Thursday, October 1, 2009

There is no plan B for the Guatemalan Children.

October 2, 2009

This is an edited version of a speech that I delivered at the Focus On Adoption conference in Guatemala City, on February 21, 2007, few months before the Adoptions Law was passed by Congress, under the pressure of UNICEF and the US DOS. The attendants were mostly adoption agents from the US and Guatemalan adoption professionals.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being here. Thank you for having me here.

When I learned that I was one of the speakers for this conference, I was at a loss about what could I tell you that you do not already know. I thought about giving you statistics about the high level of poverty, of illiteracy, of malnutrition, of child labor and of children who die of curable diseases, for lack of medical attention. But then I thought that you would forget those numbers right away and just keep the idea that Guatemala is a very poor country, with all the problems that this brings. But that is not the whole story.

Guatemala is a country full of contrasts, and like the sides of a coin, they exist back to back. Let me give you some examples:

- With one of the highest rates of illiteracy in the world, Guatemala has a writer. Miguel Angel Asturias, who was awarded the Literature Nobel Prize;

- With 36 years of civil war, we have a Guatemalan who was awarded a Peace Nobel Prize.

- Half of the children of Guatemala suffer chronic malnourishment, which is a moderate form of starvation. However, almost fifty years ago, the Guatemalan Dr. Ricardo Bressani, invented what is known as “Incaparina”, and it is advertised as “a vegetable mix that is delicious as well as highly nutritional. Incaparina is so rich in Vitamins and Minerals that many international food and aid agencies use it to treat protein/calorie malnutrition in infants, children and adults alike.” At very low cost, Incaparina is part of the diet of many people, not only in Guatemala, but in many other countries, but unfortunately, it is in Guatemala where those who really need it, cannot afford it and the government has no budget for its cost free distribution to improve the diet of the malnourished children.

- The poverty of Guatemala is unseen for most of us. When you come to our country, you find a city with many good restaurants, hotels American style, many cars that cause frustrating traffic jams and modern buildings and shopping centers, full of shoppers. But if you go to the country side, you will see what real poverty is. Words cannot begin to describe the living conditions of more than half of the population of this country, who face every day the challenge of surviving without the most basic resources to satisfy their needs.

- Of the half a million children that are born each year, 32 of each thousand will die as infants and 43 of each thousand children will die before their fifth birthday of pneumonia, diarrhea and other curable diseases. Those numbers do not attract the media attention that four thousand adoptions a year do.

- The public hospitals are a total disaster. With no funds to work and very low salaries, the doctors of the public health system went on a strike that lasted a good part of last year, until a ruling of the Supreme Court ordered them to go back to work. The lack of medications, of equipment, of sanitary conditions, make the stay at one of those hospitals a health hazard. On the other hand, all the private hospitals in Guatemala City are being remodeled or new ones are being built, with modern and expensive equipment, to attract the patients who travel to the United States to take care of surgical procedures, from the removal of a mole, to an organ transplant. Doctors who went to specialize in the United States are coming back, to work in Guatemala, but only to those who can afford their fees.

- While the adults find difficult to get a job, almost a million children work in Guatemala to support themselves and help to support their families. Two thirds of them live in poverty and one third in extreme poverty.

- Guatemala is a member to many international conventions that protect intellectual property rights. Accordingly, a couple of weeks ago the District Attorney for Felonies Against Intellectual Property, with the help of several policemen and the army, confiscated illegally burnt cds and movies, sold in the main street of downtown. The result was over a million disks confiscated and five people under arrest. The following days, the editorials of the newspapers were slamming the authorities for “abusing their power” and “preventing those poor people from making a decent living” said the Commissioner against Corruption. “Why beat them when they are already down?” claimed a former minister of Foreign Affairs.

The contrasts are endless. Some of them are – at least to me – impossible to understand. The Guatemalan authorities are very worried about the deportations of illegal immigrants that the United States authorities are doing of thousands of Guatemalans who, braking the Immigration and Labor laws of the United States, try to make a living in that country. But the children who are legally adopted and given the American citizenship, are perceived by the Guatemalan authorities as “a problem” and as “something that should be stopped”. Both, the immigrants and the adopted children have the right to a better life, and both deserve the protection of the authorities. But the people who smuggle the illegal aliens into the United States are not perceived as badly as the adoption attorneys. We are regarded as “a mafia” and accused of “renting bellies to produce babies for adoptions”. The adoptive families are accused of “using the children for organ harvesting” or “for sex slaves” without any evidence to support those allegations. Last year there was an attempt by the District Attorney to regard all adoptions as “sale of children” and to consider as a felony any activity related to placing a child with an adoptive family. We had to remind him that only Congress can make laws and that adoption is protected by the Constitution, so it cannot be considered as a felony. He had to back off, but for a few days, we were facing the possibility of an arrest.

The United States is the country where most of the Guatemalan children are adopted, and to do so we have been fulfilling every requirement that the US embassy in Guatemala deems necessary. Over the years the process to apply for the visa of an adopted child has became increasingly complicated and requires several documents from both countries and a DNA test. Despite the complexity of the process, the number of adoptions from Guatemala is higher every year, at the same time that the adoptions from other Latin American countries are less and less. We were informed by the American Consul that the United States wants Guatemala to implement the Hague Convention or they will close the door to our children. The United States expect to ratify the Hague Convention sometime this year and become bound by the convention three months later, so it is reasonable to expect that it will happen towards the end of 2007, beginning of 2008.

In September last year, Joint Council for International Children’s Services (JCICS) sent a delegation formed by Tom DiFilipo, Director of International Relations – later appointed President and CEO- , Hannah Wallace and Chris Huber. At a dinner that I hosted at my home, we met with all the parties interested in adoptions to find the way to adapt the legislation of Guatemala to the Hague Convention: Asociacion Defensores de la Adopcion, Instituto de Derecho de Familia, Congressmen, lawyers and hogar directors. The Joint Council delegation also met with officers of the Guatemalan government and of the US embassy and with the staff of Wendy de Berger. Even though everybody has a different idea of how the changes must be done, we all have agreed that they are necessary if we want adoptions to the US to remain an option for the children of Guatemala.

The way the Hague Convention is implemented, is up to each country. We were told that the Department of State will not tell us how to do it. We trust that our Congress will do it in a manner consistent with our Constitution and our laws, and taking into consideration the social and economical situation of our country. We do not want one of those laws that in paper look good but when they are applied to real situations, they simply do not work. We believe that the congressmen will be able to find the way to take the good of the Hague Convention and satisfy its requirements without making the children wait more than what they do now.

I am sure that you, as adoption agencies, are asked very often: WILL ADOPTIONS FROM GUATEMALA CONTINUE? The answer is YES. The Congress of Guatemala is aware that a government that cannot provide for its most vulnerable people, the abandoned children, should not get in their way to a better life with a permanent loving family. The people in the United States who would want to adopt a child from Guatemala, but are afraid to start a process, should know that we are here and we will not let the nightmare of 2003 to happen again. We won then and we will make it again, if we need to do so. Unless the social and economic conditions of Guatemala drastically improve, the only way out for many children is adoption. We ask you to keep open your Guatemalan adoption programs and to trust that we will be able to use the legal recourses at our disposal, if the process of adoption is derailed by illegal measures. We are aware that you may open programs in other countries, that in 2004 there were one hundred and forty three million orphaned and abandoned children in 93 developing countries, and that those figures increase every year, and that adopting from Guatemala is not for the faint of heart. But the children of Guatemala who need a family, if they are not adopted, they will either die or be exploited or abused by whoever takes charge of them. The government does not have orphanages or the social welfare structure to provide for them. Adoptions must continue, because there is no plan B for the children of Guatemala.

Thank you. "

In my next posts I will elaborate about the current situation of the children who still don't have a plan B.

Best regards,

Susana Luarca

History of Adoptions in Guatemala

As most lawyers in Guatemala, I did not have anything to do with adoptions, until my life was touched by adoption, many years ago, when I was required by a couple of US friends to help them with the adoption of a little girl who is now married and has a baby of her own. Until an Adoptions Law changed the legal process in December 31st., 2007, the adoption process in Guatemala was handled privately, with the oversight of a Family Court and of the State Attorney. Both had to approve the adoption, before it could be authorized. During the time that it took to get the proper authorizations and to comply with the migration requirements if the adoptive parents resided abroad, the children lived at private orphanages or with foster mothers, which proved to be a good way to care for the children until their parents could take them home.

During many years, those who do not want children from Less Developed Countries to be adopted by families of the First World countries, fought very hard to close down adoptions worlwide, under the pretense of “protecting the children”. Since the unwanted children are invisible to most governments in Guatemala, the only ones who fought to keep adoptions open, were the lawyers, who were accused by the properly rewarded media, of unduly profiting with the lives of the children being adopted. Although Guatemala is in the second tier and in the watch list of the countries who do not properly attack traffic of people for slavery and sexual exploitation, that does not attract the media attention as much as the fact that in a country where everything is an uphill battle, we managed to do more adoptions t o the United States than most other countries, simply because the State intervention in Guatemala was limited to approve the cases and the bureaucrats did not handled the processes. After an aggressive campaign that included threats to the congressmen to cancel their US visas if they did not approve an Adoptions Law designed to make adoptions impossible and with the collaboration of a Constitutional Court whose magistrates rule as they are told, at the end of 2007, the Adoptions Law was approved by Congress and The Hague Convention was resurrected by the Constitutional Court, after being ruled unconstitutional in 2003.

The Hague Convention for international adoptions, as it is commonly referred, is a treaty sponsored by The Hague Conference of International Private Law, that in the surface appears to be a legal frame to adapt the adoptions laws of the countries who are members to that convention, to a set of rules that are meant to protect the children. What it actually does is to close down adoptions on both ends. For many years, the number of children who were adopted from Guatemala was reasonable, according to the US Department of State standards, thanks to the discredit that the adoption attorneys got for devoting themselves to “such activity”. The police raids of the foster homes and the constant harassment of the police and the media exposure, discouraged those who were faint of heart. Gradually, as other countries closed down, thanks to the Hague Convention gaining new territories, Guatemalan was chosen by more adoptive parents because it allowed the adoption of healthy babies, through a legal process that allowed the parents to take their child home within six to eight months, while the children could be visited by their adoptive parents and kept with them at their hotels or even fostered in Antigua, a beautiful colonial city not far from Guatemala City. After staying at out of the way little hotels for many years, the adopting parents started staying at the best hotels, where they did no effort to hide the love and joy that they felt for their Guatemalan children. The lobbies of the hotels started to look crowded with strollers, foster mothers delivering or picking up children, and lawyers talking with the parents and poring over legal documents. It was also due to the harassment of the police, who always looking for a way to extort money from the adopting parents, stalked them near the hotels, waiting for them to take a stroll with their babies, to show up asking for papers (as an adoptive father said: “papers with pictures of US presidents”). That forced them to stay inside of the hotels and since the smaller hotels usually do not have restaurants and swimming pool, the largest and better equipped hotels were chosen for their stay.

For those who believe that adoption is a silent migration, the increase in the number of adoptions became a way to circumvent the rigorous laws that prevent the undesirables to migrate to the United States and Western Europe. The children were being brought into their countries, not by the back door, to be raised devoid of any legal protection, but through the front door, with the responsibility of their governments to watch over them, or to risk the bad publicity that could bring that an adoptive parent did not take good care of their foreign adopted child.

UNICEF was created after the Second World War, as the greatest effort from mankind to help the children in the countries ravaged by the war. It grew until it became one of the largest entities of the United Nations Organization. Because it has a very respectable face, it is difficult to believe that UNICEF is being used to stop adoptions worldwide, in a dirty war that does nothing to help the needy children of the Third World countries, but does everything to stop any effort to give them a permanent loving home in another country. The Hague Convention was conceived in the dark womb of UNICEF and it has been very successful thus far to close down almost all the adoption agencies in the United States and of a decline of 97% of adoptions in Guatemala. November is when UNICEF does its greatest collection campaign. If your care a little for the children in Guatemala, who no longer are being adopted because of their bottomless back of dirty tricks, do not donate to UNICEF. Give it to any other charity, that even if that charity is self serving, at least it will not be used to exterminate children whose only sin was to be born in the wrong country.

Guatemala, October 1st., Day of the Child , 2009.