Written By Lee Walzer
As a dad-by-adoption to my now-4 year old Guatemala-born son, I attended the Adoption Ethics Conference and Forum on Guatemala adoptions with great interest. I attended with the hope of hearing some detailed explanations from UNICEF about its stance on international adoption and perhaps hearing about how UNICEF hoped to avoid the mistakes of previous "reform" efforts in other countries, which have resulted in children languishing in institutions and without needed social support.
With the Halloween season fast approaching, I went to learn, as well as to speak out. We adoptive parents often do not have a voice in professional adoption conferences and it felt liberating to go and be able to ask questions and speak up. Sadly, I returned home last night with the same questions still hanging in mid-air, listened to, but not heard by, UNICEF.
I knew things would be interesting when conference volunteers distributed a July 2007 article about Guatemalan adoptions by social worker Karen Smith Rotabi to the audience, presumably to give them some "background" about adoptions in Guatemala. My eyes went wide when, on the first page, I saw the first of repeated citations to a UN-authorized report published in 2000 on the issue – the ILPEC report. The UN ultimately had to distance itself from the report and admit that its methodology was flawed. Citing the ILPEC report in a scholarly article about Guatemalan adoptions is akin to citing the findings of the Inquisition against Galileo in a report about the shape of the earth.
The hotel conference room was full. On the stage were moderator (and personal acquaintance) Mark Agrast, a fellow at the Center for American Progress. With him were Elizabeth Larsen, mother to a daughter adopted from Guatemala and journalist; Dr. Manuel Manrique of UNICEF-Guatemala; one of his aides, who asked not to be publicly identified; and Tom DiFilipo of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services.
Mark, whom I’ve known for many years, is a calm, thoughtful guy – the ideal supervisor of an event that organizers seriously feared would get out of control. We were admonished to listen respectfully and warned that if the forum got unruly, it might lead to cancellation of the next day’s portion of the conference.
And, indeed, the forum was conducted in a dignified atmosphere. Yet even here, among participants well versed in the problems and issues associated with Guatemalan adoptions, UNICEF could not refrain from peddling distractions and outright falsehoods. For example, he claimed that 30 percent of birthmothers placing their children for adoption are repeat cases, insinuating that the only reason that this happens is because they’re paid – what about the lack of family planning and sexual health knowledge in Guatemala as a factor? Apparently irrelevant in UNICEF’s worldview.
Dr. Manrique also publicly claimed that children are kidnapped for adoption in Guatemala. When pressed by some questioners about how this could be, considering the DNA tests, social worker interviews, and birthmother sign-offs, Dr. Manrique did not answer the question.
He and his aide also stated that UNICEF does not lobby or pressure the Guatemalan government about the type of adoption system it needs to adopt. During the question period, a Guatemalan attorney from Adoption Supervisors Guatemala stood up and told Dr. Manrique that everyone knows that UNICEF indeed lobbies – and lobbies very hard – on adoption issues.
While Dr. Manrique contended that UNICEF only sought ethics, accountability, and transparency, I felt that his answers to participants’ questions were anything but transparent.
And that was the biggest problem with this event. Listening to UNICEF up close, it is clear to me that UNICEF is capable only of dealing with abstractions and idealized principles. Panel participants and audience members alike (yours truly included) asked Dr. Manrique and his aide about how one goes about applying these principles in an imperfect world and when dealing with real-life children. Time and again, Dr. Manrique retreated to shibboleths about the best interests of the child, ethics, and transparency. All of these are crucial, but there are many ways to ensure this, not just UNICEF’s way.
The most distasteful part of the forum was UNICEF’s repeated efforts to convince audience members that it was doing great work in Guatemala and should be supported. Talk about lobbying! Yes, UNICEF engages in some important, meaningful work, but folks, I know of many organizations working at the grassroots in Guatemala who are working to improve the lot of the Guatemalan people every day. They do so without the distance, bloat and inefficiencies of UNICEF’s ponderous, top-heavy international bureaucracy.
Mother-by-Adoption and journalist Elizabeth Larsen tried to present audience members with this "kinder, gentler" side to UNICEF and, in essence, urged us all to take a second look at the organization. With all due respect, Ms. Larsen, I’ve heard UNICEF’s views up close and unfiltered. No, my son will not trick or treat for UNICEF this year, or in any year.