Families in limbo over adoptions from Guatemalaby Laurie Stern, Minnesota Public Radio
Many Minnesotans who adopt internationally choose children from China, but a close second is Guatemala, a much smaller country. Last year, Guatemala sent nearly 5,000 babies to the U.S. A baby born in Guatemala in 2006 would have a one in 100 chance of growing up an adopted American.
But this year, would-be parents in Minnesota and every other state are finding their pending adoptions threatened, because of a new effort to prevent child trafficking in adoptions from Guatemala. Some families who've started the adoption process are wondering whether the children they have started calling their own will actually come home to Minnesota.
American Radioworks producer Laurie Stern adopted her son from Guatemala nine years ago. She was back in Guatemala over the holidays, and met some Minnesotans caught in the limbo.
St. Paul, Minn. — I arranged to meet the Schoens in the lobby of the Guatemala City Marriott. You'd think it would be easy to spot them, but when I walked in I saw five or six American couples with Guatemalan babies. So it was up to Pam and Richard Schoen to recognize me.
Richard was cuddling a sleepy 9-month-old girl in his arms. It's the fourth time he and Pam have visited since the agency sent them Isabel's picture last summer.
The Schoens live in Minnetonka. Richard has a small software business, and Pam teaches English at Hopkins High School. It's hard for them to leave their jobs and find the money to come, but it's harder to stay away from Isabel.
"We've imagined the what-ifs," says Pam Schoen, "and at this point having met her, held her, and smelled her and kissed her, she's our daughter and I can't imagine losing her."
Isabel is the Schoens' daughter in every way -- except legally. Legally, she belongs to the foster mother who takes care of her while the adoption process is underway.
For years, the lobbies of the tourist hotels in Guatemala's capital city have been full of families like the Schoens -- families who come to spend a few days with the babies they plan to adopt. It's very easy to meet people here, because everybody's got this common bond and everyone's walking around with these beautiful babies.
But the big hotels aren't as full of waiting parents as they used to be. The flow of babies from Guatemala to America may be cut off soon.
On Jan. 1, 2008, Guatemala signed the Hague Convention, a treaty meant to clean up international adoption.
No one is sure how that will play out in Guatemala, but the new law means longer waits and more uncertainty for couples like the Schoens -- and the Schmelz family, from Hudson, Wisconsin.
"When we came here the first of July, you'd walk around the village and you'd see all kinds of American families that you could tell were fostering children," says Tom Schmelz. "Today you rarely see an American family with a child or two walking throughout the village -- it's just very rare."
Debra Schmelz lives in a gated community in Antigua, about an hour west of the capital, Guatemala City. Tom flies down to visit one week every month.
Tom and Debra Schmelz hired a fulltime nanny because they have two babies. They wanted to adopt a sibling for the older one before adoptions shut down. Now, 9-month-old Maria is officially theirs, but 5-month old Eliana's case is still open.
"If anyone in the biological mother's family changed their minds, the authorities here in Guatemala still, at this point, would permit the child to be taken by the biological family," says Debra Schmelz, adding that she and her husband are worried that could happen to them.
Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. One-third of families here survive on less than $2 a day.
Adoption here started in the mid-1990s, and it's no wonder it's taken off. The price has grown, too -- up to $30,000 to adopt a child born here. Adoption has become big business -- big and largely unregulated.
So much cash sloshing around a desperately poor country has led to allegations of baby-selling and fraud. In a few reported cases, unscrupulous middlemen lied to vulnerable parents at both ends of the adoption -- the birth mother who relinquished her child and the Americans who wanted to adopt.
Minnesotan Shaun Nugent knows what that deception feels like.
"It started off as a very simple referral, just like every other adoption. But as we got down here, we quickly found out that the facts that we were presented with the referral weren't indeed the facts," Shaun says. "We were told she's a two-and-a-half-year-old. Clearly she's not two and a half."
The little girl is really four and a half.
"The woman that was representing that she's her mother wasn't really her mother, and there were all sorts of other problems," Nugent continues. "So when all these problems came out through the DNA tests that were required under the rules of adoption, Chris and I made the decision that we were going to fight back, and we effectively took control of the process."
Last spring, Shaun Nugent and his wife, Chris Denton, quit their jobs and moved to Guatemala. Nugent used to be CEO of Sun Country Airlines, so the couple could afford to set up a second home.
They fired their adoption agency and hired a new lawyer. Still, after 10 months, because they don't have legal custody, Shaun and Chris see their daughter only on nights and weekends. She spends her days in an orphanage.
"It's been a very, very, very emotional hardship, it's been a financial hardship, it's been very difficult for us," says Shaun. "We are where we are, but it's like our chips were on the table and we couldn't pull them back."
Shaun and Chris say their own experience convinced them of the need for reform.
"There are drivers for adoption, there are discounts for adoptive parents, so it is a business, it's a market," says Chris Denton. "And there's a lot of talk of corruption, there's a lot of talk of women making babies for money."
It's hard to know how often this happens, because there are only a handful of documented cases of birth mothers being coerced into giving up their babies. Most people who work in adoption say they do it for love, not money.
The United States will sign the Hague Convention on April 1, 2008. So if Guatemala has not reformed its system by that date, the U.S. will no longer approve adoptions from Guatemala.
"The Hague treaty -- the provisions in the Hague treaty -- was designed by the first world," Shaun Nugent says. "It's going to be very difficult to fund, it's going to be difficult to regulate. And it's going to be very difficult to implement the idealistic provisions within the accord."
The Hague Convention reflects worldwide consensus that birth mothers and children should be protected. It seeks to reassure adoptive parents that the process is clean and transparent.
But many families are caught in limbo. The Schoens from Minnetonka -- the family we met at the Marriott -- are among them. They say they will do whatever it takes to be with the child they call their own.
"If there is a delay, we've thought possibly about me moving down here and fostering," says Pam Schoen. "And I'm ready for that. Tomorrow. I'm ready to do that. I guess I can't go to the place where we would lose her entirely. I can't go there."
The U.S. State Department and reputable agencies have issued warnings against new Guatemalan adoptions. But a few agencies are still accepting fees from unwary prospective parents -- and promising a Guatemalan child who may never arrive.
- Morning Edition, 01/25/2008, 7:50 a.m.