Guatemala's lawmakers may shut down largely unregulated system of child adoption

Jeff and Diana Kerr wanted to adopt the Guatemalan baby girl the moment they saw her photograph. The Minnesota couple decorated her pink and white nursery with pictures of flowers and butterflies, but now they don't know if the 8-month-old will ever become their daughter.

The Kerrs are among thousands of Americans trying to adopt 3,700 babies who are caught in limbo as Guatemala's lawmakers debate new rules that could all but shut down a largely unregulated system that has become the speediest place in the world to finalize an adoption.

"It's an emotionally taxing process," said Jeff Kerr, a 44-year-old financial adviser from Lino Lakes, Minnesota. "Every day you look at her picture and wonder if you're going to bring her home."

As early as this week, the legislature is expected to debate new rules to eliminate potential fraud in Guatemala's adoption process, which until now has been run from beginning to end by notaries who work with birth mothers, determine if babies were surrendered willingly, hire foster mothers and handle all the paperwork.

These notaries charge an average of US$30,000 (20,000 EUR) for children delivered in about nine months - record time for international adoptions. The process is so quick that one in every 100 Guatemalan children now grow up as an adopted American.

The Central American country sent 4,135 children to the U.S. last year, making it the largest source of babies for American families after much-bigger China.

The adoptions are a US$100 million (68 million EUR) a year industry for notaries.

But the system violates The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions, a treaty designed to prevent fraudulent adoptions. Both Guatemala and the United States have agreed to observe the treaty starting next year. Among other things, a government agency must oversee the process and determine if the child was legally surrendered by the birth mother.

Most agree the new rules will reduce the number of Guatemalan adoptions because the government doesn't have the resources to manage all the cases that notaries have handled and because of extra inspections intended to guarantee that each child is being given up willingly.

What this means for the Kerrs and other would-be parents whose adoptions are currently in process remains unclear.

The United States is pushing for a transition period so that the 3,700 adoptions now under way can be concluded under the existing law.

But scrutiny of the pending adoptions has turned up problems in about 1,000 cases, said Victor Mejicanos, a federal official who oversees adoptions.

"We have everything from altered birth certificates to birth mothers who change their minds and want their babies back," Mejicanos said.

And with only seven investigators, who deal with everything from parental neglect to domestic violence and other family issues, Mejicanos predicts adoptions will take much longer now.

Anticipating the new rules, the Guatemalan government has begun cracking down. In one high-profile case, it closed down the Casa Quivira adoption agency and took custody of 46 children. Just 10 of these have been cleared for adoption, Mejicanos said.

The rush to beat the deadline can be seen in the Guatemala City Marriott Hotel, so popular with adoptive parents that it has a play room where they can bond with their babies.

"We're some of the lucky ones," said Stephanie Rimmer, a 41-year-old attorney from Alabama who was just cleared to take home a 7-month-old baby girl. "I would be terrified to be starting an adoption in Guatemala right now."

The U.S. State Department has urged anyone wanting to adopt a child in Guatemala to wait until questions are resolved, yet adoptions of Guatemalan children by Americans rose 15 percent this year, to 4,758, according to the U.S. Embassy. In the last few months, however, these slowed to a trickle; most U.S. agencies have stopped referring parents to Guatemala.

Would-be parents have been lobbying U.S. lawmakers with letters and phone calls asking them to pressure Guatemala to allow pending adoptions to be completed under current rules. Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican from Minnesota, is visiting Guatemala this week to check on the progress of those requests.

The notary system has made it easy for scam artists to coerce women into selling their babies and in some cases, put stolen babies up for adoption, critics say. This week, women who say their children were stolen for adoption pushed empty baby carriages and set up empty cribs outside the attorney general's Office, complaining that prosecutors weren't doing enough.

The Guatemalan government says it will allow all pending adoptions to move forward, but only after the government adoption agency confirms each child was willingly given up and the child passes a second DNA test now required by the U.S. Embassy.

Congressman Rolando Morales, a leading proponent of reform, said the new rules will require that all babies be in the care of government-registered orphanages, something that may deter adoptions. The new law also will reduce the cost of adoptions, he said.

"The business of Guatemalan children has been very profitable for these notaries, but the money will no longer go to them," Morales said.

The Kerrs said they chose Guatemala because babies are placed with foster mothers during the adoption process and not in orphanages, like in most other countries.

"We feel really good to know that she is in a good place while we wait for her," Kerr said.

But Morales argues orphanages would be easier to monitor.

"Right now, no one knows where all the babies are being kept, and that will have to end," he said.

There are only four registered orphanages, and Morales acknowledged the government doesn't have the resources to house the thousands of children waiting for parents.

In the meantime, Jeff and Diana Kerr are visiting the girl they have named Katie, and hope to take her home by Christmas.

"We just know that we have to go back and see her over Thanksgiving," Jeff Kerr said.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova