But international adoptions are no less risky; they're simply less regulated. Just as companies outsource industry to countries with lax labor laws and low wages, adoptions have moved to states with few laws about the process. Poor, illiterate birthparents in the developing world simply have fewer protections than their counterparts in the United States, especially in countries where human trafficking and corruption are rampant. And too often, these imbalances are overlooked on the adopting end. After all, one country after another has continued to supply what adoptive parents want most.
In reality, there are very few young, healthy orphans available for adoption around the world. Orphans are rarely healthy babies; healthy babies are rarely orphaned. "It’s not really true," says Alexandra Yuster, a senior advisor on child protection with UNICEF, "that there are large numbers of infants with no homes who either will be in institutions or who need intercountry adoption."
That assertion runs counter to the story line that has long been marketed to Americans and other Westerners, who have been trained by images of destitution in developing countries and the seemingly endless flow of daughters from China to believe that millions of orphaned babies around the world desperately need homes. UNICEF itself is partly responsible for this erroneous assumption. The organization’s statistics on orphans and institutionalized children are widely quoted to justify the need for international adoption. In 2006, UNICEF reported an estimated 132 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. But the organization's definition of "orphan" includes children who have lost just one parent, either to desertion or death. Just 10 percent of the total -- 13 million children -- have lost both parents, and most of these live with extended family. They are also older: By UNICEF's own estimate, 95 percent of orphans are older than 5. In other words, UNICEF's "millions of orphans" are not healthy babies doomed to institutional misery unless Westerners adopt and save them. Rather, they are mostly older children living with extended families who need financial support.
The exception is China, where the country’s three-decades-old one-child policy, now being loosened, has created an unprecedented number of girls available for adoption. But even this flow of daughters is finite; China has far more hopeful foreigners looking to adopt a child than it has orphans it is willing to send overseas. In 2005, foreign parents adopted nearly 14,500 Chinese children. That was far fewer than the number of Westerners who wanted to adopt; adoption agencies report many more clients waiting in line. And taking those children home has gotten harder; in 2007, China’s central adoption authority sharply reduced the number of children sent abroad, possibly because of the country’s growing sex imbalance, declining poverty, and scandals involving child trafficking for foreign adoption. Prospective foreign parents today are strictly judged by their age, marital history, family size, income, health, and even weight. That means that if you are single, gay, fat, old, less than well off, too often divorced, too recently married, taking antidepressants, or already have four children, China will turn you away. Even those allowed a spot in line are being told they might wait three to four years before they bring home a child. That has led many prospective parents to shop around for a country that puts fewer barriers between them and their children -- as if every country were China, but with fewer onerous regulations.
One such country has been Guatemala, which in 2006 and 2007 was the No. 2 exporter of children to the United States. Between 1997 and 2006, the number of Guatemalan children adopted by Americans more than quadrupled, to more than 4,500 annually. Incredibly, in 2006, American parents adopted one of every 110 Guatemalan children born. In 2007, nearly 9 out of 10 children adopted were less than a year old; almost half were younger than 6 months old. "Guatemala is a perfect case study of how international adoption has become a demand-driven business," says Kelley McCreery Bunkers, a former consultant with UNICEF Guatemala. The country’s adoption process was "an industry developed to meet the needs of adoptive families in developed countries, specifically the United States."
Because the vast majority of the country's institutionalized children are not healthy, adoptable babies, almost none has been adopted abroad. In the fall of 2007, a survey conducted by the Guatemalan government, UNICEF, and the international child welfare and adoption agency Holt International Children's Services found approximately 5,600 children and adolescents in Guatemalan institutions. More than 4,600 of these children were age 4 or older. Fewer than 400 were under a year old. And yet in 2006, more than 270 Guatemalan babies, all younger than 12 months, were being sent to the United States each month. These adopted children were simply not coming from the country's institutions. Last year, 98 percent of U.S. adoptions from Guatemala were "relinquishments": Babies who had never seen the inside of an institution were signed over directly to a private attorney who approved the international adoption -- for a very considerable fee -- without any review by a judge or social service agency.
So, where had some of these adopted babies come from? Consider the case of Ana Escobar, a young Guatemalan woman who in March 2007 reported to police that armed men had locked her in a closet in her family’s shoe store and stolen her infant. After a 14-month search, Escobar found her daughter in pre-adoption foster care, just weeks before the girl was to be adopted by a couple from Indiana. DNA testing showed the toddler to be Escobar's child. In a similar case from 2006, Raquel Par, another Guatemalan woman, reported being drugged while waiting for a bus in Guatemala City, waking to find her year-old baby missing. Three months later, Par learned her daughter had been adopted by an American couple.