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THE AMERICAS
Guatemala’s Stranded Orphans
Unicef’s pressure to stop international adoptions has tragic results.

By MARY ANASTASIA O’GRADY
Jan. 26, 2014 5:27 p.m. ET
Guatemala City

As I reached down to pick up the one-year-old in the pink pants, purple socks and worn-out sweatshirt, I expected her to start crying. That’s what children normally do when a stranger gets too close. Instead she only stared at me and blinked.

A moment later her tiny mouth turned up in a smile. When I gently bounced her on my hip, she laughed. Six others, about the same age, peered up at me from their little chairs, eagerly awaiting a turn in my arms.

An orphanage run by Orthodox Christian nuns

An orphanage run by Orthodox Christian nuns

Susana (not her real name) has an oval face, wide dark eyes, pale olive skin and black hair. She is an orphan, abandoned at birth. But she is not unwanted. She could easily be placed with a loving family where she would receive the nurturing that every child deserves. Instead that birthright is being systematically denied by Guatemalan authorities.

Susana has lived at Hogar Luz de Maria, a private orphanage on the western side of the Guatemalan capital, since she was two days old. It’s a far better life than she would have in the overcrowded, state-run orphanage where there are tales of violence and neglect. But Hogar Luz de Maria survives on private donations and the budget is tight. Individual attention and affection are luxuries.

When it comes to the institutionalization of Susana and thousands of other Guatemalan orphans, Unicef-the U.N. agency that bills itself as a defender of children-has a lot to answer for. It claims that it does not oppose adoption. But in 2007, with the help of the U.S. State Department, Unicef successfully pressured Guatemala, as it had most other developing countries already, to stop the large outflow of abandoned children to families in the U.S.

To control things, the Guatemalan Congress created a single government-run bureaucracy called the National Adoptions Board (the CNA, by its Spanish initials) and private adoption-agencies were outlawed. The new law put a moratorium on international adoptions, which used to give homes to thousands of children every year.

I reported on the cruelty of this “reform” last year. Since then, things have only gotten worse.

Dinora Palacios, the woman who runs Hogar Luz de Maria, was caring for 10 children when she opened the orphanage in 2004. Two years ago the head count was 20. By last year, she had 30 children under her care. Now she has 45, and government officials keep bringing her more because the state orphanage is bursting at the seams.

One problem is that Guatemala does not have a strong adoption culture. So while the CNA boasts that babies are no longer being “exported,” it doesn’t talk about the tragedy of children piling up in institutions because they cannot be placed domestically. In April 2013, Unicef reported 5,800 warehoused children in the country. Some local adoption experts say there are many more.

Bureaucrats have spent a year looking for Susana’s birth mother. She has not been found, which means that the baby could eventually be classified as “adoptable.” But since she is no longer an infant, her odds of finding a home in Guatemala are already diminished. Now she faces family courts, which are notoriously backlogged, and the bureaucracy, which moves like a snail. Could-be parents are turned off by the emotional cost of dealing with bureaucratic uncertainties.

It can get even grimmer. If authorities think they’ve found the mother of an abandoned child, she must appear before a judge and submit to a DNA test. It is not uncommon for “suspects” to dodge the DNA test for many months, delaying the process further. If a test proves maternity, the mother must enroll in “therapy” designed to force her to reunify with the child.

Mothers who have endured state therapy report intense pressure, including threats of imprisonment and large doses of guilt. If the mother relents, or some family member can be convinced to take the child, there is one less adoption on Guatemala’s books for Unicef to see. It is another victory for the CNA.

There are endless unintended consequences from this twisted policy. A Guatemalan woman who feels she cannot handle motherhood is now more likely to abandon the baby rather than offer it up for adoption and face grueling psychological manipulation by the state. Many babies are left in hospitals. But there are also regular press reports of babies found on buses and in the trash.

It is true that before the law there were some unscrupulous lawyers in the Guatemalan adoption business. But law enforcement could have closed them down without quashing the chances of thousands of children to have a caring family.

Earlier this month, the director of the CNA told the Guatemalan daily La Hora that “all of this regulation is framed in the rights of the child” to live in the culture and speak the language of his or her birth region. Anyone with such a primitive understanding of the needs of children has no business overseeing their welfare.

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com

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