Overview of the Guatemalan Adoption Process

Last updated: 06 Mar 2004

Recent News: (December, 2003) Adoptions are currently being processed following the normal procedure that was in effect prior to March 2003, though there are still some delays and difficulties at various stages. For a brief history of recent disruptions to the process and a summary of the current state of Guatemalan adoptions, also see our Current Status page.

Guatemala Adoption Procedure

Please note: We are parents with experience with Guatemalan adoption and involvement in assisting other families. However, we are neither adoption professionals nor lawyers. This document represents our best understanding, but may contain errors. In addition there are many variations in the process and no single explanation covers all cases. Please be sure to consult your agency if you want advice from an adoption professional, and your attorney for legal advice.

If you see anything here which you feel is in error please email us and we will review the issue you raise and include any corrections in a future update. This page last updated 17 December, 2003.

This document is, as the title says, just an overview of the process. There are many additional issues, considerations, and nuances which we can’t cover here. We encourage you to use other resources including your agency, other online information, and the Guatemala-Adopt email list (see the resource list), for additional information. This page covers adoption from Guatemala to the US -- most of the steps which take place in Guatemala are similar when adopting to another country, but there are also many differences. Consult with your country's embassy in Guatemala and local adoption service providers for details.

There are two tracks for adoption from Guatemala.

(1) Relinquishment in which a birth mother decides that she wishes to relinquish her child for adoption, and signs the child’s care over to a lawyer or a children’s home. Some birth mothers decide this during pregnancy; others may not decide on this until they have cared for their child for some time. In this process the birth mother must remain in contact through the entire adoption process, signing off multiple times, including at the end of the process. Her consent can be withdrawn at any of these points, and this does happen, but rarely. This is most like the U.S. adoption system, in that it is private and conducted largely by lawyers with review by certain courts and agencies

A relinquishment can turn into an abandonment adoption if the birth mother dies or disappears during the process, which is rare. Relinquishments are the most common form of adoption to the U.S. from Guatemala.

(2) Abandonment in which a child is literally abandoned, or in which parental rights have been terminated for neglect or abuse, with some other rare cases fitting into this definition. In abandonment adoptions, a minors’ court judge is charged with determining whether the child is truly abandoned. A search is conducted for any family member who may wish to assume the care of the child, before a Certificate of Abandonment (COA) is issued. Some searches can take two years or more, though the time is shorter if the child was literally abandoned and the family is unknown. If a family member expresses some interest in taking care of the child and is deemed able to do so by the court, an abandonment will not go forward. Once a COA has been issued, an abandonment case proceeds through most of the same steps as a relinquishment case.

In either case, before your child is identified, you should complete your homestudy, pick a reputable agency, assemble your dossier using the instructions given you by your agency, and apply for INS approval to adopt internationally (the I-600A application, which generates the I-171H / I-797C approval letter [forms 171H and 797C are the same, some regions use one and some use the other] as well as a cable to INS-Guatemala confirming your approval). The INS is quite slow in a number of geographic areas, and so you should get your INS application in as soon as possible. It is OK to write "to be determined" in the blanks for agency and even country, so you can get started before you’ve picked an agency.

Some agencies will refer you a child while you are waiting for homestudy completion or INS approval, while others prefer that you be "paper ready" before they put you on their list of waiting parents. The legal adoption proceedings in Guatemala cannot begin until the homestudy, and subsequently the INS approval, are completed, so if these are not ready when you start it will add to the waiting time.


RELINQUISHMENT: THE BASIC STEPS

Note: Some steps may overlap or happen out of order, but this gives the general sequence.

Referral and Adoption Procedures

  1. Dossier is sent to Guatemala to be translated.

  2. Child is born.

  3. Birth is registered at Civil Registry and a birth certificate is issued.

  4. Birth mother signs over custody to a lawyer and authorizes the lawyer to pursue adoption plans for the child; child enters foster care (usually) or sometimes orphanage or children's home

  5. Child is taken to a pediatrician for basic physical and (for newborns) usually for first immunizations, if these steps were not done prior to relinquishment.

  6. Birthmother also sees a doctor to make sure she is fine and may have blood tests done at this time, if they haven't been done prior to the birth of the child.

  7. You receive a referral with child's and birth mother’s names, basic physical info, and usually a photo and results of screening blood tests for syphilis, hepatitis and HIV.

  8. You accept referral and sign a Power of Attorney (POA) to authorize the lawyer in Guatemala to act on your behalf during the adoption process. Under Guatemalan law the same lawyer may represent the birth mother's and child's interests and your interests during the adoption. Some agencies use separate lawyers for adoptive parents, most don’t.

  9. Your POA is registered in Guatemala.

  10. The lawyer submits all the documents in the case to Family Court, and petitions the Family Court to assign a social worker to investigate the case.

  11. The lawyer requests authorization from the US Embassy to have DNA testing performed on the birth mother and child to confirm that they are indeed biologically mother and child. DNA testing is done with supervision and a photo of the birth mother with the child is taken at the testing site to ascertain their identities.

  12. Family Court social worker reviews your dossier, interviews the birth mother, sees the child in foster care or orphanage, and (almost always) approves the adoption. The social worker writes a several page report summarizing the facts of the case and attesting to the reasons that the birth mother cannot care for the child. The birth mother signs consent for adoption for second time.

  13. Meanwhile the DNA test should have been performed, cleared, and submitted to the Embassy with your dossier for review and approval by the Embassy. The case cannot take the next step after Family Court until the Embassy DNA approval has been issued. This is a safeguard to prevent a situation in which a child is legally adopted under Guatemalan law, but not eligible for immigration under US law. A third consent by the birth mother is signed during the DNA process.

  14. The lawyer then submits a petition for approval of the adoption case to a notarial officer of the Attorney General’s office (Procuraduria General de la Nación or PGN). (A Notary in Guatemala is an attorney with additional powers, not simply someone who certifies signatures as in the US.)

  15. Notary in PGN reviews all the documents (often requesting that some be re-done because of minor spelling errors, expired notary seals, etc.) and almost always approves the adoption. The PGN may at their discretion investigate aspects of the case if they wish and as a result of that and other variations, time in this step (as in many steps) can vary widely.

  16. PGN issues its approval for the adoption to proceed.

  17. The lawyer then meets the birth mother for the 4th and final sign-off.

  18. The adoption decree is then written and issued by the lawyer and the child is legally now the child of the adoptive family.

  19. A new birth certificate is then issued by the Civil Registry with the child’s first and middle names unchanged, but with the names of the adoptive parent(s).

  20. Lawyer takes new birth certificate and applies for a Guatemalan passport (although the child is adopted by US parents, he or she is still a Guatemalan citizen).

  21. All documents are translated into English by certified translators, as required by US INS regulations.

Visa Issuance and Travel Procedures

These are the procedures followed if you travel to pick up your child. If your child will be escorted from Guatemala see the following section.

  1. Passport is issued.

  2. Child gets a visa photo done.

  3. Lawyer takes all the paperwork back to the Embassy, including the passport, your dossier, the Family Court findings, the adoption decree, the DNA results, all translations, and the visa photos, and requests approval for an orphan visa to enter the US.

  4. Embassy authorizes visa. This approval is on pink paper and is called the "pink slip". It is usually issued a day or two after submission of the documents.

  5. Child gets an exit physical by an Embassy-approved doctor (to make sure the child doesn’t have unrecognized handicapping conditions or infectious diseases). Note that this exam used to require prior embassy approval, but can now be done any time after the passport is issued, without prior approval of the embassy.

  6. You are told your case is complete and you travel to Guatemala (many people travel sooner but this is the "official" time when travel is recommended).

  7. The lawyer completes required INS and State Department forms for visa issuance and includes them in the document package along with the results from the exit physical.

  8. You meet your child, and they stay with you from this point forward.

  9. You -- often but not always accompanined by the lawyer or someone from their staff -- bring your child and all the papers back to the Embassy early one morning (Monday - Thursday only, no visas are issued on Fridays), pay the visa fees, present the I-600 and I-864 forms (fill these out well ahead!), show your tax returns for the past 3 years (including W-2s and 1099s, plus currrent letters of employment or recent pay stubs) to prove you can support the child, and come back later that afternoon for your visa and sealed packet of documents. Do not open the sealed packet!

  10. Then you can go home. On arrival you must to submit the sealed packet to INS at your first point of entry into the US.

Escort Procedures

Most families travel to Guatemala to pick up their child as described in the preceding section. Occasionally children are escorted (a service provided by most but not all agencies); in this case the procedure is slightly different. Having a child escorted can take very little extra time, or can add several weeks to the process, depending mostly on how fast your INS office processes your application.

The escort procedures are:

  1. Lawyer creates a second legalized or certified copy of the adoption decree, original and new birth certificates, family court social worker's report, and the birth mother's irrevocable release of the child for adoption (or, for abandonment cases, the Certificate of Abandonment), along with English translations of all of these documents. This is a basic list, and there may be other documents required by INS to issue a visa approval through a US INS office. The requirements unfortunately vary from office to office; check with your local INS office to be sure of what is needed.

  2. These documents are sent to you, directly or through your agency.

  3. You bring all of these papers and the filled-out I-600 form to your local INS office.

  4. INS approves your I-600 and sends a "Visa 39" cable to Guatemala authorizing issuance of the child's visa. This process may take from a couple of days to a couple of weeks or longer depending on the office, their familiarity with escort procedures, and their workload.

  5. When the cable is sent from your INS office to the Embassy, you should be sent an I-171 or I-797 form from INS to notify you (however you may have to check yourself, especially if you wan tto know immediately). Once you know that the cable has been sent, you notify your agency and they notify the attorney.

  6. Your agency provides you with a special Power of Attorney form for the escort which authorizes them to escort the child to you. You return this form to the agency with appropriate signatures and notarizations. It is best to prepare several notarized copies as the escort may need separate copies for the embassy, at the airport in Guatemala, and on entry into the US.

  7. You prepare your I-864 form and send it to your agency, along with your tax returns for the past 3 years (including all W-2s and 1099s, plus currrent letters of employment or recent pay stubs).

  8. The agency sends the escort Power of Attorney, I-864, and tax returns to Guatemala for presentation to the US Embassy at the visa appointment. This material may also be held by the agency and hand-carried to Guatemala if an agency staff person from the US is doing the escort.

    Note: All of the steps listed above can take place while the child's passport is being issued in Guatemala. If they are done more quickly than the passport, they will not delay the case. However the steps below cannot proceed until the passport is issued and the cable is received by INS in Guatemala, so if the cable is delayed the case will be delayed at this point.

  9. Passport is issued.

  10. Child gets an exit physical by an Embassy-approved doctor (to make sure the child doesn’t have unrecognized handicapping conditions or infectious diseases). Note that this exam used to require prior embassy approval, but can now be done any time after the passport is issued, without prior approval of the embassy.

  11. Child gets a visa photo done.

  12. Lawyer takes all the paperwork back to the Embassy, including the passport, your dossier, the Family Court findings, the adoption decree, the DNA results, doctor's note from the exit physical, all translations, and the visa photos, and requests approval for an orphan visa to enter the US.

  13. Embassy authorizes visa. This approval is on pink paper and is called the "pink slip". It is usually issued a day or two after submission of the documents.

  14. You are told your case is complete and you travel to Guatemala (many people travel sooner but this is the "official" time when travel is recommended).

  15. The lawyer completes required INS and State Department forms for visa issuance and includes them in the document package.

  16. You are told your case is complete, and the escort travels to Guatemala if they are not there already.

  17. The escort and/or lawyer bring the child and all the papers back to the Embassy early one morning (Monday - Thursday only, no visas are issued in Fridays), pay the visa fees, and come back later that afternoon for the visa and the sealed packet of documents.

  18. The escort can now travel to meet you in the US. On arrival they must submit the sealed packet to INS at the first point of entry into the US.


ABANDONMENT: THE BASIC STEPS

  1. Child is found abandoned or parental rights are terminated.

  2. Child is placed with an orphanage or hogar (the terms are roughly interchangeable) by the courts. Usually this is the orphanage from which the adoption proceeds. Sometimes it is a different one and the child is transferred later to an orphanage or hogar that handles adoptions.

  3. Lawyer petitions the Minors’ Court for a Certificate of Abandonment.

  4. Minors’ Court conducts an investigation to determine if the birth family is known and if there are members of the birth family who can care for the child. This investigation can vary enormously in time – if the child’s family is truly unknown and unlocatable, it can be fairly straightforward and may not take more than 6 months; if the family is known then many steps will be taken to clarify their ability to care for the child, and the process can sometimes take 1 – 2 years.

  5. Court issues a Certificate of Abandonment (COA) for the child.

  6. You receive a referral with child’s name, physical info, and usually a photo and results of screening blood tests for syphilis, hepatitis and HIV. Generally historical information on the child’s case is available also.
    Note: Much of the referral information is often available prior to issuance of the COA as the child is often in care of the hogar that will handle the adoption while awaiting the COA. However, it can be risky to accept an abandonment referral, or to sign a contract or make payment to an agency for services related to a specific abandonment referral, unless or until you actually receive a photocopy of the child’s COA. Until the COA is issued there is no guarantee that the child will actually be available for adoption – but at the same time, in some cases a COA may never be issued if there is no waiting family. If you do accept a referral prior to issuance of the COA you should fully understand the risks, which are in some ways similar to those of a "legal risk" adoption in the USA, with an unknown timeframe; and your agency should proactively disclose those risks to you, and should not minimize them. (Relinquishment adoptions are also risky because the birth mother’s consent can be withdrawn during the process, but the abandonment process has more unknowns and is longer.)

  7. The remainder of an abandonment case proceeds exactly like a relinquishment (start at the beginning of the relinquishment section above), except that no DNA test is done and, obviously, no birth mother sign-offs or other involvement are needed. All other steps are the same.


ADDITIONAL NOTES

  1. If both parents (or the sole parent, for a single parent adoption) have visited the child prior to finalization of the adoption and issuance of the adoption decree, then the child will enter the US on an "IR3" visa and automatically be a citizen upon entry (but not before). However, if the parent(s) did not see the child prior to finalization of the adoption, the child comes in on an "IR4" visa, and is not a citizen until you re-finalize your adoption ("readopt") under the laws of your state.

  2. "Readoption" is a legal procedure which ranges from a full legal adoption (available in many states) to a less formal "recognition of foreign adoption" or similar procedure (available in many other states). Readoption:

  3. It is enormously helpful to have "originals" of all the documents from the adoption, for passport applications, citizenship certificates and re-adoption under state law. Ask your agency and lawyer up front and repeatedly for "originals". These are actually high quality clean copies with things that look like postage stamps affixed to them, and notarization. The true originals are official documents on file with the government offices, just as our "original" birth certificates are here. In some cases the certification of the copies you receive is on a separate document called a "legalization" which describes in text each document it refers to, and is effectively like a single notarization of all documents, rather than a separate one for each document. This is not how we do things in the US, but is not unusual in Guatemala.