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The Worst-Case Scenario of International Adoption

If children are the future, then Guatemala greatly undervalued its own.

Credit: maxim ibragimov

Until I Find You: Disappeared Children and Coercive Adoptions in Guatemala, by Rachel Nolan, Harvard University Press

International adoption has sharply declined over the last 15 years, but the fraud and corruption that characterized many countries’ adoption systems in its heyday is only now coming to light. One of the worst offenders was Guatemala, where the government used international adoption to cover up domestic problems such as disintegrated families, mass poverty, and genocide. Historian Rachel Nolan tells the sad tale in her new book Until I Find You: Disappeared Children and Coercive Adoptions in Guatemala.


The numbers are astounding. Despite its relatively small population, Guatemala overtook Russia and South Korea in the “sender” nation rankings in the 1990s, meaning more total children were adopted from Guatemala than from those much larger nations. In 2007, the zenith of international adoption in Guatemala, one in 100 native-born children were adopted by parents in the U.S., Canada, Sweden, or other Western countries. 

Adult adoptees, equipped with advancements in DNA testing and social media connectivity, are now returning to Guatemala to find their birth parents. Few find the answers they crave. One story that Nolan tells culminates in justice: Via DNA testing, adoptee Dolores Preat finds her birth family and learns that a neighbor kidnapped her as an infant. The neighbor, who pretended to be her birth mother and sold her to a lawyer in Guatemala City, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2015.

Perverse incentives plagued the Guatemalan adoption industry. A privatized system enriched lawyers who looked the other way as their underlings bribed and deceived birth mothers. Western nations, including the U.S., were complicit in numerous ways. American evangelical Christians were key in providing relief after a devastating earthquake killed more than 20,000 Guatemalans in 1976, but they also pushed for increased international adoption in Guatemala without understanding that the system was rife with abuse. Birth mothers were often illiterate and spoke Mayan languages instead of Spanish, which was used in adoption proceedings and documents. Nolan questions how many of these mothers truly understood the permanence of an international adoption arrangement.

And, of course, there’s the fact that so many of these mothers were desperately poor. Many felt pressured to relinquish their children after hearing adoption advocates describe the improvements to the children’s “material lives” that were only possible in wealthy countries. A middle-class lifestyle in the U.S. seemed unimaginably privileged to most Guatemalans. But those material advantages came at a cost. Preat, when seeking criminal charges against her kidnapper, cited among the harms she has suffered her loss of “family, identity, and culture.”

In Nolan’s view, U.S. policymakers contributed to immiseration in Guatemala and its neighbors. She cites decades of interference, from the CIA-backed coup in the 1950s to American funding for population control methods that meant giving Guatemalan women IUDs but no subsequent medical care for complications or removals. Nolan also mentions the uptick in Guatemalan men migrating to the U.S. to look for work in the 1980s and how the families they left behind struggled financially, leading many mothers to relinquish children of all ages. U.S. policy has only become more permissive of the constant stream of Central American men illegally crossing the southern border.


Guatemala is an extreme example of what happens when adoption is about finding children for would-be parents instead of the other way around. Nolan reviewed hundreds of adoption files and found examples of adoptive parents making specific requests for the gender, age, and even skin tone of the children they wanted to adopt. Lawyers facilitating the adoptions then dispatched women known as jaladoras, or baby brokers, to find the best matches. Many Guatemalans looked at jaladoras the way New Testament Jews looked at tax collectors like Zaccheus: as traitors. Jaladoras were often willing to do whatever it took to meet their quotas, including, in an extreme case, murder.

Nolan details a sensational quadruple murder orchestrated by an adoption ring to get rid of pesky family members asking about a young boy’s whereabouts after he was trafficked out of the country. In an extra sickening twist, the family was murdered at what was supposed to be a piñata party. But shocking and scandalous crimes aren’t the point of Nolan’s book. Instead, she wants readers to understand that the main factor behind Guatemala’s broken adoption system was mundane: poverty. In such circumstances, a mother’s decision to give up her child was something less than a free choice.

International adoptions closed in Guatemala in 2008, largely as the result of a national panic that foreigners were adopting Guatemalan children to harvest their organs (such rumors and press stories were unfounded). The underlying issues that fueled the Guatemalan adoption industry haven’t disappeared, though, only morphed.

“Dawning awareness of ethical concerns is one reason international adoption is declining around the world,” Nolan writes. “The United States remains the largest receiving country, but the high-water mark was 22,884 children adopted from all over the world in 2004. Since then, numbers of international adoptions are falling fast, even as international surrogacy, which raises parallel ethical issues, is on the rise.”

Nolan, who lists “human rights and social justice” as a specialization on her Boston University bio page, is an unlikely bedfellow for conservatives raising questions about gestational surrogacy, but she is among a cohort of left-leaning academics digging deeper on such issues. Another example is Gretchen Sisson, author of Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood, published February 2024. On the right, activists like Katy Faust, an adoptive parent and former adoption agency employee, are addressing children’s rights and what a healthy family looks like. Their starting points are different, but they often end up in the same place: giving a voice to society’s voiceless—children.

Unfortunately, Nolan and Sisson’s idea of the voiceless doesn’t include the unborn. Nolan highlights the lack of legal abortion in Guatemala in Until I Find You; Sisson is a co-founder of a group called the Abortion Bridge Collaborative Fund. For Nolan, adoption is coercion, but abortion is a solution. It’s plain to see the logical disconnect: In a society where getting rid of a baby through adoption is the only choice for a single mother, whether she wants to or not, how could abortion be any less coerced?

In most chapters of Until I Find You, the forces separating mothers and children are banal: social stigma, grinding poverty, overreaching social workers. The parts of the book that unmask true evil are the chapters on disappeared children under Efraín Ríos Montt’s short-lived dictatorship in the 1980s. In an attempt to eliminate communist guerrillas and their “seed,” Montt’s forces massacred indigenous villagers and re-educated surviving children. Whether this was accomplished by turning a young child into a gofer for soldiers or sending him to be adopted by a wealthy foreign couple, the regime didn’t care. (Actually, many Guatemalan officials preferred the latter; they stood to make much more money that way.) Adoption files were used as evidence of genocide in the 2013 trial that resulted in Montt’s conviction for crimes against humanity.

Those who control the education and upbringing of children control the future. In Nolan’s estimation, the Guatemalan government seriously undervalued its future by undervaluing its children, turning to international adoption to save money on orphanage costs instead of addressing root causes. International adoption seemed like a salve, but the wound left untreated continued to fester.