Up For Grabs: Guatemala’s Adoption Crisis

The job of Guatemala’s CNA is to establish regulations and standards to curb corruption and graft in the country’s adoption system.

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By Serena Chan

Sixty four year-old Californian Susan Bailey was thrust into the public eye in 2011 when she was accused of trafficking numerous Guatemalan adoptee children by doctoring various documents and paperwork. Since the ‘90s, Bailey had been running a Guatemalan school called Semillas de Amor, or Seeds of Love, that focused on educating children in poverty. She also encouraged people from the U.S. to adopt some of the orphans who resided at her school. Bailey was reported to federal authorities in 2007, after foreign adoptions from Guatemala were outlawed by the government under the premise that these adoptions would result in corruption and the forceful taking of children.

Guatemala was one of the most popular countries for hopeful parents to adopt children in the world before 2007. However, the Guatemalan government, lacking any standardized regulations for the operation of the public adoption system, introduced a moratorium on all adoptions of Guatemalan children, one to be lifted only after the development and implementation of a more efficient and less corrupt system. The revamped system itself has had several consequences both on adoptees and families who want to adopt. The first is that there is a significant delay of up to an added seven years due to the government’s insistence on first placing a potential adoptee with any family members and then with a Guatemalan family within the home country. If that didn’t work, only then would the government allow the paperwork for the intercountry adoption to take place.

Another serious issue arose as a result of the government’s mismanagement of the adoption system: widespread and unregulated child trafficking. In some cases, Guatemalan children in stable and welcoming homes stand the chance of being forcefully taken from their guardians and adopted by another family. Lawyers and agencies who facilitate these forced adoptions can doctor documents of identification and other important paperwork, further entangling the system in fraud and graft.

The adoption system also lacks comprehensive and thorough background checks, which, as reported by a Guatemalan teenager, once resulted in her adoption by a pedophile. Though she eventually escaped, her brother is still currently living with the man. Having a standardized system that follows international law makes it easier to predict, track, and address different scenarios and cases.

The Guatemalan government attempted to fix the systemic corruption in 2007 by creating a new political entity: the National Council of Adoptions (CNA). It was tasked with reporting unwarranted cases of trafficking and adoptions as well as introducing necessary regulations. Though 10 countries—including the U.S.—expressed interest in participating in the CNA’s mission, many withdrew, hoping that their rejection would spur the CNA to speed up the process of cleaning up Guatemala’s adoption system.

Without the international support of other countries, the CNA has much to do. First, it should establish far stricter standards as a prerequisite for adoption. Yet simply revamping standards and legal procedures will not be enough; enforcement must follow. Past misdemeanors and criminal histories need to be addressed, and addressing them together represents international resistance to the structural violence that has resulted when corruption occurs. Though enough can never be quantified, especially in a situation like this, the process of addressing and shedding light on the past is what moves the current situation away from the status quo into a more progressive direction, which is key to establishing a better system.

There are several benefits to lifting the moratorium. First, it would streamline the adoption process greatly, decreasing artificial bureaucratic barriers and ensuring efficiency. It would also help more children find stable homes, as establishing thorough background checks will serve the purpose to hopefully ensure that trafficking and child violence won’t occur. Though expectations that people will immediately come flocking to Guatemala to adopt are misguided, an improved system would undoubtedly increase the number of successful and stable adoptions. Some may argue that this will strain the capabilities of the various legal agencies in Guatemala. However, this argument fails to take into account the fact that the adoption system will inevitably improve in efficiency as it grows in popularity because of the increasing number of adoptions with time.

The corruption and inefficiency of the adoption system within Guatemala has become deeply normalized because of the seeming inaction by the government when it comes to addressing it. One of the largest factors is a lack of media attention from Guatemala and other countries, which have also been affected by the legal crisis. This is why rediscovering and addressing problematic issues deemed irrelevant to the status quo are especially key to challenging their normalization—particularly because we have the opportunity to change the world we live in. Otherwise, the resulting negative consequences will continue to fester and expand in impact, causing the world to remain complicit to violence rather than engaging it.