapped is incomprehensively awful.  But just as awful, if less sensational, is one child that might have been adopted growing up in an institution.  Both incidences are terrible, but only the first is news worthy.  It is politically expedient for governments to focus on the first, but it is not in the best interest of children.

Adoption—domestic or international—is good for kids whose parents are unable or unwilling to raise them.  This seemingly obvious conclusion is supported by a long history of research.  But obvious or not, international adoptions are under attack and the adoption broker system as existed in Guatemala is partly to blame.

It remains to be seen whether Guatemala will be able to reform the international adoption system and still continue to find permanent homes for her children, either domestic or abroad.  It is a tall order. This is not the system I would have created. There is little money going to support the new system, and currently Guatemala doesn’t even know how many children are in need of care.

There are no easy answers, just lots of uncertainty and lots of children –on the street, in homes not able to parent, and in unfunded and unregulated orphanages.  But Mr. Stossell, a continuation of the status quo is not the answer and certainly not in the best interst of all of Guatemala’s chidren.


Image credit: World Bank Photo Collection