By: Sarah Volpenhein
Produced and edited by: Holly Moody
Nearly 3,000 Guatemalan children are spending their youth in shelters, without parents for years because of what some call the country’s “broken” adoption system.
Alma Castaneda, a doctor in Guatemala City, first set eyes on her daughter Camila this July. Abandoned at birth, Camila spent three years in state custody waiting for her file to pass through the adoption system.
|Adoptable children at the Hogar Luz de Maria. (via Wordpress)|
In the five years since Guatemala signed onto the Hague Adoption Convention and enacted a new adoption law amid accusations of baby buying, the country has processed 650 adoptions according to the Guatemala’s National Adoption Council (CNA). Before the new Law on Adoption, Guatemala was rivaled only by China as an “exporter” of children. In 2007 alone, families in the U.S. adopted more than 4,800 Guatemalan children according to statistics from the Hague Convention.
The private attorneys and judges who authorized adoptions of trafficked children “no longer run the adoption process,” said Sebastian Escalon, a journalist for the Guatemalan news outlet Plaza Pública.
Implications of the Law on Adoption
The new adoption law created a central authority, the National Adoption Council, to oversee the process of adoption. The law, which prioritizes adoptions made within the country, also halted all international adoptions.
Although, the drop in completed adoptions is no fault of the new adoption system, said Rudy Zepeda, spokesperson for the CNA. Instead, the current system is only serving the children who actually need an adoptive family, he said.
“The previous system produced children to satisfy the demand of other countries and foreigners,” he said.
Before passing the new adoption law, UNICEF estimated that, 1,500 Guatemalan babies were trafficked abroad each year for adoption by couples in North America or Europe.
“The number of children that actually need and have the right to a family has decreased because we are not producing children,” he said. “The industry ended.”
Dinora Palacios, the director of the children’s shelter Hogar Luz de Maria, disagrees.
|Adoptable children enjoy lunch at Hogar Luz de Maria shelter. (via Wordpress)|
“The shelters are filling up. It’s because they aren’t giving kids up for adoption anymore,” she said, noting that the number of children in her shelter has risen from 25 to 45 in the past year. “Last year there wasn’t one adoption from this shelter. This year we’ve only given up three out of 15 who are adoptable.”
The Adoption Process in Guatemala
According to Zepeda, the adoption process takes less than nine months. He laid the blame for any backlogs on the courts, which are in charge of locating children’s biological families in cases where they have been abandoned or their papers falsified. Under the previous system, children who were kidnapped or sold were placed in the adoption mill with false documents.
If a child cannot be reunited with his immediate or extended family, he is declared adoptable according to Sergio Sanchez of the attorney general’s office. The CNA then matches the child with a suitable adoptive family.
In 2012, the attorney general’s office and childhood judges declared 103 children “adoptable” and passed their files on to the CNA according to the council’s annual report. More than 2,000 children were waiting for the courts to declare them adoptable or not as of this September according to Zepeda.
But Palacios feels that the number of adoptive families in Guatemala is insufficient.
According to Zepeda, 98 families were cleared to adopt a child in 2013. About 640 children were waiting to be placed with adoptive families as of September. Castenada shares the same sentiment.
“There are many abandoned children and many foreigners that are able to adopt a child and that want to adopt a child,” she said. “Just because of the law they can’t do it.”
“Eso es malo,” she said. That is bad.
“Guatemalan families often do not want or are not equipped to take in children with psychological or medical problems,” said Castenada, whose adopted daughter has a respiratory problems.
“Very few families take them in,” she said. “Everyone wants a healthy child.” Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard professor who specializes in child welfare and adoption and who has written extensively on the subject, believes that shutting out foreign families from adoption is “systematically destroying” Guatemalan youth.
The Law on Adoption “closed off the opportunity for thousands of [children] to get homes.
“They’re going to instead grow up in institutions or one the streets,” she said.
She said that shutting children in institutions creates measurable differences in their biological makeup.
“You can see the difference in brain scans, and you can measure after a couple of years the differences, in emotional stability, in depression,” she said.
UNICEF, which was very involved in pushing Guatemala to enact the 2007 Law on Adoption, places importance on children growing up with their biological families when possible. It also encourages governments to establish institutions to regulate adoption so as not to violate children’s human rights.
Bartholet doesn’t have faith in Guatemala’s current system.
“The kids who grow up damaged…that doesn’t matter in the calculus of these people,” she said. Castenada believes that the system must change, and she thinks international pressure is key.
“The time it takes to adopt a child [needs to change],” she said. “Changing all the processes so that children go with a family since infancy.”