GUATEMALA CITY --When Glendy Orozco recently learned an abandoned baby had arrived at a public hospital, she prayed the 6-pound boy was hers.
Through an underground adoption network, Orozco, an 18-year-old single mother, had given her newborn to strangers who promised to pay her about $1,350. But she changed her mind and was desperately searching for the boy'I regret even considering giving him away,'' a distraught Orozco said
On another day the same week, Kim Reyes of New Jersey eagerly searched for her daughter-to-be at Hogar Nuevo Amanecer, a private orphanage in Guatemala that temporarily houses children who are up for adoption
Reyes instantly recognized doll-faced, 2-year-old Jacqueline from photos the orphanage had sent
''Hi, baby,'' Reyes whispered, clapping softly to get the child's attention. ``You wanna come? Come, Jacqueline, come.
The two scenes illustrate opposite ends of a complex battle over adoptions in the Central American nation, the hemisphere's largest source of children for U.S. parents and -- the U.S. government contends -- a virtually unregulated baby-selling market
The United States has threatened to halt the flow of U.S.-bound children unless Guatemala complies with regulations outlined in an international pact, The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions, that sets strict rules and requirements, such as requiring judicial oversight and searches for relatives who could care for the children, and allowing birth mothers time to change their minds
President Bush raised the issue in Guatemala last month on his Latin America tour, and the United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, also is pressing the Guatemalan government
''This is the country that has the least restrictions on adoptions of any other in the hemisphere,'' said Manuel Manrique, the UNICEF representative in Guatemala
About 4,700 Guatemalans, mostly babies 1 year old or younger, were adopted by U.S. families last year -- compared to about 3,800 in 2005
Critics say the process is fraught with anomalies. Among them: some cases of birth mothers being pressured to give up their babies for cash; growing numbers of falsified birth certificates; reports of outright baby thefts; and even deaths from lack of care while children were in private orphanages awaiting adoption\Opponents also complain that there is little judicial oversight and that lawyers known as ''notaries,'' acting as baby brokers, charge up to $30,000 per child
''Right now, the whole process is done by notaries,'' Manrique said. ``They say the children are treated well and taken care of, but nobody really knows. . . . Everything is based on paperwork.''
Manrique and activists blame the system for experiences like Orozco's. A teenage mother involved with a married man who left her broke and without family support, Orozco went to a woman known for arranging adoptions
''I went to her house to talk to her about the adoption because I didn't think I could take care of my baby,'' Orozco told The Miami Herald, adding that she was promised 10,000 quetzals -- about $1,350
A week after the boy was born, Orozco was instructed to deliver him to another woman, who quickly disappeared with the child. But Orozco changed her mind and went to authorities, triggering a search for the baby
''I don't want problems, I just want my baby back,'' Orozco said
Birth mothers changing their minds is a reason some U.S. families seek adoptions overseas, where the process is faster. In Guatemala, most adoptions take no more than eight months. Single people and couples of any age can adopt
''I'm sure bad things happen, just like anything. But most people do it right,'' said Sara Eide, 33, of Iowa, who has adopted three Guatemalan children. ``I just hope that if they make changes, there will still be the ability for families to adopt and these children to find homes.''The potential halt in adoptions is worrisome for Reyes, 44, a real estate agent, and her husband Ron, also 44, who designs computer boards and prepares mortgages in Freehold, N.J
''If they stopped it, I don't know what we'd do,'' Reyes said after meeting her prospective adoptive daughter Jacqueline. ``It would be devastating.''
Josefina Arellano, a prosecutor for Guatemala's attorney general's office, said officials do not want to stop adoptions but do support sweeping revisions
''What we want is for adoptions to be clean, with good practices and more controls,'' Arellano said. ``What we are seeing is that children are being born just for adoption.''Birth mothers receive between $680 and $1,360 per child, but there have been cases where the price has gone up to $9,500 -- a small fortune for many in a nation with a per capita income of about $2,400.
Feliciano Carrillo Gudiel, an attorney who runs a private orphanage, defended the system and said adoptions are well regulated''We already have to fulfill many requirements,'' Carrillo said His orphanage, Hogar Nuevo Amanecer, serves as a temporary home for about 30 children at a time, mostly babies and toddlers Bugs Bunny, Piglet and other cartoon characters adorn the walls of the two-story facility in a middle-class neighborhood. Nannies tend to the youngest, while older kids learn English phrases such as ''I love you'' to prepare for their new U.S. families''Children need family, and the younger the better for the family and child,'' Carrillo said. ``Our objective is to find homes as quickly as possible . . . and to make room for more children.''Changes in the system would be welcomed, Carrillo said, but not The Hague Convention. Guatemala is among 75 countries that have signed the pact, but in 2003, its application was declared invalid by the country's Constitutional Court''The Hague was created by developed countries,'' Carrillo said. ``It does not take our needs into account.'
THE ONLY SOLUTION
In a nation of 12.3 million where the richest 20 percent makes two-thirds of all income, Carrillo said ''adoption is the solution'' for mothers who can't afford a child
They include María Elena Hernández Lem, 24, who showed up one evening at Carrillo's orphanage to drop off two of her children: 7-month-old María Lorena and her 7-year-old brother Gaspar
The indigenous woman, who is HIV-positive, said she decided to give them up because the little money she earns peddling produce is spent on medication for herself and the youngest child, also HIV-positive
''The decision to put them up for adoption is mine,'' Hernández Lem said. ``I am responsible for where they will end up the day something happens to me.''
Carrillo said she would receive 5,000 quetzals -- about $680 -- per child
SURROUNDED BY LOVE
On the day Orozco, the 18-year-old mom, searched for her son at the hospital, she found him surrounded by nurses in an examination room. The baby was abandoned by his keepers at a firehouse the previous night, apparently after they learned of authorities' involvement Orozco bit her nails and wrung her hands as tears she had held back for three days began to flow''He is so beautiful,'' Orozco said after receiving the child. She held the baby close to her face, rubbed her cheek against his and covered him with kisses. At Hogar Nuevo Amanecer, the Reyeses cried, too, when they said goodbye to the 2-year-old girl they now called Maddisun. They would have to wait at least another month before they could take her to New Jersey. ''If she's not adopted, what future would she have here?'' Reyes said between heavy sobs. Then she pulled Maddisun close, hugged her tightly and covered her face with kisses. You're something, little girl.''