Nobody’s Children – Wanted: Babies

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Jim Rankin, Tanya Talaga and Leslie Papp investigated adoption practices in Canada and around the world.
The Toronto Star
Sep. 29, 2001. 02:14 AM

Murky, lucrative and fraught with uncertainty, foreign adoption can bring great happiness – along with heartbreak and tears

[CAPTION] GONE: Irene Lopez de Rosales holds photographs of her late daughter Nancy and granddaughter Floridalma.

A distraught family pleads for the return of a 5-year-old girl, whisked from Guatemala by a Tennessee couple.

In Vietnam, a poverty-stricken mother sheds bitter tears as she hands her daughter to the Canadian woman who will be her new mom.

A Waterloo woman, desperate to adopt, stumbles through Armenia, from one shady character to another – each demanding cash for a child.

Scenes from the dark side of international adoption are all too common as a flood of well-meaning Americans and Canadians, rich by Third World standards, go abroad for the child of their dreams.

They go to China, Vietnam and Guatemala. To Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus. To any land where babies are deemed a burden, where poverty weakens parents’ hold on their children, where adoption is quick and final. And always lucrative.

In the process, many foreign children are given new lives, more comfortable than possible in their homeland. But there are many broken hearts, in the vulnerable families left behind and among the North Americans who venture into the often murky world of international adoption.

In a dimly-lit legal office, in the poorest, diesel-choked part of Guatemala City, a family gathers to tell the story of how little Floridalma Carolina Rosales-Lopez was lost.

In January, after the death of her mother from an AIDS-related illness, and amid legal moves by her grandparents to keep her, a Guatemalan court allowed Floridalma to be adopted.

In the United States, new parents who paid thousands to adopt the 5-year-old likely do not know she is very much wanted at home. And always was.

“We want to recover our granddaughter,” says Irene Lopez de Rosales, with her two other granddaughters – old enough to know their sister is gone – sitting quietly at her side.

“We want to have them together so that the three of them grow up together. That’s the only petition that I have, and I hope that it will rise to the ears of the people who have our child, who have an open heart, to return our child to us.”

A Guatemalan court document names Daniel and Jennifer Sewell as the adoptive parents. It doesn’t give an address. But this week The Star found the couple in Knoxville, Tenn. And Daniel Sewell, a medical doctor, confirmed they had adopted a girl from Guatemala.

When told that Floridalma’s grandparents are seeking her return, Sewell abruptly ended the telephone interview.

“I don’t think I have any interest in speaking with you,” said Sewell. He then hung up the phone.

In a chandelier-lit lobby of an opulent hotel, in the richest part of Guatemala City, a Canadian couple in the midst of adopting their second Guatemalan girl fuss over beautiful Maria, not yet 2.

“Zapatos,” she says, pointing to her shoes. David and Margo Winsor are delighted to hear her talking but wish she was already at home, in Toronto, speaking English. The girl should have been theirs and in Canada months ago. Under Guatemalan law, she’s already theirs. Not so by Canadian standards.

Maria’s mother has yet to come forward for a DNA test, demanded by Canadian authorities in Guatemala to ensure that women giving up their babies are indeed their mothers. A lawyer handling Maria’s Guatemalan paperwork also failed to have the child properly declared abandoned. The adoption is stalled, and may fall apart completely.

The Winsors have come to Guatemala to see their daughter, and try to get her home.

David is a 62-year-old retired United Church minister with three grown children and three grandchildren. Margo, 42, never had children of her own. The couple had the money, the means and the time to care for children and they badly wanted to adopt – something they had little hope of doing in Ontario because of their age.

Five years ago, the Winsors adopted baby Eden from Guatemala. She’s a precocious young lady now. Pig-tailed, bespectacled, and brimming with stories and questions.

David is sometimes mistaken for her grandfather. He doesn’t mind. “Eden really is the joy of our life. I thought, `Jeez, this is terrific,’ ” David says.

Several years after adopting Eden, the Winsors decided to find her a sister. And again, they turned to Guatemala. So far, the couple has spent about $25,000 on Maria’s adoption, made two trips to the country and, still, an empty crib waits at home.

While David has ethical problems with the huge sums of money adoptive parents must dish out, he strongly believes if money can save a child, he’s willing to spend it.

Inside the guarded Camino Real Hotel, they are able to at least visit with Maria. Nearby, a young American couple huddles over a tiny, writhing bundle, laying on a chaise in the lobby. It’s their bundle – a baby they’ll soon be taking home. David Winsor watches and remembers what it was like five years ago when he and Margo first saw Eden.

And then he thinks of how difficult it will be to leave Guatemala without Maria. Officials at the Canadian embassy have tracked down the couple believed to be Maria’s parents, and a DNA test is being planned. The child’s future rests on the results.

David, Margo, Eden and Maria take one last swim at the hotel pool, and then, in an awkward goodbye, hand Maria back to the foster family that has been hired by their lawyer to care for her.

“My heart is in my mouth now. I come here, spend four or five days, and if it doesn’t go through. I’ll tell you . . .” David says, his words choked off by emotion.

An increasing number of Canadian children find themselves wards of the state, but only a small number are adopted due to outdated policies and attitudes. Prospective parents with deep pockets and no time to waste are looking elsewhere.

At costs ranging from $20,000 to $35,000, Canadians bring home about 2,000 foreign-born children each year, with Ontario families accounting for about a third of those adoptions. In keeping with a trend that surfaced in the early ’90s, we continue to adopt more children internationally than we do from our hometowns.

Some would-be parents wait seven years or more for babies from Ontario children’s aid societies. Even then there are no guarantees. Some never find a child.

Going abroad seems a sure thing. But it can involve a world of problems.

There’s no guarantee of a healthy child. Despite medical screening in countries of origin, one in two children adopted internationally will bring to their new homes unexpected ailments, ranging from minor problems such as skin conditions to serious infectious disease and fetal alcohol syndrome. There also can be attachment difficulties and untold behavioural problems.

Allegations of baby buying, bribery and corrupt officials have repeatedly surfaced in countries like Guatemala and Vietnam. Adoptions of Vietnamese children into Canada recently dwindled to a trickle after a Vietnamese newspaper published allegations of yet another baby buying operation – this one involving an adoption facilitator used by Canadian agencies.

Once considered solely an altruistic act of love, international adoption has, in many cases, become tainted by money, greed and need. In Guatemala alone, which adopts out about 2,000 children a year, adoption has – by even the most conservative estimates – become a $40 million industry.

“It’s a tragedy for everybody,” says Elizabeth Gibbons, UNICEF’s representative in Guatemala City. “It’s a tragedy for children who are being bought and sold like some kind of merchandise.

“And it’s a tragedy for the adoptive parents who are in good faith adopting children, investing emotionally and financially, and maybe aren’t going to have the security of being able to keep the child.”

Nigel Cantwell, of UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre in Florence, Italy, says motivations to adopt internationally may be good but, often, an intense desire to parent, combined with the large sums of cash involved, puts children, birth parents, and adoptive parents all in danger of being exploited.

“There are obviously too many people making money out of the exercise,” says Cantwell.

In a typical international adoption in Ontario, the government collects a $925 processing fee. The Canadian agency, licensed to handle logistics of the adoption, may charge as much as $8,000. The lion’s share of the total bill – $15,000, or more – ends up in the pockets of lawyers and facilitators in the child’s country of origin. On top of that are travel costs, suggested humanitarian aid donations, and incidentals.

Expenses are huge, despite repeated warnings from international children’s rights groups and researchers who say adoption fees should be kept in check to avoid fueling a commercial trade in children.

Neatly folded and tucked inside a photo album, Ellen Kaine keeps a handwritten letter that may, some day, help explain things to her daughter. It’s in Vietnamese, from Emma’s birth parents. Kaine doesn’t know what the letter says. For the time being, she doesn’t want to know.

Kaine, a Toronto-area lawyer, was handed the letter at a formal “giving and receiving” ceremony.

It was held in a decaying government building in Thai Nguyen City. The room had been spruced up with wall tapestries, a bust of Ho Chi Minh, and a long table laden with flower arrangements and soft drinks that would go untouched during the emotionally charged hand-overs of several children to foreigners.

The ceremony also involved an exchange of gifts. Kaine brought a piece of gold jewelry for Emma’s birth mother, and, heeding the advice of her Vietnamese adoption facilitator, a hastily purchased bottle of liquor for the official presiding over the ceremony.

In other cases, Westerners have presented gifts such as a new home, and even a water buffalo.

Emma’s birth parents arrived for the ceremony with the girl – the youngest of three daughters – bundled in layers of well-worn clothing. Kaine has kept the clothes, still smelling faintly of manure and wood smoke – remnants of the life Emma left behind.

The girl’s father pointed to holes in his daughter’s socks, attempting to explain why they were giving her up. Tears rolled down the cheeks of the girl’s mother. Kaine, too, found herself crying.

“I was just destroyed,” she says. “There was no doubt in my mind that Emma was loved. It was very difficult for them. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think of them.

`I was just destroyed. There was no doubt in my mind that Emma was loved. It was very difficult for them. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think of them.’ -Toronto lawyer Ellen Kaine, on her adopted daughter’s Vietnamese parents

“I still don’t know how they could give her up at 10 months. It’s incredible to think they couldn’t find this little bit more rice for her,” Kaine says. “There may be a problem when she’s older. She may be very annoyed and very angry about all that.”

Asked if this was a case of Westerners buying babies from the Third World, Kaine says she doesn’t believe so. “It never occurred to me at the time,” she says, “but now I’m hearing this comment more and more.”

Vietnam has become a major source of babies for North Americans. Neighbouring China has strict and well-established adoption rules. Obtaining a child from that country now takes about 1* years – so parents seeking infants must look elsewhere.

They’re turning to Vietnam, where rules are lax. The government has recently been stung by a series of articles about an illegal baby trade, published in a local Communist party newspaper.

The articles singled out an American woman named Mary Payne-Nguyen. She operates a charitable organization in the country but, until this spring, also handled foreign adoptions – hundreds of them. She worked for several North American adoption agencies, including Ottawa-based Children’s Bridge. That agency paid Payne-Nguyen for her help on 45 adoptions. Children’s Bridge dropped the facilitator this spring following allegations she was involved in paying mothers for babies.

Payne-Nguyen, who has left Vietnam, told The Star in a recent e-mail from California that she feels “someone decided to go after myself and a few others.”

The former school teacher also said she had handled about 500 adoptions, charging about $7,500 (US) for each. The fee, wrote Payne-Nguyen, was used to make donations and cover governmental costs and staff expenses. “I never made piles of money . . . and have always given as much back to the poor children as possible. I am devastated that my sacrifices have produced this result,” read the e-mail.

This summer, the Vietnamese government sent a circular to foreign diplomats relaying its concern over an illegal trade in babies. Canada is co-operating with a Vietnamese investigation into the circumstances surrounding those adoptions.

The skies outside the Guatemala City legal offices of Casa Alianza, an agency serving Latin America’s poor, are calm – pregnant with an afternoon rain that will soon deliver its daily drenching, for it is the wet season.

Little Floridalma’s grandparents want help from the agency and its executive director, Bruce Harris.

Harris is persona non grata in Guatemala because of the work he does on behalf of children. Powerful interests with a financial stake in unregulated adoptions detest him, and there have been threats against his life.

Harris slips in and out of the country from his base in San Jose, Costa Rica, unmolested, for the most part. He’s tall and slim, with short greying hair and moustache. Dressed in Dockers khakis and pressed blue cotton dress shirt, the former British postal worker, who speaks fluent Spanish, asks Floridalma’s family to tell their story.

The girl’s mother, Nancy Carolina Rosales-Lopez, was 14 when she gave birth to Floridalma, her second child. The new mother slipped into post-partum depression. Unable to care for her children, she left Floridalma with a friend.

A few months later, when she tried to collect her daughter, Rosales-Lopez learned the girl had been turned over to the courts, and placed in an orphanage.

Pregnant again, Rosales-Lopez, delivered a third child – and soon after, an AIDS-related illness took hold of the young mother’s body. (It’s unclear if the virus was passed along to Floridalma.) Ashamed of her circumstances, she didn’t tell her parents about her illness, nor of Floridalma’s predicament, until she was on her death bed. She badly wanted the little girl to be back with her sisters. It was one of her final wishes.

On June 18, 2000, Rosales-Lopez died. She was 18.

The faces around the table at the Casa Alianza office are sombre. Harris jots notes in a book, a ledger filled with notes detailing similar stories of missing children.

`I never made piles of money . . . and have always given back to the poor children as much as possible.’ – Mary Payne-Nguyen, U.S. Adoption Facilitator at centre of controversy

Following the death of their daughter, Irene Lopez de Rosales and Jose Feliciano Rosales, a hardworking couple living on the highway to El Salvador, embarked on a quest to get Floridalma back.

While fighting in one court to keep her, another court approved her adoption. On Jan. 24, Floridalma officially became the daughter of the couple living in Knoxville.

“Do not approach or photograph children and women, since many people in Guatemala fear that children are being kidnapped for adoption or theft of vital organs,” reads a standing warning issued by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs. It was issued following an April, 2000, stoning incident in which villagers killed a Japanese tourist and a Guatemalan tour operator, under the mistaken belief they had come to steal children.

While some stories may be the stuff of paranoia-fuelled rumour and innuendo, the truth is, children in Guatemala have been snatched. Children have been bought.

Damning reports have surfaced, citing evidence of widespread child trafficking rings, involving highly paid lawyers, middlemen who find the babies, and foster homes, referred to as “fattening houses.”

Babies can be adopted through the courts or privately, through lawyers. But nearly all are processed privately. A U.N. report found lawyers were encouraging birth mothers to go the private route and would often pay mothers under the table. The private route also makes for shorter waits for adoptive parents and a better chance at taking home a younger baby.

Very few Guatemalan adoptions involve kids in orphanages. The children are older. Foreign couples tend to want babies.

Inside the guarded walls of Hogar San Rafael Ayau live 150 of Guatemala’s estimated 25,000 institutionalized children. They all need families. Many may never have one.

Many, like Darwin Colindres, came here from the streets. He had been wandering a section of Guatemala City, alone, for about a year when residents convinced police he should be picked up.

He’s Honduran, believed to be about 8, and his family can’t be found, says Mother Ines, the no-nonsense orthodox nun who runs the orphanage. Across the top of his scalp runs a long horseshoe-shaped scar. Asked how it got there, Darwin says it’s from a drainage pipe. Mother Ines isn’t so sure. A lot of the children she sees have been abused.

No lawyers are interested in Darwin’s plight. They’re interested in adopting out babies.

“For the lawyers, it is a good business,” Mother Ines says. “A dirty business.”

In the case of private adoptions, the process of declaring babies abandoned can begin before birth, which the U.N. report concluded opens the door to baby recruiters and scouts who seek out pregnant women with promises of money.

Even with DNA matching, no one can know for certain if a mother has truly given up a child for adoption, free of pressure or profit.

DNA screening has blocked some questionable adoptions.

Lee Muirhead and partner Jim Pearce, of Toronto, endured two DNA strike-outs before finally adopting a girl from Guatemala.

The first attempt fell through after a DNA test showed the couple offering up a child weren’t the real parents. “So, that was it – that was the end of that adoption, and that little one,” says Muirhead, a lawyer.

A second adoption collapsed when the birth mother couldn’t go to the Canadian embassy during required hours to have the test done. “The biological mother just said, `Forget it. I’m not going to be involved.’ So, that little one can’t be adopted,” says Muirhead.

They succeeded on their third try. In April, they returned from Guatemala to their Beaches home with Anna, now 3. Looking at her, it was all worthwhile, Muirhead says.

“She’s spunky, she’s determined, she’s very sociable.” International adoption is expensive. “But I just figured if that’s what it costs that’s what it costs,” Muirhead says, in a joking tone. “It’s cheaper than a good car, and she lasts longer.”

The very real need for DNA testing is an unsettling reminder of how twisted the economics of supply and demand in babies can become.

Elba, a 16-year-old Guatemala street kid, says an American woman who operated a shelter pressured her to give up her son, Douglas. She refused, explaining she couldn’t imagine life without him and now lives in a home for young mothers.

A friend of Elba’s, in a similar situation, didn’t want her child. She gave the baby up for adoption and, in return, received enough money to buy a new bicycle and bed.

Victor Novarro has heard many such stories. In his 10th-floor office over-looking Guatemala City, the lawyer explains how the baby-trafficking rings operate.

A middleman, often a lawyer, taps a network of people who work closely with pregnant women and babies, such as social workers and medical staff. The network may also include recruiters who scout out pregnant women in public settings.

Once a baby has been located, promises are made to pay the mother – usually about $1,300 U.S. The lawyer places the child in a foster home. Once the adoption process is complete, the mother is paid in full.

A Guatemalan lawyer can net close to $10,000 U.S. after paying off others involved in the network. These adoptions are, in most cases, perfectly legal under weak Guatemalan law.

In a typical year, Canadians have adopted about 70 Guatemalan children. Not so any more, as concern over abuses mounts. On Sept. 10, Ontario suspended all new Guatemalan adoptions. Americans continue, adopting more than 1,000 Guatemalan children a year.

It’s an industry. One diplomat posted in Guatemala says it’s not uncommon to see the same mothers come forward year after year, with newborns they wish to place for foreign adoption.

“The sale of children has turned into a way of life for many,” concluded another report, prepared last year for UNICEF by the Latin American Institute for Education and Communication.

In 1993, Canada helped develop the Hague Convention on the protection of children, a set of tough guidelines designed to shield youngsters and adoptive parents involved in international adoption. Many countries receiving children have accepted the convention. But few nations where they originate, such as Guatemala and Vietnam, have embraced the rules.

Shady lawyers aren’t Guatemala’s problem alone. Deanna and Robert Phillips, of Waterloo, endured a hellish experience a hemisphere away in Armenia, where they, too, adopted a baby girl.

The couple spent seven years and close to $35,000 on failed fertility treatments before deciding to adopt.

Their local children’s aid society informed them it would take seven years to get a baby – too long for Deanna and Robert.

Last fall, a family friend told them of babies in an Armenian orphanage run by nuns who needed families right away. It seemed perfect.

“It was horrible,” says Deanna. She went to Armenia expecting to take home a child within a couple of weeks. Instead she stayed almost two months on a trip fraught with delays, rescheduled flights, unexpected costs, baffled nuns, a lawyer demanding money, and a chance there would be no baby at all.

“There were lots of lies,” says Deanna. “I never heard the words bribery or corruption (mentioned) until I got there – it was just hell.”

After meeting with an Armenian government official, she managed to finalize an adoption and came home with baby Kierra this spring.

The couple couldn’t be happier with their child. But they’re in dept after spending far more than expected – about $35,000. And they’re still shaken by the experience.

Infertility also pushed Dianne Hillier, 31, and her husband Kevin, 32, into adoption.

The Toronto kindergarten teacher and her spouse spent close to $30,000 on failed treatments. They considered adopting a Canadian child, but found the wait too long.

“After you’ve spent years and years trying to have a biological child, the last thing you want is to spend even more years waiting to adopt,” Dianne says.

The couple looked to the Ukraine. And, in February, they brought home Sarah, a healthy 2-year-old.

“We paid under $25,000 and we were guaranteed a baby,” says Hillier. “You know when you start this you will come home with a child.”

Going overseas eased another of her fears about adopting in Ontario.

“My big concern was that, somehow, the birth mother would come back and take my child. Internationally, there’s no chance of that happening,” she says.

Sandra Scarth, formerly Ontario’s adoption co-ordinator and past director of the Child Welfare League of Canada, says its difficult to curb abuses occurring abroad.

But there is a way to help here at home. Thousands of Canadian children in state care could benefit from adoption, she says. But every province in the country does a poor job of finding homes for these kids.

Adoption, nationwide, is beset by government neglect, policy gaps, chaotic services, lack of money, poor planning, and outdated attitudes. As a result, would-be parents and crown wards are seldom brought together to form a family.

With improvements to that adoption system, maybe, prospective parents wouldn’t feel compelled to go abroad, says Scarth.

“You can’t control the world,” she says. “You control what you can, and try to make sure kids get placed.”

The afternoon rain is beginning to fall as Bruce Harris wraps up the meeting with Floridalma’s grandparents.

He tells them the people who have her will likely be hurt, too, when they learn the circumstances of the adoption.

“Normally, adoptive families are not bad families,” Harris tells them. “It’s the opposite. But some are emotionally desperate to have children.”

The grandparents nod. Beside them, Floridalma’s two sisters look at photographs of their dead mother and lost sister. They know something has happened to Floridalma.

“They have asked, `When is my sister coming back? We want to have her with us. She’s our sister,’ ” says their grandmother. “So we tell them, `Yes, very soon, very soon. We’re trying to figure out how to get her back.”’

Casa Alianza is seeking to have Floridalma’s adoption annulled on grounds that her grandparents were shut out of the process. If fought through the Guatemalan and U.S. courts, that process could take years. By then, Floridalma will likely be a U.S. citizen.

She’ll also be years older, making it much more difficult to convince U.S. authorities that she should be sent back home.

Copyright 1996-2002. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.