Officially known as the Republic of Guatemala, Guatemala is a country in Central America that borders Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. This beautiful nation is comprised of volcanoes, rainforests, mountains, and thousands of miles of shoreline that border both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The Ancient Mayan civilization is said to have been based within the borders of modern-day Guatemala. Much of the Mayan culture still lives on within Guatemala’s people.
From 1960-1996, Guatemala endured a civil war that left thousands of citizens dead and hundreds of children orphaned. It was against this backdrop that intercountry adoption from Guatemala to the United States began. Intercountry adoption is when a child who resides in one country is adopted by adoptive parents who reside in another country. Because adoption is a legal act, the laws of both countries must be followed. In the United States, though domestic adoption is governed by state law, international adoption is governed by federal law. The same is true of other countries, though many times the states or provinces within those countries still have a mandate over the logistics of the adoption proceedings.
For prospective adoptive parents interested in Guatemala adoption, it is important to understand the history of the United States’ relationship with Guatemala and intercountry adoption. Intercountry adoption is only feasible if both countries allow it. Throughout the history of intercountry adoption, there have been many changes in the country’s policies that have either allowed or discontinued intercountry adoption between countries. Some countries, such as China, have remained steadfast while others, such as Ethiopia, have discontinued adoptions. The reasons behind the discontinuation of intercountry adoption vary, but typically it is terminated due to ethical or political factors or civil unrest.
The History of Adoption in Guatemala
When intercountry adoptions from Guatemala first began, the children available for international adoption were typically under the age of one. Many were healthy and said to be residing in institutional care. Adoption from Guatemala was attractive to prospective adoptive parents who wished to grow their family through adoption as the available children were very young and healthy (this stands in contrast to the landscape of intercountry adoption today where the children are older and often have special needs). The timeline for adoption was under a year from the completion of your home study to dossier submission and travel. In 1999, the first year for which data is available, the U.S. Department of State reported 1,002 intercountry adoptions from Guatemala to the United States. The same year, the two top sending countries, China and Russia, reported 4,108 intercountry adoptions from China to the United States and 4,381 intercountry adoptions from Russia to the United States.
In the following years, Guatemala adoption continued to steadily rise. At the height of intercountry adoption in 2007, 4,726 children were adopted from Guatemala to the United States. This represented a more than 400 percent increase in eight years. For a country roughly the size of Tennessee; this increase in adoptions seemed wildly disproportionate. Conversely, in that same year, 2,303 adoptions occurred from Russia to the United States and 5,453 from China to the United States. If China is so much larger than Guatemala, how could both counties have sent roughly the same amount of children to the United States through intercountry adoption? The numbers simply did not add up.
The Hague Convention
At the same time, intercountry adoptions were rising, the U.S. was considering signing the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect to Intercounty Adoption. The Hague Convention was formed in 1993 as a way to prevent the sale and trafficking of children between borders. With the rise in intercountry adoptions, the Convention wanted to ensure that each adoption was carried out in the most transparent, ethical way possible and that, in each case, intercountry adoption was in the best interest of the child. The Convention was the first of its kind to regulate a legal process across borders. About 95 countries have ratified the Convention.
One of the pillars of the Hague Convention is that in order for a child to be found eligible for intercountry adoption, two things must take place. First, it must be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the child is in fact an orphan. In many cases, this proof comes in the form of a certificate and a declaration that every attempt has been made to locate the child’s birth parents, If no contact is made, the child is ruled to be abandoned and eligible for adoption. Second, every attempt must have been made to place the child within their country of origin before intercountry adoption may be considered. It is in the best interest of the child to grow up in their own country of origin where he or she can be surrounded by the language and culture that is unique to them. However, should placement within the child’s country of origin not be possible, then it is believed to be in the best interest of the child to place the child with a forever family wherever that family may reside, even if that means it is in another country.
It is due to this change in policy that many of the children eligible for intercountry adoption are typically older (the average age at placement in 2019 was between one and four years of age according to the U.S. Department of State) and have some special need. Special needs may range from mild and/or medically correctable such as hearing loss, low vision, or cleft lip/palate, to more severe cases such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, or a heart condition. However, many children, typically age three and up, are categorized as a special needs case simply because of his or her age.
One of the other regulations of the Hague Convention is that each country that signs the agreement must agree to form and implement a central adoption authority. This takes the legal matter of adoption away from the state and provincial level and puts it squarely at the federal level. In the United States, the central adoption authority is the U.S. Department of State. In China, it is the CCCWA (China Center for Children’s Welfare and Adoption). In India, it is CARA (Central Adoption Resources Authority). In Guatemala, it is the CNA (Consejo Nacional de Adopciones, or National Adoption Council). Not only is the central adoption authority responsible for proving that the child is indeed an orphan, but they must also provide a comprehensive medical and social overview of the child and any family history knowledge available.
As a prospective adoptive parent, when you receive a referral you will evaluate it and then, if you feel the child is a good fit with your family, you will work to complete your dossier on that child. Included in the dossier is a form from the sending country (your child’s country of origin) stating the child is indeed an orphan. This form, and the attached supporting evidence, are then evaluated by the receiving country (in this case the United States) which will determine if the child is in fact an orphan and eligible for intercountry adoption. This step ensures that both the sending country and the receiving country have evaluated and agreed upon the status of the child.
The Hague Convention and Guatemala
The United States signed the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption on April 1, 2008. Though the Convention was evaluated by the country previously, this is the official date the rules and regulations of the Convention went into effect. This is significant because when the United States was evaluating signing the Hague Convention, Guatemala adoption was at its peak. The United States was the top receiving country for Guatemalan adoptees. So, before the United States signed the Convention, Guatemala took steps so that they too could become a signatory of the Convention, but there was a problem.
The number of adoptions that took place from Guatemala to the United States in 2007 seemed almost inconceivable. It is highly unlikely that all of the children adopted to the United States from Guatemala were in fact orphans and even more unlikely that attempts were made to place those children in-country before intercountry adoption was considered. Whispers of widespread corruption, fraud, and kidnapping began to circulate; so, in December 2007, Guatemala placed a moratorium on intercountry adoptions until they could develop a new process that would be more compliant with the Hague Convention.
On January 1, 2008, Guatemala signed the Hague Convention (four months before the United States) and formed a new Guatemalan Central Authority (CNA) to evaluate and process intercountry adoptions. At the time, there were 3,000 children whose cases hung in the air waiting to be evaluated and greenlit for intercountry adoption.It was devastating news to hopeful adoptive families in the process of adopting from Guatemala. They had worked months and months to match with their children and wanted to bring them home. But due to the widespread corruption, it was not entirely clear as to whether those children were in fact eligible for intercountry adoption and whether those children already had families within Guatemala or not.
Guatemala’s New Adoption Program
In November 2009, Guatemala proposed a new pilot program to process intercountry adoptions. The United States and nine other countries submitted letters of interest to the program and the hope was that this would lead to the United States resuming Guatemala adoption. On July 13, 2010, Guatemala’s CNA became the reigning agency for processing both domestic and international adoptions. This set-up is similar to what China, India, and South Korea have done and allows for all adoptions to be processed by the same entity as opposed to the United States where domestic adoption is governed at the state level. Under the new measures, and in keeping compliance with the Hague Convention, the CNA would first try to place a child with Guatemalan families and, if no family was available, the CNA would propose the child be placed internationally.
Yet, many families still hung in limbo from when their adoptions were halted in mid-process in 2007. In 2010, Ambassador Susan Jacobs traveled to Guatemala to attempt to negotiate the adoption of those children while at the same time asking for greater transparency in Guatemala’s adoption processing systems. Unfortunately, the trip did not garner the anticipated results and on October 5, 2010, the United States withdrew its letter of interest for the new Guatemalan adoption program.
One of the concerns was, and remains, the ethics with which intercountry adoption is conducted in Guatemala. At its peak, Guatemala adoption was a booming industry. When such large amounts of money are involved, the chance of ethical violations increases. Both the adoption lawyers, the orphanages, and members of the government have a vested interest in the adoption of a child going through regardless of whether it is in the best interest of the child, and regardless of whether the child is in fact an orphan.
The United States found that the new Guatemalan adoption program fell short of being Hague Convention compliant. The problem was particularly in the lack of implementing rules and regulations to safeguard against the wide ethical abuses and fraudulent practices that led intercountry adoptions to halt in Guatemala in 2007. The United States was not alone in continuing to disallow intercountry adoptions from Guatemala. Several countries also withdrew their letters of interest in Guatemala’s new pilot program and notably UNICEF (also known as the United Nations Children’s Fund) called for an end to the corruption and fraud surrounding Guatemalan intercountry adoption.
Guatemala Adoption Today
Today, intercountry adoption is still not possible from Guatemala to the United States. The United States remains hopeful that the situation in Guatemala will improve and that the government will take the steps necessary to become fully Hague Convention compliant. To date, many families remain in limbo though both the United States government and the government of Guatemala and CNA are dedicated to processing these adoptions. There were no adoptions from Guatemala to the United States completed in 2019.
Other Intercountry Adoption Opportunities
Though adoption from Guatemala is currently not possible, changes in country policy occur all the time, countries that were once closed may open, and vice-versa. If you are interested in intercountry adoption, take some time to look through the list of some of the most popular countries for intercountry adoption. Do your research, find what culture might speak to you and which agencies work with which countries; consult with them on current timelines and children available for adoption. When we began our journey six years ago, I never would have imagined we would have a son from China and a daughter from India. International adoption landscapes change all the time, but the one thing that remains constant is the need for forever families.