A decade ago Guatemala’s hotels were full of light-skinned foreigners with dark-skinned babies. The country was sending nearly as many children to America for adoption as was China, despite a hundredfold difference in population. Between 1996 and 2008 more than 30,000 Guatemalan children were adopted abroad—in 2007 nearly one out of every 100 babies. Hotels in Guatemala City, the capital, had entire floors for child care and notaries’ offices. “Some countries export bananas,” says Fernando Linares Beltranena, who worked as an adoption lawyer. “We exported babies.”
Guatemala’s adoption business took off in the 1970s, when a civil war displaced hundreds of thousands, including many children. A 1977 law allowing notaries to facilitate adoptions helped shape an industry where anything went. After the war ended in 1996 the number of overseas adoptions rocketed. Americans and Europeans swooped in to adopt supposed orphans, unaware that many had been stolen from their families.
By the 2000s the country’s adoption “supply chain” had thousands of workers. “Snatchers” kidnapped or bought children; caretakers fed kids in “fattening houses” crammed with cribs; notaries and lawyers took chunky fees for the paperwork; and poor women were paid to get pregnant repeatedly. Most of the children being adopted by foreigners each year were “manufactured for the specific purpose of adoption”, says Rudy Zepeda of Guatemala’s National Council of Adoptions. Reports of baby-theft were ignored. “People looked to the state for help but the state was complicit,” says Laura Briggs, a historian at the University of Massachusetts. In 1997 there were fewer than 1,000 adoptions to America; a decade later there were five times as many.
Eventually, in 2008, in response to hunger strikes by mothers of stolen babies and pressure from the UN and receiving countries, Guatemala stopped foreign adoptions. Many other “sending” countries have seen the same pattern: a big rise in adoptions; claims, first ignored and then acknowledged, of rampant child-trafficking; a shutdown; and then—in the best cases—slow reform. As one country after another has tightened up its rules (see chart), the number of overseas adoptions has fallen, from 45,000 in 2004 to 12,500 in 2015.
One consequence is that couples in the rich world find it harder to adopt a baby from a poor country. Another is a debate about the place of cross-border adoption in broader attempts to help children in poor countries. Advocates see it as the only way to save “hard-to-place” children—older, with severe health problems or in sibling groups—from life in an institution. Critics note that some children adopted into a different culture later feel unhappy about having been uprooted. Some also dismiss overseas adoption as a distraction from other ways of reducing poverty.
It was the rushed, often illegal overseas adoption of thousands of children from Romanian orphanages after the fall of the dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, in 1989 that first led activists to call for global adoption standards. The result was the Hague convention of 1993, which said that governments should verify children’s origins and oversee all adoptions, taking them out of private lawyers’ hands. It also established the “subsidiarity principle” that first relatives and then local adoptive parents should be sought before looking abroad.
No place left
As one country after another became more stringent, adopters and agencies moved on to others with still-lax rules. In the 1980s 56% of all international adoptions had been from just three countries—Colombia, India and South Korea. By 1998 the top three were China, Russia and Vietnam. Some governments blacklisted countries that were slow to follow the new rules. By 2002 Canada, France, Italy and Spain had all stopped accepting adoptions from Guatemala, though America continued until it ratified the convention in 2008. American adoption agencies then turned to Africa, in particular Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo—which are now tightening up in turn.
Few development types have noticed. They pay little attention to international adoption, arguing that most vulnerable children in poor countries need not a new family but support in their current one. They point to how Guatemala, for example, devotes less than 3.4% of its GDP to public spending that directly helps children and adolescents, the lowest rate in Central America. “Adoption is a symptom of a society that can’t care for its children,” adds Ms Briggs.
Among other critics of overseas adoption are some adult adoptees who have begun to speak publicly about how hard they found it growing up knowing little about the culture and circumstances into which they were born. Jean Sebastien Zune, who is active in the European organisation La Voix des Adoptés, the Voice of Adoptees, was adopted from Guatemala by Belgian parents in 1985. He returned in 2013 to look for his birth parents. He tracked down the man and woman whose names appeared on his birth certificate but neither was related to him.
In fact, as Mr Zune discovered with the help of government investigators, he was probably born in a Mexican border town and given to a criminal network in Guatemala. He plans to file cases against traffickers in Guatemala and the Belgian adoption agency he accuses of having been complicit in the fraud. “Adoption is not just paperwork and an aeroplane ticket,” he says. “When a child grows up, you need to be able to tell him where he came from.”
Though some countries, notably China, have built domestic adoption programmes as envisaged by the Hague convention, in many others locals have not taken up the slack. Globally, there are hundreds of thousands of children in state institutions because they have no family to care for them. They should be candidates for adoption—but many have health problems, and most are over five years old and have been harmed by neglect. “The profile is completely different from what most families can handle,” says David Smolin of Samford University in Alabama.
Things are even tougher when the children in need of adoption come from a different ethnic group from the people who want to adopt. In Guatemala many of the children seeking new families are indigenous. In South Korea and many African countries domestic adoption efforts are also hampered by a cultural prejudice against bringing unrelated children into the household. “There’s a lot of stigma. People worry that kids with different blood will be badly behaved, uncivilised, even dirty,” says Aixa de López, an evangelical pastor who adopted two girls, aged six and nine, with her husband and runs a support group for adoptive families.
David McCormick, a social worker at Casa Bernabé, an orphanage near Guatemala City, says the home was unprepared for the rising number of older children needing institutional care because of the new rules. Previously, half of the 15-20 children adopted from the orphanage each year—by foreigners—were over ten years old. “Now we have an average of three adoptions a year, and they’re all babies,” he says. Of 339 children awaiting adoption in Guatemala, only 34 are babies and toddlers without special needs. But few of the 85 Guatemalan families waiting to adopt will consider older children.
Children around the world “are languishing in institutions because the Hague has been wrongly interpreted and badly implemented,” says Peter Hayes of the University of Sunderland. Excessive oversight means it can take years before a child is declared available for adoption. “Kids dread their birthdays,” says Mr McCormick. “They know as they get older, the chance they’ll be adopted diminishes.”
Among those who want to help are evangelical Americans. Congregations have latched onto an estimate by UNICEF that there are 140m orphans in the world, declaring an “orphan crisis”. (This figure includes children who have lost just one parent.) In 2009 the Southern Baptist Convention, a network of about 50,000 churches and missions, directed all members to consider adoption. The next year adoptions brokered by Bethany Christian Services, America’s largest adoption agency, rose by 26%.
The fervour has abated somewhat after several scandals, such as when a Baptist congregation tried to sneak 33 children, most of whom had parents, out of Haiti in 2010. But Christians make up a large share of people seeking to adopt abroad, says Jedd Medefind of the Christian Alliance for Orphans. “It takes a very deep motivation to cause a family that could have a biological child to choose instead to welcome a child from another country with special needs,” he says. “It stems from the central Christian narrative, that God pursued us and welcomed us into his family when we were separated and alone.”
Shawn and Kathy Morkert, an evangelical couple from Missouri, have spent three years trying to adopt a seven-year-old girl with special needs from El Salvador, where hundreds of cases of baby theft during a civil war in the 1980s gave way to a slow and frustrating adoption system. “Sometimes the government’s decisions seem so arbitrary, we ask ourselves, are they waiting for us to offer money?” says Mr Morkert. Rosario de Barillas, the director of El Salvador’s National Adoption Office, blames a lack of social workers and judges. Lawyers criticise an overly rigid interpretation of the subsidiarity principle. Last year the country processed just four international adoptions and 59 domestic ones.
Such sluggishness infuriates overseas parents. But many sending countries say critics underestimate the difficulties of building a robust adoption system—and ask why, if people in rich countries really care about poor children in poor places, they do not fund domestic programmes to keep families together instead.
Some American charities have tried, reinventing themselves as welfare organisations focused on poor countries. Bethany has started foster-care programmes in five countries and is arranging more domestic adoptions. Similar efforts have, however, run into trouble. When Tom DiFilipo became director of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services in 2007, an umbrella organisation of about 140 agencies, he tried to redirect funding toward family-preservation efforts. He was dubbed the “Devil in Adoption” by adoption advocates and quit last year.
For sensible adoption advocates, the solution is simple: poor countries should fix their adoption systems so that, once domestic possibilities have been exhausted, foreigners can step in. “The Hague isn’t an expensive convention to uphold,” says Susan Jacobs, America’s ambassador for children’s issues. “Countries just need to take the initiative.”
And a few countries are leading the way. As El Salvador thrashes out its new adoption law, it looks for guidance to Colombia, which sends around 500 children abroad each year, nearly all older than seven or with special needs. Indeed, nowadays most of the 12,500 or so kids adopted globally by foreigners each year have special needs or are over five years old. El Salvador is poorer than Colombia, and its bureaucracy is less capable. But if it succeeds in its efforts to improve its adoption system, many more of the neediest children may find homes.
“We do our best,” says Leticia Abarca of St Vincent de Paul Children’s Home, where the seven-year-old matched with the Morkerts has spent her life. “But there’s an emptiness only a family can fill.”