Last updated: 04 Aug 2005
Please note: We are parents with experience with Guatemalan adoption and involvement in assisting other families. This document offers our opinions on the process of choosing an agency, but cannot consider every possible aspect of that process and is not meant to be a complete reference. Our ideas and recommendations cannot guarantee a successful or problem-free experience, and should never substitute for your own values and judgments, nor for diligent and careful investigation of any agency you are considering. Nor should this be considered as any kind of legal advice. This document is a work in progress and we are open to suggestions and changes; please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.Information below on: Ethics, Fees, and Intermediaries ... Agency Questions ... The Agency Evaluation Process
There are dozens of US-based agencies which handle adoptions from Guatemala. Choosing the right agency can make the difference between a relatively problem-free and ethical process, and one fraught with delays and serious questions about whether the agency and its foreign partners operate with integrity. The process of choosing is complex; we hope this document will assist you to choose well.
This document only covers issues related to evaluating a US agency's Guatemalan adoption program. It is not designed to apply to choosing a local or homestudy agency, to adoption from countries other than Guatemala, or to agencies outside the US — though some of the material may be useful in any of those situations.
In our view the first step in selecting a competent, ethical agency is to ensure that it meets certain basic criteria:
It has an established, positive track record in terms of both ethical behavior and service to its clients, and knows Guatemalan adoption well;
It has adequate supervision of its partners in Guatemala, and policies and procedures which ensure that those partners conduct their work ethically;
It is honest and open with clients, and in particular is willing to account for the distribution of adoption fees sent to Guatemala; and
It acts competently and confidently in both smooth cases and those with difficulties.
In order to assess these issues we have developed a set of questions (see below) which you can ask. You should of course add any of your own.
Ethical issues in Guatemalan adoption can be divided into three areas:
Ethical treatment of and relationship with the child and birth family during the adoption;
Ethical dealings within and between the agency, attorney, and the government offices involved in the adoption process; and
Ethical behavior of the agency toward its clients, adoptive families.
While this guide cannot cover all of these issues in depth, we will address the first at more length, and the others very briefly.
In our view the most important current ethical issue in Guatemalan adoption is the way that children come into the adoption system and the payments made to those making and maintaining contact with birthmothers. Most attorneys pay "finders", also called intermediaries, to locate and make contact with birthmothers who wish to place their children for adoption, and to maintain that contact and provide transportation and other services to the birth mother during the adoption process.
This work is often handled by social workers in the US adoption system. In Guatemala a few of the intermediaries may be trained as social workers or similarly, but most have no professional training. They are usually paid on a case by case basis. While exact data is not available, our information is that their fees have risen from about $2,000 per case about five years ago to $5,000 - $8,000 per case today. In some cases there is a gender differential, e.g. fees of $4,500 to $7,000 for infant boy cases and $7,000 to as much as $10,000 for infant girl cases. (While the high fees are routine, the gender differential may not be, as only some of our sources have reported it).
While the intermediaries do important and necessary work, the extraordinarily high level of their fees compared to both the cost of living in Guatemala and the total cost of an adoption; the rapid increase in those fees over the last five years; and the fact that there can be substantially different costs for boy and girl cases, all raise significant ethical questions, including:
Where is the money going? Are the intermediaries simply getting rich? Is it in some cases being used to pay substantial sums to birthmothers (which would be illegal as well as unethical)?
Why are the intermediary fees so high, and to what extent does competition between attorneys raise the fees artificially, leading to a market approach to what should be a humanitarian service?
Similarly, why are the fees sometimes dramatically different for boys and girls, and doesn't this also reflect an inappropriate market approach?
At this time we believe that in order to make sure that the adoption process is as ethical as possible, it is very important to look for an agency which fully discloses how the intermediaries work on their cases, how much they are paid, what they do with the money, and in general where the money paid to the attorney goes. Much of the money is for legitimate purposes such as the costs of the adoption process, foster care, medical costs, family support, and the attorney's reasonable fees and overhead. However, particularly given the questions related to the intermediaries and the amounts paid to them, we believe strongly that agencies and attorneys should routinely disclose to adoptive families how these funds are typically spent (breakdowns for each individual case would be far more difficult and should not be expected), and how they ensure that money paid to intermediaries is justifiable and is used properly.
At the same time, we must also acknowledge that you will find it difficult to obtain this information because most agencies and attorneys do not want to discuss the intermediaries, their role, or the way that the substantial sums of money you pay to the attorneys are distributed within Guatemala. Nevertheless, we encourage you to press the question since some agencies may be able to answer it — a mark in their favor — and others will begin to understand that it is important to do so.
If you can find an agency / attorney which has intermediaries on staff rather than being paid on a per-case basis we believe that would be a significant positive sign, but it is very rare.
Another option which we recommend that you consider is to adopt a child placed through the "abandonment" process rather than the "relinquishment" process where intermediaries are used. (See The Guatemalan Adoption Process for details on the difference.) This process has its own ethical issues, but is not subject to the same questions as the relinquishment process. Children placed through the abandonment process may often be older, and are usually living in children's homes rather than in private foster care. If the children's homes handle adoptions the conditions and level of care are often excellent. This approach may require approval in your homestudy so be sure to discuss it with your social worker if you are interested.
Beyond the role of the intermediaries, other ethical issues relate to the way the birth family is treated, the provision of medical care, the way the agency and attorney deal with each other, and the way they deal with you the adoptive family. These issues can best be dealt with by asking questions which reveal the agency's and attorney's attitudes toward adoptive and birth families, and reviewing their record particularly as related by other families who have completed adoptions through them. Some of the questions listed below may help you to evaluate these areas, and we encourage you to ask others to satisfy yourself that the agency and attorney operate with integrity.
Our questions are focused on Guatemalan adoption; for one overlapping but much more general list which is also valuable, see the Adoption Agency Checklist developed by an adoptive parent and available at http://www.adoptionagencychecklist.com/.
Making an agency choice is a matter of judgment — how much of what you learn was positive and how much was negative? Are you getting solid (rather than evasive) answers to questions related to ethics? Which other things are important to you personally? Very few if any agencies will offer an ideal response to every single question, and some highly regarded agencies do not meet all of our criteria. You can decide to let a couple of things go if you feel confident about others. However, in our opinion agencies which fall short on ethical questions should never be considered, and those which otherwise fall short in multiple areas should be considered with caution. At the end we provide some examples of hypothetical responses and how we would evaluate them.
PLEASE NOTE: We do not recommend that you simply copy this list of questions into your email program and forward it to prospective agencies. It's not really fair to the agencies to expect them to answer a set of questions of this depth, in writing, for a person unknown to them. More importantly, it is important that you establish a personal relationship with any agency with which you are seriously considering working, and evaluate not only their answers to questions you care about, but also their tone, demeanor, and responsiveness when they speak with you. This is very difficult to do via email, so we recommend that you use these questions as a guide in speaking with the agency, not as text to send them.
Also, please note that in many of our questions how the question is answered is at least as important as what the answer is. For example, when asked about how long an adoption takes, an agency that gives a range of times and explains why some cases take longer than others is preferable to one that gives a fixed time — especially a short one — and/or says "oh, they're all about the same" (which is not true). The nature and honesty of the answer may be more important in evaluating the agency's program than the actual time, as long as the actual time is within reasonable limits.
Here are the questions, with suggestions of what we consider to be good answers shown in italics at the end of each question.
Most important items:
How long has your agency been practicing? 5+ years.
How long have you had a Guatemala program? 2-3+ years.
Do you have staff (employees or contracted case coordinators, not just attorneys) in Guatemala? Yes.
If not, how often does your agency staff visit Guatemala? Every 1 to at most 3 months.
Which attorneys do you work with? The agency may not want to disclose this and other information about intermediaries and fees until after you sign on with them. That's OK, if you can back out with all fees refunded if you decide you don't want to work with the attorneys once you learn the answers, and you have that assurance in writing.
Do the attorneys use intermediaries to locate birthmothers who want to place their children for adoption? Most will say yes to this. If so, how much are they paid, and what does the money go for? How do you ensure that the intermediaries operate ethically and responsibly? The best answer to the first part is a simple, straightforward breakdown of the fee paid and where it goes, but this may be difficult to get. However, every agency should know how much the intermediaries are paid and what practices their attorneys follow to ensure that intermediaries are professional, ethical, and caring in their dealings with birth families. Evasive answers in this area are a significant negative factor in our opinion.
What is the fee paid to the attorney? How is this money used? The fee is always disclosed. The breakdown of how it is used is rarely disclosed but we believe adoptive families have a right to this information and should insist on receiving it.
How many children did you place from Guatemala last year? 10+
Tell me about some of the problems you have run into with Guatemalan adoptions. How did you solve them? A good answer shows confidence and honesty about problems and how they are handled, as opposed to minimization, uncertainty, or dismissal. A response indicating that they've had no problems should be considered quite negative — every agency has had some problem cases, if they aren't willing to mention them, that's a bad sign.
Does your contract restrict who I can talk to about my experience with your agency or my case -- for example does it restrict my ability to talk with the US Embassy? With my congressional representatives? With other families via the Internet? A flat "No" is the ONLY correct answer to each of these questions!
How long have you been working with each attorney? 2+ years How long has each been doing adoptions? 2+ years How many adoptions has each processed? 25+
Does your staff speak Spanish? Someone on the agency's staff should speak Spanish in most cases. It is generally too difficult to maintain connections and know what is going on in Guatemala without this. An English-speaking attorney often is not sufficient in our view, though there are a few agencies with very positive track records who do not speak Spanish and work with English-speaking attorneys.
How long does the process take? You should hear a range of times, typically 6 - 8 months right now, sometimes more or less, but it should not be just "6 months", and it should always be focused on a good process — not just speed.
What were the two shortest cases you handled in the last year? The two longest? Why were the short ones so short? Why were the long ones as long as they were? A good answer shows confidence and honesty about timeframes and reasons for variation.
How much contact can I have with the foster family / children's home? Their answer should allow you direct contact if possible. If they are evasive or secretive on this point that's not good at all.
How about contact with the birth family? Some agencies encourage contact, some discourage it. We prefer those which encourage it, but either policy is OK as long as it is clearly stated. If they do not allow contact through the agency they should still help you understand their policy and, if appropriate, learn about other ways you might make contact. Also they should be able to tell you if the birthmother wants contact or not.
What about contact with the attorney? You may be expected to go through the agency if possible, but you should not be prohibited from nor face consequences for contacting the attorney yourself if you feel it is necessary.
How do you handle unexpected medical issues which come up during the adoption? Who is financially responsible if the cost of medical care exceeds the norm? Is a family able to "back out" if the medical issue is so serious that it is something they do not feel they will be able to handle, and what are the resources for caring for children should this occur? Answers here should reflect simple, clear policies and practices focused on concern for the child. Most agencies cover basic medical services but may ask families to cover extraordinary costs. If so they should provide itemized bills and a way for the family to be informed about the medical issues and the care choices being made.
What remedies do I have if a birthmother changes her mind or the adoption is disrupted for some other reason? Most agencies will not let you give up and receive your money back but they should allow you to receive another referral through them without additional costs of any kind. An agency which tells you that birth mothers never change their minds should be avoided as this is not true — and even moreso if they have no policy about how this situation would be handled. Ethical treatment of the birthmother demands that the agency and attorney treat as normal the possibility that she will change her mind at any of the several points in the process where she is legally allowed to do so.
Do you have a relationship with a children's home or "hogar" which places children for adoption? Some agencies do, some do not. Does the hogar place children through abandonment or only via direct birthmother relinquishment? If the hogar only handles relinquishment cases it probably is not an independent home for orphaned children, but is run by the attorney as an alternative to private foster care. However, many hogares which handle abandonments also handle some relinquishments so a mixture of cases is common.
What financial reserves and plans do you have if adoptions in Guatemala are disrupted and cases take longer than expected? This is an issue in all international adoption, not just in Guatemala. Look for a sensible, written risk management policy that explains your options and financial risks in such a situation.
Does your agency have charitable programs in Guatemala (e.g., direct orphanage support)? How do they work? Are adoptive families expected or required to contribute, or is the program separate and voluntary? Having the programs is good; in our view families may be encouraged but should not be required to contribute.
In evaluating an agency you will need to ask any of the above questions that you feel are important, and many others as well. We recommend that you evaluate at least 3 or 4 agencies before making a choice. We also strongly recommend that you do NOT select an agency by looking at online photolistings of waiting children. The agency should be selected for its ethics, professionalism, competence, and experience, not because you fell in love with an online photo!
As part of your evaluation it is very important to speak with other adoptive parents who have recently completed adoptions with the agency, and if possible who used the same attorney you might be using. Parents currently in the process are not usually as helpful as those who have recently finished.
You should certainly get references from the agency, though of course they are likely to be positive ones. With these people be sure to ask about any problems they encountered and how they were handled. It is also important to go online and seek other adoptive parents who have used the agency; a good place to start is the Guatemala-Adopt email list (see our Resources page for information on how to join).
Be cautious of any agency with multiple unhappy clients, or stories of significant errors on the part of the agency. Also take some care with agencies with nothing but glowing positive recommendations reporting totally problem-free adoptions, as these unfortunately can sometimes be responses arranged by the agency, rather than an honest sampling of their clients.
In evaluating agencies remember that many cases have problems of some kind, the question is not whether they occur but how honestly, efficiently, and professionally the agency and attorney handle them.
In your evaluation you often need to consider multiple factors. For example, consider these hypothetical agencies (note that the commentary reflects our opinion; yours could be different and should be based on your own judgment, not ours!):
Agency A very strictly limits contact with the attorney. They have a long-standing program, positive references, visit Guatemala every month, have positive answers to other questions, have a clear set of safeguards related to how their attorneys work with intermediaries, and can clearly explain the reason for strictly limiting attorney contact. Comment: We normally don't like strict limits on attorney contact but if the agency has a good reason and appears to be clearly trustworthy in their willingness to handle those communications themselves then we wouldn't rule them out.
Agency B was started by an adoptive parent and has only been doing Guatemalan adoptions for 18 months. However, they are using Guatemalan attorneys with established positive records verifiable through other adoptive families, their staff speaks Spanish and visits Guatemala routinely, they are open about contact with attorneys, foster families, and birth families, and their contract is fair and clear. Comment: This agency has a short track record but the other positive practices and their positive references would outweigh that in our opinion.
Agency C has a long-standing Guatemala program and both the agency and their attorneys have good recommendations from other parents. However they are unwilling to detail the distribution of fees and they will not respond substantively to questions about the role of intermediaries in the adoption process, stating only that they leave those matters to the attorneys. Comment: Here we would say that the lack of response to ethical concerns makes this agency a poor choice. In our view even a very positive track record does not compensate for evasive or non-responsive answers to ethical questions.