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LIVES IN LIMBO Americans waiting to adopt Guatemalan babies may be out of luck

Rosanne Cowen was at work in her office when an e-mail arrived from her adoption agency, bearing the subject line "Baby Girl."

Her hands shook as she opened the message: She and her husband had a new daughter -- Maria Jose, a newborn living with a foster family in Guatemala City. Photos showed a dark-haired girl with intense black eyes.

"The immediacy of the love, the certainty of this connection -- it was an instantaneous awareness that I'm going to throw myself in front of any bus, train or bullet for her," said Cowen.

That was more than nine weeks ago. Today, the Cowens don't know whether they will get to meet Maria Jose, much less raise her.

The couple is among a tormented group that activists are calling the "Guatemala 5,000" -- families that have been matched with and in some cases even met their children-to-be, only to see their vision of happiness put in jeopardy.

Guatemalan officials recently took action that will suspend adoptions to the United States as of Jan. 1, making the fates of couples such as the Cowens -- and children such as Maria Jose -- suddenly unclear.

Last year, Guatemala was the second most popular country for Americans wanting to adopt, behind only China. Experts say the pending halt of a program haunted by allegations of corruption is among signs that may portend a radical reorganization of international adoption, the impact reverberating around the world.

Since 1990, Guatemala has sent nearly 25,000 children to U.S. homes, joining China and Russia as one of the "big three," together accounting for two-thirds of foreign adoptions.

"The future of Guatemalan adoptions is totally up in the air," said Deborah Cohen, program coordinator for Adoptions from the Heart, an agency based in Wynnewood, Pa.

The controversy arises from Guatemala's decision to join the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, an international treaty that sets standard procedures. The government announced it would stop processing adoptions to non-Hague countries -- a list that includes the United States -- on Jan. 1.

Cohen estimates that 70 agency families, most of whom live in the Northeast, are caught in limbo. Some have made several trips to Central America to spend time with the children as their paperwork inched forward.

Guatemalan adoption "needed reform, and it needed change," said Tom DiFilipo, chief executive officer of the Virginia-based Joint Council on International Children's Services. But the potential harm of a closure accrues not just to couples seeking children. Without funds from U.S. parents, he said, it is unclear how basic care will be provided to babies relinquished by their birth parents.

"It's a nightmare," he said. "What's going to happen to those kids?"

In Guatemala, grinding poverty and the stigma of unwed motherhood lead some mothers to surrender babies, often to a lawyer or an adoption agency that places the children in an orphanage or a foster home. Couples in this country work with U.S. adoption agencies, which in turn work with Guatemalan lawyers.

For years, the United States has pushed the Guatemalan government to improve its oversight, concerned that some mothers were being threatened or bribed into giving up their babies. Now the Guatemalan Congress' passage of Hague Convention legislation unsettles the lives of people such as Meghan and Michael Wall. They were matched with a son in April, flew to meet him in August and expected to travel to adopt him in November.

"I have good days and bad days," Meghan Wall said. "I'm trying to stay very hopeful that in the long haul we're going to be parenting him."

The boy's name, Eddy, was bestowed by his birth mother. The Walls like how the name sounds in English and is spelled like the swirling current in a stream. Last month, Eddy turned 10 months old.

For the Walls, the five days in a Guatemala City hotel now seem idyllic -- feeding Eddy, sleeping by him, taking him to the pool. The thought of losing him is not only heartbreaking but maddening.

As required, Eddy's birth mother took a DNA test to prove parenthood, and thus her right to surrender her child. A second test to reconfirm the child's identity is required before the adoption can be final.

"I'm sure there have been cases of exploitation and coercion," said Meghan Wall, who teaches dance at Princeton University. "But I'm sure that's the exception and not the rule, and it's being made out to be the rule."

Prospective parents have been bombarding congressmen with calls and e-mails, while agencies such as the Joint Council are beseeching the Guatemalan government to let adoptions that are under way proceed to completion.

The Guatemalan Congress is reviewing an amendment to allow that. But advocates do not know if the amendment will pass -- and if it does, how the government will define "under way." A final vote is expected this month.

The United States signed onto the Hague Convention in 1994 but has yet to officially join, a delay attributed to bureaucratic sluggishness and complaints from social-service providers about certain provisions.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere has turned ugly. Last month, Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein angered parents in his country with an essay alleging that children were being stolen for their internal organs, reviving rumors about the intentions of U.S. parents.

Many agencies, DiFilipo said, have now advised families against traveling to Guatemala to see a child. "It's not safe," he said.

But it is far. So why do couples go all the way to Guatemala -- or China, or Kazakhstan, or Nepal, or Vietnam -- instead of adopting youngsters in this country?

The answer is that not many babies are available, and the competition for them is fierce.

During the last 30 years, the stigma of single-motherhood has faded, while access to birth control and abortion has grown. As a result, far fewer U.S. babies are placed for adoption. Traditional adoptions now number only about 13,000 annually, down from 89,000 in the mid-1970s.

That scarcity, together with changing attitudes about race and multiculturalism, has driven the market overseas, particularly to China, Russia and Guatemala. Last year, those countries completed 14,334 of the 20,679 foreign adoptions to the United States.

But experts think a fundamental restructuring in the multimillion-dollar industry may be near, with the three leading nations shrinking or surrendering their roles and smaller countries stepping up.

This year China approved stringent regulations that seem sure to reduce adoptions. Russia emerged from a moratorium with a new emphasis on domestic adoption. Now, Guatemala is poised for a stoppage.

Meanwhile, African countries including Ethiopia and Liberia have been increasing their adoptions, although their overall numbers are small.

"How it's going to play out, nobody knows," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York. "As long as there's poverty and war, kids will need homes. But where those kids are, where they go -- those things are changing."

For the Guatemala 5,000 -- a club nobody wants to belong to -- change is wrenching.

The Cowens find themselves constantly thinking of Maria Jose. "Since the first time I saw pictures of her, the process has been on my mind day and night," Bill Cowen said.

The couple longs to see her in person, but for now their agency has advised against a trip.

"I'm trying to stay positive and focused for my child," Rosanne Cowen said. "I feel I owe her that. I don't feel like I have the luxury to fall apart."


Coming to America

Immigrant orphans adopted by U.S. citizens in 2006 (see microfilm)

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