Parents Fight to Have Children Freed From Guatemalan Orphanages

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009

More than a year and a half after Paul Kvinta and his wife began what they expected would be a seven-month process to adopt a newborn girl from Guatemala, little Marcela and an estimated 700 other children are languishing in orphanages there as their cases wend through a maze of legal hurdles and bureaucratic snags.

"It's Kafka-esque," said Kvinta, an Atlanta magazine writer who was among several dozen people who demonstrated in front of the Capitol yesterday and urged U.S. officials to advocate more aggressively on their behalf. "And the real killer is that we don't have a clue how much longer it will go on."

Marcela and the other children are holdovers from a decade in which Guatemala sent more than 4,000 children a year for adoption to the United States, more than any country except China. At the start of last year, after months of hotly debated allegations that adoption brokers were paying women to give up their children or even stealing them, Guatemala's congress enacted tough regulations that effectively ended international adoptions.

The roughly 3,000 cases in progress were supposed to be exempt from the new rules. But Guatemalan officials interpreted the law as a mandate to subject the pending cases to new levels of scrutiny.

Kvinta and others said they do not fault the Guatemalan government for its caution. Under the old system, no government agency was charged with matching mothers who sought to give up their children with adoptive parents. A network of private notaries and attorneys sprang up to fill the void, charging adoptive parents $20,000 to $30,000.

Critics said this was a huge markup, that, combined with Guatemala's severe poverty and history of corruption, created opportunities for abuse. Stories circulated of lawyers paying jaladores, or touts, to roam the countryside in search of women to pressure, pay or trick into giving up their children. Although the Guatemalan solicitor general's office had to sign off on all international adoptions, critics said that it did a poor job of catching such cases.

Now, however, adopting parents say that Guatemalan officials have become so guarded that they nitpick, victimizing the children they are supposed to protect.

"Eighteen months is more than enough time to determine whether these cases had any type of corruption associated with them," said Tom DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, a child welfare organization that is advocating on behalf of many parents. "Meanwhile, you have these children sitting there suffering the debilitating effects of institutionalization."

At least six months of the delay was because of a decision by the new government agency tasked with overseeing adoptions, known by its Spanish initials CNA, to reinterview all biological mothers in pending cases.

Elizabeth Hernandez de Larios, president of the CNA, said she regrets the delay. But she said the interviewers identified 37 cases of baby buying or stealing. She said she suspects that many of what she said are 1,032 cases in which neither the mother nor the child came forward also might have involved fraud.

"Children were being ordered up like in a factory," she said. "It was an industry."

In the meantime, hundreds of cases were approved by the CNA, only to hit roadblocks within the solicitor general's office, which must sign off on them. Marcela's adoption was delayed one month when officials found a typographical error on her birth certificate, then another month when the same officials rejected the amended birth certificate, demanding that Kvinta get an entirely new one.

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