IPS NEWS AGENCY
GUATEMALA CITY — The reopening of international adoptions in Guatemala in June might not only mean the chance of a better life for many children, but may also spell a return to corruption, fraud and the theft of babies, human rights groups warn.
A number of organizations expressed concern after the National Adoption Council, the central adoption authority established in 2008, announced in March that a pilot program for the resumption of adoptions abroad would go into effect in June, under stricter oversight.
According to the Council, the situation was studied by experts from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Hague Conference on Private International Law, which approved the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption in 1993.
Nevertheless, human rights groups are worried.
"We are against the reopening of international adoptions now because the same structure of organized crime that generated a major international market to which the country exported between 5,000 and 6,000 children a year is still in place," the head of the Survivors Foundation, Norma Cruz, told IPS.
In 2008, the National Adoption Council suspended foreign adoptions, which were mainly to couples in the United States, to shut down a thriving business that profited lawyers, judges and doctors.
Until the suspension of foreign adoptions, Guatemala was the fourth country in the world in terms of the number of children placed in adoption, after Russia, China and South Korea, according to UNICEF. But in proportion to the population, it was the global leader.
Adoptions were suspended in compliance with the new adoption law in effect since 2007, which created the National Adoption Council and banned "undue benefits, material or otherwise, to accrue to the persons, institutions and authorities involved in the adoption process."
It also put a priority on placing children with Guatemalan families and established that "the poverty or extreme poverty of parents is not sufficient reason to put a child up for adoption."
According to United Nations figures, half of the population of this Central American country of 13 million people is living in poverty, and 17 percent in extreme poverty.
Activists say that behind the booming adoption market in Guatemala was a "mafia" of lawyers, notaries public, "jaladoras" or baby brokers who entice poor young women into placing their children in adoption, so-called "casas de engorde" or "fattening houses" where the expectant mothers' pregnancy and birth-related expenses were covered, officials in civil registers, pediatricians, adoption homes and foster families.
In order to generate confidence in the new adoption process, "the state should give signs that it is prepared to dismantle the child trafficking networks...which remain intact," Cruz said.
The activist cited the case of Alma Valle, a lawyer who was released on bail on Apr. 23, after she was deported from the United States and arrested in Guatemala for her alleged participation in arranging illegal adoptions.
Valle "was released after paying 150,000 quetzals (18,000 dollars) in bail. In just one quarter of 2008 she negotiated the adoption of 150 children. But since she is the wife of an army colonel and has links to the governing party, she was set free," Cruz complained.
The National Adoption Council reports that 214 children, including disabled children and youngsters over the age of seven, are currently available for adoption.
Since November, couples from Austria, Denmark, France, Israel, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States have expressed an interest in adopting Guatemalan children.
The executive director of the Social Movement for the Rights of Children and Adolescents, Felipe García, told IPS the country should not "race" to reopen foreign adoptions, but should first offer a decent life to the children here in Guatemala.
He said a priority has not yet been put on domestic adoptions. Nor have the cases of more than 27,000 children removed from the country under "irregular" circumstances before 2008 been resolved.
The numerous mothers who are demanding the return of children who were stolen from them should be given compensation, García added.
"The Guatemalan state should show a willingness to come up with the necessary mechanisms for children to stay in Guatemala and not have to be adopted by foreigners," he said.
García also said the state was still "under the thumb" of organized crime groups dedicated to illegal adoptions.
Before the new law went into effect, the illegal foreign adoptions of 4,000 to 5,000 Guatemalan children a year generated some 200 million dollars in annual earnings.
Adoptions, which generally took only a year, cost the prospective families between 25,000 and 50,000 dollars, according to human rights groups.
Byron Alvarado, executive secretary of the National Commission on Children and Adolescents, which includes representatives of both the government and civil society, said the National Adoption Council should be better established before adoptions are reopened, because "it has only been functioning for two years."
"Guatemalans don't even know yet what the role of the Adoption Council is," he told IPS.
In his view, international adoption should be a last resort.
But Nidia Aguilar, director of Defense of the Rights of the Child in the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, told IPS that foreign adoptions should be reopened because there are hundreds of youngsters in children's homes who are waiting for a family of their own.
She said there are much bigger hurdles now to prevent illegal adoptions, and that if any do happen, the cases should be reported to the authorities.
IPS NEWS AGENCY