Would-Be Parents Fret Over Looming Changes

Terry and Brad Lewis of Gaithersburg adopted Zachary, 2, from Guatemala a year ago and are in the final stages of adopting a second son from there. Terry Lewis, above, worries that paperwork already underway could be affected by changes in Guatemala's adoption laws.
Terry and Brad Lewis of Gaithersburg adopted Zachary, 2, from Guatemala a year ago and are in the final stages of adopting a second son from there. Terry Lewis, above, worries that paperwork already underway could be affected by changes in Guatemala's adoption laws. (Photos By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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By N.C. Aizenman and Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 1, 2007

A year after Guatemala's emergence as the second-largest foreign source of babies for adoption to the United States, a new push by the Guatemalan government to wrest control of the process from private agencies has stirred an emotional backlash from thousands of prospective adoptive parents in the United States.

John and Renee Eubanks of Columbia, who adopted a baby girl from Guatemala in the spring, recently made the painful decision to suspend their search for a second child because they fear the government's approach will end up canceling adoptions midway through the process.

But the adoption agency the Eubanks used keeps e-mailing them photos of babies just in case, and the boys' tiny faces haunt Renee.

"You look at each one and think: 'If we don't commit to him, what's going to happen to him? Is he ever going to get a family? Is he going to end up begging on the street?' " she said during an interview at the kitchen table of her townhouse while her 21-month-old adopted daughter, Mikayla, drank milk from a sippy cup. "It's heart-wrenching."

Almost two thousand miles away in Guatemala's capital city, Guatemala's solicitor general, Mario Gordillo, is haunted by a different image: Like many critics of the current setup, he worries that thousands of desperately poor Guatemalan women are being induced to conceive children for adoption by private brokers offering as much as $3,000 a baby.

"Guatemala has converted into a baby-producing nation," Gordillo said at his office in Guatemala City. "Our children come into this world to be products for sale. . . . It's as if they were a car. What model is it? And who wants to buy it?"

The debate raging in Guatemala echoes previous controversies that have led to the suspension of adoptions from Romania to Cambodia. But the stakes are far higher this time because of the sheer number of children involved.

Over the past 15 years, the number of foreign children adopted by Americans each year has nearly tripled, totaling more than 20,000 in 2006. About one in five comes from Guatemala, which released 4,135 children for international adoption last year. That's almost as many as are adopted from the top nation, China, which has more than 100 times the population.

Guatemala's severe poverty and high fertility rates are clearly a driving force behind the trend. Nearly a third of the population lives on less than $2 a day, more than half are below the poverty line and 23 percent of children age 5 or younger are underweight. Conditions are even bleaker among the country's indigenous Mayan Indians, many of whom live in the mountains and do not speak Spanish.

But the government's hands-off approach to adoptions has also played a major role in fueling Guatemala's adoption industry. Although the solicitor general's office must sign off on all international adoptions, in contrast to most of its Latin American neighbors, Guatemala has no government agency charged with tracking children whose mothers wish to give them up -- let alone caring for such children or matching them with adoptive parents overseas.

Instead, the void has been filled by a network of private notaries and attorneys that has grown exponentially since the mid-1990s, when peace accords officially ended Guatemala's three-decades long civil war.

The uniquely private nature of the system the lawyers have created offers some distinct advantages over that of other major sources for adoption, such as China and Russia.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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