Guatemala Moves to Tighten Adoption Rules

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

MEXICO CITY, Dec. 11 -- Guatemala's Congress overwhelmingly approved stricter adoption regulations Tuesday following months of hotly debated allegations that lawyers stole babies or paid mothers to give birth, then handed over their children for adoption.

More than 3,700 pending adoptions -- mostly involving U.S. couples -- were exempted from the new rules, easing widespread fears among prospective parents who had bonded with babies while waiting months for their adoptions to be approved.

Adoptions in Guatemala have long been handled by a network of private notaries and lawyers. But the measure approved Tuesday gives full control of the adoption process to the Guatemalan government and will reduce the price of adoptions from an average of $30,000 per child to between $500 and $750, Guatemalan Congressman Francisco Rolando Morales said in a phone interview from Guatemala City.

"The business of selling babies in Guatemala is completely coming to an end," said Morales, the most vocal supporter of a bill proposing the new regulations.

Guatemala has one of the world's highest adoption rates and sends more children to the United States -- more than 4,100 last year alone -- than any country except China. But the Guatemalan adoption industry came under scrutiny in the past year after a series of news reports about allegations of infant trafficking. Some of those reports have been disputed by adoptive parents, many of whom have argued that the allegations were overblown or simply untrue.

"I take issue with this picture of Guatemala being a place of paying people to make babies when it's clear there are children running all around that are in need of homes," said Terry Lewis, a Gaithersburg therapist who has waited 13 months to adopt a Guatemalan infant. Still, Lewis said, the vote "definitely provides relief. There's always that caveat of not knowing all the details that creates anxiety. But progress is progress."

The measure, which President Oscar Berger is expected to sign into law, allows adoptions only for parents in nations that have approved standards of care included in the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which the United States is expected to join this week.

A national commission composed of representatives from Guatemala's Supreme Court, Foreign Ministry and Social Services Ministry will oversee adoptions. The government will pay for foster care during the adoption process, Morales said, continuing a practice that appealed to parents who consider Guatemalan babies to be healthier and better adjusted than infants in large, state-run orphanages in nations such as China.

Morales said the expected lower adoption fees would have to be supplemented by the government to cover administration and foster-care expenses, though he did not know how much the new adoption program would cost. He also said he believed the adoption rate would decline.

Erin Stoy, a prospective parent from Memphis whose efforts to adopt a child have been delayed a year, said she is worried about possible "snags" once the law goes into effect Dec. 31.

"I wouldn't recommend that anyone start an adoption here," Stoy said in a phone interview from Antigua, Guatemala. "You'd be crazy to do it."

Staff writer N.C. Aizenman in Washington contributed to this report.

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