NEW YORK — Scattered across the United States are more than 29,000 young people born in Guatemala and adopted by U.S. families before that troubled Central American nation shut down international adoption in 2008 amid allegations of rampant corruption and baby-selling.
Today, as adoptees come of age, many want to know about their birth mother and why she gave them up and wonder about the murky circumstances of adoption. Some have travelled to Guatemala to investigate.
"Guatemala was all I could think about," said Gemma Givens, a 25-year-old adoptee in California, who has made two trips to the country to learn what she could.
"I was just a mess," she said, "the questions, the wondering, the pain, the desire to heal and to figure it out."
International adoptions from Guatemala began to surge after a 36-year-civil war ended in 1996. Tens of thousands of civilians disappeared or were killed during the conflict, leaving legions of children without care. Orphanages overflowed, and American families seeking to adopt soon learned there was a vast supply of infants being made available.
By 2006, more than 4,000 Guatemalan children annually — about 1 of every 100 babies — were being adopted by American families, and the small country became the second-largest source of adoptees after China. Huge sums were at stake — American families routinely paid $30,000 or more to Guatemalan lawyers to arrange an adoption.
Then, as evidence of corruption mounted, the pipeline closed. Adoptions to the U.S. dropped to 27 last year.
Roughly half of all the adoptions by Americans entailed some type of impropriety — from outright abduction of infants by Guatemalan racketeers to baby-selling to various types of coercion and deception that induced mothers to relinquish their children, according to Carmen Monico of Elon University. The professor of human service studies has conducted extensive research on adoption in Guatemala.
Monico expressed empathy with adopting families, saying, "They had their hearts in the right place." But she also has documented the experiences of Guatemalan mothers who believe their children were abducted to meet the demand.
"Some of these women have been searching for their children for years," Monico said.
Uncertainty also has weighed heavily on adoptive parents.
"After we brought our son home, I became more and more concerned," said Laura Hernon of Seattle, who with her husband adopted a boy from Guatemala in 2008, just before the shutdown. She wondered, "Is there a mom who was duped out of her baby?"
The couple investigated, and determined anew that the adoption was legitimate.
"What would we have done if otherwise? I have no idea," Hernon said.
A couple in Littleton, Colorado, Linda and Tom Chatfield, commissioned a search for the birth mother of their son, Michael, six years after they adopted him from a Guatemalan foster family in 2005. He was "asking a lot about where he came from."
The searcher tracked down not only the birth mother but also his birth father and five siblings. Two years ago, when Michael was 8, the Chatfields took him to Guatemala to meet the impoverished family.
"The meeting was very emotional," Linda Chatfield said. "They told Michael they loved him, and they asked him to forgive them. That's a tough thing to ask an 8-year-old."
The Chatfields haven't returned to Guatemala since then. But each summer they attend a camp in Colorado for families with children adopted from Guatemala and other Latin American countries.
Kathi Thomas, an adoptive mother in Austin, helped found a similar camp four years ago in co-operation with the University of Texas School of Social Work. Camp programs emphasize Guatemalan and Mayan culture, encompassing dance, music, martial arts, cooking and language classes.
"They get soaked in Guatemala," Thomas said. "When they come out, they are so proud of where they come from."
Thomas' daughter, Lettie, attended the camp and was a junior counsellor this summer. Now 14, Lettie was adopted as an infant. An earlier adoption attempt by Thomas and her husband, Mark Hastings, unraveled when a DNA test revealed that the purported birth mother was a fraud.
In Lettie's case, Thomas and Hastings told her about her background and took her to Guatemala at age 4 to meet her birth mother. She had eight other children before Lettie was born and felt she couldn't afford to raise another.
"She said she wanted our daughter to have opportunities that her other children can't even dream about," Thomas said. "She said she had prayed for Lettie every day, and hoped Lettie didn't hate her for sending her away."
On the contrary, Lettie said, "I'm thankful that she knows that I'm having a safer life here... Yet I am always missing her."
Another adoptee, 16-year-old Jake Niergarth of Cedar, Michigan, said he has relished visiting Guatemala with his parents and helping people — they've built houses, and his father has run dental clinics — yet he expressed no regrets over not growing up there.
"I probably would be working in a cornfield somewhere making almost nothing ... living in a one-room shack with no electricity or running water," he emailed. "My life would be completely different."
When they adopted Jake through a major U.S. adoption agency in 1999, the Niergarths learned the birth mother's name, but little else about her or why she relinquished Jake.
"It's hard to think about," said Lisa Niergarth, though adding they and the agency did everything legally. "We would never ever want to take a child away from a mom, but if there was a birth mother who felt she couldn't take care of a child, we wanted to be there and do what we can to live up to what that mom would have wanted for her child."
As for Jake, a high school football player who aspires to join the U.S. military, he's content to leave questions about his background unanswered.
"I don't want to take a risk and find out something that I don't want to know," he wrote. "I just want to go on thinking good things about my birthmother, like her giving me a better home and life, and nothing more."
While most of the Guatemalan adoptees have yet to finish high school, hundreds of others are older and living on their own.
Gemma Givens, the 25-year-old Californian, started a Facebook-based group called Next Generation Guatemala three years ago, hoping it would help adoptees connect.
Many are reticent, said Givens, suggesting one reason is that many Guatemalan adoptees know little about their birth mothers and are uncertain whether their adoptions were legal.
"That's everybody's first question when they join this community: How do I find my mother?" Givens said.
Her own search took her to Guatemala, where she sought out the lawyer who handled her adoption, and she now thinks she knows the basic story: Her birth mother was an illiterate indigenous woman who worked as a housekeeper, was impregnated by her employer, and decided to relinquish the baby.
"It hurt to not know where I came from, so the logical answer was to go figure it out," Givens said. "I'm ready to start my life now."
There's been no equivalent sense of closure for Adam Joseph, 27, who was adopted by a Portland, Oregon, couple in 1988.
"The thought of who's my birth family — it's always been with me," said Joseph, and he has a photo of his birth mother and a birth certificate with her name. Still, he's not yet sure he's "emotionally ready" to launch a vigorous search.
Today, he works for a Portland-based non-profit that assists some of the unaccompanied minors — many of them Guatemalan — who recently crossed the U.S. border without legal status as they fled poverty and violence. "It's my way of giving back," he said.
And what of the orphans of Guatemala since the curtailment of international adoptions?
Hollen Frazier, president of the agency All God's Children International, which placed about 420 Guatemalan children with U.S. families between 1999 and 2008, supports Guatemala's efforts to reform its adoption system. But she says a total shutdown of adoptions to the U.S. was unwise given the limited progress that Guatemala has made with its new priority of promoting domestic adoptions.
"It's so devastating to walk into orphanage after orphanage, and see that there's no organization trying to find families for children," she said.
Bethany Christian Services, which was among the U.S. adoption agencies most active in Guatemala, has remained engaged there, working on programs to keep fragile families together and improve foster care.
"While it was probably good that adoption stopped, because of the unethical practices, it raised the question of what's going to happen with the vulnerable children," said Brian DeVos, a senior vice-president of Bethany. "There are some good orphanages, but also a number that are just warehousing children."
It remains unclear if and when full-scale international adoptions from Guatemala might resume. DeVos says he'd like to see some of the young people adopted by U.S. families become advocates for such a step.
From Michigan, the Niergarth family will head back to Guatemala next June, when Jake — for a high school project — will work with two classmates to build homes for impoverished widows. He's looking forward to it, and so is his adoptive mother, though with a mix of emotions.
"When I am down there and see these children, my heart just breaks as I know that they have very little opportunity in life," said Lisa Niergarth. Jake has much more, and yet she said, "He lost his tie to his culture in exchange for that opportunity, but we are hoping that we are giving him at least a little of that culture back."
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David Crary, The Associated Press