- Posted September 25, 2012 by
Guatemala's orphans languish in limbo
Close to 5,000 children were adopted by American parents in 2006 alone. That year, Guatemala, a country that ranks 66th in terms of population became second only to China in the number of intercountry adoptions.
Then in 2007, after a series of reports revealed irregularities in Guatemala’s adoptions process, including child sex and organ trade, the Guatemalan government put an indefinite end to international adoptions. That left hundreds of children stranded, including the cases that became known as the Guatemala 900, whose adoptions were in process when the ban came into place.
But, without a place to go, that number has grown. Today there are about 6,000 children stranded in orphanages in Guatemala, according to UNICEF. They are growing up in 267 orphanages—their chances of being adopted growing slimmer every day. Only three of those orphanages are government-owned and supported.
The other 264 orphanages operate thanks to donations from individuals, volunteers, and foundations such as Mike’s Angels.
What went wrong?
Until the ban, adopting a child from Guatemala had been relatively easy.
Notaries handled adoptions without government involvement, following a 1977 decree, the Regulatory Law of Notary Proceedings in Matters of Voluntary Jurisdiction (ley de Asuntos Notariales de Jurisdicción Voluntaria, decreto 54).
But high demand from foreign parents--and the large fees they were willing to pay to adopt a child—tempted some less-scrupulous Guatemalans to get into the adoptions business.
“There were many cases of stolen children who were being sold through adoptions; cases of sexual abuse, child pornography, and even traffic of organs. There were even cases of false documents and false DNA tests,” said Ileana Iveth Marticorena Ramos, a lawyer in the Child and Adolescent Defender Unit [Unidad Procuradora Niñez y Adolescencia], which is part of Guatemala’s Procuradoría General de la Nación (PGN, the equivalent to the U.S. Attorney General’s office).
“The adoptive parents, acting in good faith, would receive a Guatemalan child,” she explained. “After having them for many years, they’d find out that the children had not been given up for adoption voluntarily by their biological parents but that they had been stolen; they were victims of child trade.”
International adoptions by American parents must follow the standards for intercountry adoptions defined by the 1933 Hague Convention on Adoption. The U.S. signed on the Convention in 1994, and its directives went into full force in 2008.
Guatemala also signed the Convention in 2007. However, according to UNICEF, “Guatemala does not yet have the institutional conditions to allow international adoptions from the country.”
The ball is in Guatemala’s court now, UNICEF says. “It is up to Guatemala to decide when to open intercountry adoption–once safe and transparent processes are in place. And it is up to the U.S. when to accept children from Guatemala for intercountry adoption.”
The new law has created a bureaucratic paralysis, as three government groups now oversee child abandonment and placement cases resulting in a situation so desperate that a Guatemalan judge who spoke only on background described it as “llora sangre”—it cries blood.
A U.S. Senator’s involvement
From the U.S. side, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has been involved in finding a resolution to what is known as "transition cases," the children who had been on a path to being adopted by an American family when the 2008 Guatemala law went into effect and banned international adoptions. These became known as the Guatemala 900, although by now the number of cases has come down to 150-200—largely thanks to Sen. Landrieu’s involvement.
A case widely reported in the news in early September as a possible opening of adoptions from Guatemala involved one of those children who had been left in legal limbo. What is important about that case is that it was the first to be processed under the government of Guatemala's “acuerdo process” established a year ago to provide a legal path forward for previously stalled transition cases, according to Sen. Landrieu’s office.
“This represents a good step forward," according to Sen. Landrieu, and is an indication that Guatemala is "on the path to be compliant with its own adoption law." However, a general "reopening is not on our radar."
Sen. Landrieu is the main leader in Congress to focus on child welfare, co-chairing both the Congressional Coalition on Adoption—the largest bi-partisan caucus in Congress—and the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth. She has been involved in the Guatemala issue on a macro level since the ban went into place, making four official visits to that country.
Abandoned by their government
In the meantime, the children languish in orphanages, their futures on hold, their present at the mercy of donations by individuals and organizations.
“A great number of children who would have been adopted by foreign families were left stranded without an opportunity to get ahead,” said Cynthia Vallejo, a former adoptions lawyer who 12 years ago turned her law offices into a small orphanage in La Antigua.
God Bless the Children, Vallejo’s home to 15 boys and girls newborn to five-years-old, is one of the orphanages that receive no government funding, relying instead on private supporters. An American couple covers the rent while other individuals and organizations donate food, diapers, and other basic necessities.
While the Guatemalan government provides no funding for private orphanages, it does supervise them. Vallejo showed a book that outlines the new 527 standards her orphanage needs to meet “without getting any funds” to meet them, according to her.
“No help. None,” said Sister Marina Soto at the San Jeronimo Emiliani all-girls orphanage in Zaragoza when asked about government funding. “They only come by to check how we’re doing, what we have, what we need, and what they require of us; but they don’t give us anything.”
What about local adoptions?
Guatemala’s adoptions situation is part of the country’s larger problem with child abandonment.
According to UNICEF, there are 360,000 orphans in Guatemala. Many are in institutions, and many are on the street. Another percentage lives with relatives.
The ban on international adoptions does not prohibit Guatemalans from adopting local children. Few do. “There is not a culture of adoptions in our country,” according to Marticorena.
“The majority of the children that could be adopted [by Guatemalans] are Mayan, and the families who can adopt often don’t want children with that type of skin or that hair color. They want light-color children. That’s our culture. It’s not that we’re bad. It’s the way we were taught,” Vallejo said.
“As a society, [Guatemalans] are not aware of the situation that a lot of children are going through,” she said. “Sadly, personally I became aware of this need when I came to work at the PGN. Those of us who are out [of the situation] do not realize the need those children have.”
Mike’s Angels story
While government and local support is scarce, foreigners who become aware of the need try to fill the gap.
Guatemalan-born Patricia Marcucci Sheeran, an Atlanta lawyer, saw the need first hand when she adopted her first daughter in Guatemala about the time the ban came into place. She and sister Jackie Marcucci Price created Mike’s Angels, a small foundation that bears their late brother’s name (see related video).
Mike’s Angels works with volunteers to bring donations to three or four orphanages. Thirty volunteers, many of them teenagers (see related video), joined the annual mission trip this year in June.
“I’m really excited about what we did so far and think about what we might do in the future,” said Marcucci-Sheeran. “This is just the beginning for Mike’s Angels. There is so much need that I can’t imagine what we can do with all the help that we’re getting and the excitement and enthusiasm and support for Mike’s Angels. People just love Guatemala and the children, and the one thing I will say is that the volunteers get as much out of it as the children do.”