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Sold to the highest bidder: the black market of international adoptions.

The business of snatching babies off the street and tricking mothers into selling their infants for next to nothing.

Just one decade ago, Guatemala was under the spotlight after its scandalous so-called adoption practices were revealed to the world.  In 1997, there were fewer than 1,000 adoptions to America, but 10 years later that number had multiplied by five times.  Nearly as many Guatemalan children were adopted to American families as were Chinese children, despite the hundredfold difference in population.  As one adoption lawyer working in Guatemala put it, “some countries export bananas; we exported children.”

The rise of international adoption rates in Guatemala was due in large part to its weak government and the overwhelming illegality of the process.  Between 2000 and 2007, more than 20,000 children left Guatemala for other countries with minimal controls in their adoption processing.  With adoptions fees ranging anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 per child, Guatemala’s market of children resulted in a multi-billion dollar global business.  Facilitated by “jaladores,” these people were in the business of snatching babies off the street and tricking mothers into selling their infants for next to nothing.  Jaladores also orchestrated abductions in hospitals by giving the mothers sleeping pills or notifying them that their babies had died.

In 2014, Guernica Magazine reported on a case of a Guatemalan couple that claimed their daughter, who had been adopted by a Missouri family, had been kidnapped by a myriad of people working in the child trafficking business.  In that case, it was deemed that both the child’s and the biological mother’s DNA reports were falsified and processing documents were forged so that the adoption appeared legal.  The article revealed a sinister side of international adoption, consisting of government involvement and even trafficking for the purpose of organ harvesting.

Due to widespread media coverage on the issue, Guatemala implemented anti-trafficking protocol to guide officials assisting victims of this type of crime.  This resulted in the conviction of at least 20 human traffickers that same year.  More significantly, Guatemala has gone from one extreme to the other by closing its doors to foreign adopters.

Many families seeking to adopt from foreign countries find it extremely difficult.

In fear of the corruption regarding transnational adoptions, many countries would rather have abandoned children institutionalized—raised in orphanages, than adopted overseas.  The Hague Convention, which was first ratified in 1993, is an international treaty calling for reform.  Importantly, it prioritizes adoptions by relatives and domestic adoptive candidates before the consideration of overseas adoptions.  As a result, many families seeking to adopt from foreign countries find it extremely difficult.

Some interpreters of the Convention, like UNICEF, have concluded that international adoptions should be a last resort.  In doing so, they encourage countries to adopt regulations requiring the government to exhaust all avenues before allowing foreign couples to adopt.  Such was the case in Panama, where its department of social services, known as SENNIAF, enacted laws designed to limit the number of international adoptions in order to avoid a crisis like Guatemala.

Under the 2008 Panamanian law, SENNIAF officials were to reach out to not only the birth parents and grandparents, but also to all aunts and uncles on both sides of the child’s family.  This caused serious strife in conducting adoptions because families were often large and dispersed throughout the country.  In addition, the system of record keeping regarding each child was disorganized and often incomplete.  The law also included a statute-of-limitation-like provision stating that a child living in an orphanage could not be deemed “abandoned” for purposes of adoption eligibility if he or she was visited by a family member within a year.  In effect, a child that is visited just once a year by some removed family member would never be eligible for adoption.

Yet in 2013, Panama adopted a revised version of the law that implemented less restrictive requirements for foreign couples seeking to adopt.  Under that law, SENNIAF officials no longer needed reach out to aunts and uncles of the child, but rather only to the birth parents and grandparents.  It also has reduced the amount of time before starting the clock over in regards to a child’s determination as “abandoned” from 360 days to 60.  These changes were small, but meaningful steps in increasing the number of legal transnational adoptions occurring in Panama.

Due to complex regulations and lengthy bureaucratic delays, people wanting to adopt from India are encouraged to utilize the thriving illegal adoption market.

However, illegal adoptions remain alive all over the world.  For example, India alone has an estimate of 30 million orphans, but strict rules governing international adoptions make it nearly impossible for any of these children to leave the country and domestic adoptions are relatively rare.  Due to complex regulations and lengthy bureaucratic delays, people wanting to adopt from India are encouraged to utilize the thriving illegal adoption market.

Just last month, officials in India arrested the heads of an adoption center for the illegal sale of at least 17 children, aged between six months and 14 years, to couples from Europe, America, and Asia.  According to a report by the Donaldson Adoption Institute, one French couple paid $23,000 for a child in 2015 and the records surrounding the adoption are fraught with discrepancies.  Police arrested Juhi Chakraborty, a general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the eastern state of West Bengala and retired school principal, and her deputy Sonali Mondal after a tip from the federal adoption agency.  The women in charge of the center are also involved in two other houses, where they hoarded stolen children and encouraged women to repeatedly become pregnant.  The people involved in this business are accused of smuggling babies from nursing homes in biscuit boxes before selling them from the adoption centers.  While the scale of the operation is still unknown, the tragedy of the situation is unveiled—the remains of five newborns were recovered from one of the homes just last November.

Although the Hague Convention—of which India is a member—has established a humane legal framework for international adoptions, it lacks the enforcement power to check those countries that are failing to comply.  Perhaps one of its greatest flaws is the failure to limit the amount couples from developed countries can pay for international adoptions.  When people are willing to pay high prices to adopt children, the potential for corruption is heightened.

Women across the world are incentivized to give up their babies for a price and children are taken from their families. 

The Hague Convention has also made a negative impact on adoptions occurring in African nations because the vast majority are not members to it.  Because the Hague Convention tends to sharply decrease the amount of overseas adoptions, people subsequently begin to look to countries where it is not enforced.  As a result, African nations with minimal regulations combined with the promise of money from abroad have begun selling children like commodities.  According to a 2012 CNN report, there have been countless cases of children being sold by their parents or even wrongly considered as orphans in order to be adopted.

Although many people hold international adoptions in a high esteem with notions of providing a better life for neglected children all over the world, the reality in many instances has proven to be an illustrious façade.  Weak governments capitalizing on foreign couples desperately wanting to adopt have perpetuated a market of selling children.  In effect, women across the world are incentivized to give up their babies for a price and children are taken from their families.  Although the Hague Convention is premised on the concept that the well being of a child is the most important aspect to keep in mind while facilitating adoptions, many countries have consequently halted foreign adoptions altogether.  As a result, no real solution has been found to help place children in loving homes without stimulating the black market that corrupts those efforts.

Katie King
About Katie King (7 Articles)
Katie King is a third year law student and serves as Managing Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Calabash, NC, Katie went to NC State University where she received a Bachelor of Arts in History. During her second year, Katie worked in real estate at Brady Law Firm located in Raleigh, as well as in the Chambers of The Honorable Judge John M. Tyson at the NC Court of Appeals. Her legal interests include corporate law, real property, and estate planning.