UNICEF has been waging war against international adoption for many years contrary to popular understanding. It’s a war with results that fall far short of real time solutions to the spoils of its victories. UNICEF’s premise that parents in underdeveloped countries should be provided the means to keep their children is not arguable. Neither is UNICEF’s stance that international adoption should only be a last resort.
However, UNICEF’s tough and effective pressure tactics and lobbying efforts towards developing nations calling for ratification of the Hague Treaty for the Protection of Children and implementation of adoption law and policy models which effectively serve to close programs completely or almost completely to foreign adopters belies a misguided, unrealistic and out of touch policy contrary to the best interests of hundreds of thousands of legitimately orphaned and abandoned children around the world. These efforts have resulted in the semi or complete closure of adoptions around the world in such countries as Guatemala, Bulgaria, Paraguay, and Romania to mention just a few examples.
Let’s take the example of Guatemala. After intense pressure from UNICEF, Guatemala finally closed its doors to international adoption on December 31, 2008. Prior to that time, foreign nationals adopted approximately 5,000 Guatemalan children per year. Oscar Avila, “Guatemala Seeks Domestic Fix to Troubled Overseas Adoptions,” Chicago Tribune, October 26, 2008 indicated that “Guatemala has launched an ambitious campaign to recruit foster parents and even adoptive parents at home.” So far, the program is failing miserably. Avila reports, “Only about 45 families in a nation of 13 million currently have taken in foster children since the program began this year.”
The approach that Guatemala is taking by attempting to gain domestic attention to the problem is certainly meritorius; however, this approach could and should have been implemented concomitant with an international program which would ensure that thousands of children will find homes rather than waste away in institutions that are often underfunded, understaffed and unable to provide for the needs of these children.
One of the main criticisms of the Guatemalan adoption program prior to its closure was that it was in the hands of private attorneys who depended on sometimes unscrupulous middlemen to procure birthmothers wanting to give up their children and perhaps those not wanting to give up their children. Of course this depiction glosses over the nature of how this practice developed in remote villages in Guatemala, far from the lawyers in Guatemala City who could arrange adoptions by foreign nationals. It was a practical way to connect birthmothers, who were seeking adoption as an option to their usually dire circumstances, to attorneys who could then take the children into custody through the use of foster homes and then place the children with families abroad through adoption proceedings. It is interesting to note that neither UNICEF nor the Guatemalan government could see that there could be a middle ground to solving the problem of unscrupulous middlemen who were supposedly forcing these women to give up their children, paying the women as an inducement, or even, as many reports claimed, kidnapping these children for adoption. Many of these reports glossed over the fact that birth mothers had to relinquish their child to an attorney advising her of her rights, undergo an interview with the Family Court, DNA testing of the birth mother and child, review by the Guatemalan Solicitor General’s office, and once again, the birth mother’s consent to the adoption after the Solicitor General’s approval. The Embassies regularly interviewed birth mothers and conducted investigations at random or of cases that appeared questionable. During the last year of adoptions in Guatemala, a 2nd DNA test was required at the end of the process based on accusations of child switching with unimpressive findings to back up these wanton allegations.
Avila’s report indicates that the Guatemalan Department of Social Welfare has now created satellite offices all over the country in an attempt to increase its pool of families interested in fostering or adopting these children. Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of reform that many adoption attorneys called for which would remove involvement by middlemen but allow attorneys to work with the Department of Social Welfare in concert with its ongoing program to promote foster care and adoption domestically. UNICEF would not come to the table nor would the Guatemalan government which was eager to completely shut the door on international adoption in response to UNICEF’s strong and effective lobbying efforts.
Another example of misguided criticism regarding international adoption is in Malawi, where the infamous Madonna adoption took place. Malawi is a country of 13 million and approximately 1 million are orphans half of which are “AIDS orphans”. Solutions are slow in coming in a nation beset by an AIDS epidemic infecting almost one fourth of its population. These orphaned children deserve a chance at having permanent homes and families. International adoption is not a perfect solution to the problem in Malawi and so many other nations of Africa but it saves lives, gives children a chance, one adoption at a time.
Of course, most would agree that international adoption should not be the sole answer to poverty faced by nations around the world. No rational person would think so. International adoption should be seen as a stopgap emergency measure taken while the United Nations, human rights groups, humanitarian organizations and the governments of these underdeveloped countries seek answers to the abject poverty, high birth rates, AIDS epidemic, malnutrition, lack of education, lack of women’s rights, and massive unemployment which lead to parents making these hard decisions about the future of their offspring. International adoption is one temporary cog in the wheel. UNICEF and other detractors and critics of international adoption have continually failed to recognize the vital emergency role of international adoption and how compromise and middle ground solutions could serve the orphaned and abandoned children.