In Argentina, some 80% of adoptions take place through a direct exchange, through a private agreement between the biological mother and those wishing to adopt. While the practice is legal and done under the supervision of a judge, it is vulnerable to numerous abuses that jeopardise the legality and ethics of the process. Still, it is widespread. Why do so many people choose direct adoption over adopting through the state?
British national Rafaela Gunner began the process of adopting her son, Marcos, in 2003. Travelling to Corrientes, she and her Argentine husband met with a lawyer who knew of a young girl who wanted to give her son up for adoption. They signed a temporary agreement to look after the child until the court approved the situation.
That was only the beginning of their troubles. When they were summoned by the family court, they were shocked to hear that the court believed that they had bought the child.
“We were being accused of things that we didn’t do and we didn’t have any way to prove it…you can’t prove that a child hasn’t been sold,” she said. Countless hearings and court rulings followed this accusation. At one point, the biological mother was even sent to live with them and the boy because the judge insisted that he remain with his mother until the court decided.
Gunner described how they were suspicious of her as a foreigner. She explained that in Argentina, foreigners must have five years of residency in the country before they can even consider adoption. It was only in May 2008, five years after they began the process, that they were granted full guardianship of Marcos. “It was very long and very painful,” said Gunner.
Beatrice Gelman, psychologist and co-director of Fundación Adoptare, explains: “Direct adoption is not illegal, but public organisations often talk about the possibility of illegality. Three elements are necessary to ensure that it is legal: it is done through a court with the presence of a judge, there is no exchanging of money and the biological mother is in full agreement.”
With Gunner’s situation, the legality of the adoption was questioned as the issue of buying and selling of children came to the forefront. “It is very difficult because if you give them a pair of shoes, it could be said that you are entering into a deal. Where do you draw the line?” she said. But the risks are not only legal, but also ethical.
Marta Galliano, a psychologist from Equipo San José, explains that while direct adoption is legal, it is not always legitimate or ethical because the women don’t always get the time to think about their choice. When adoption occurs through the state, a mother who wants to put her child up for adoption receives counselling and other services to ensure that she is sure about her decision. However, the women don’t receive the same professional help when the process occurs through a private agreement. “The baby goes automatically to the couple and as a result, the mothers don’t have time to think and decide what they want to do. It is not the same when the mother is pregnant and when the baby is born because it becomes a living person that has a face and a gender, that cries and laughs; it is a different thing,” she said.
Given the risks involved with direct adoption, why do so many people choose to do it? “People don’t do direct adoption because they prefer it, they do it because they have no other option,” said Gunner. So what are the problems with adoption in Argentina that lead so many to take the process into their own hands?
“The truth is that the situation in Argentina in relation to adoption is very bad and people wait a very long time to adopt,” said Gelman. She described the problems in the process as a “complicated circle”. On one hand, the children are not reaching the courts and the system does not have enough kids for the people wanting to adopt through the state. On the other hand, those seeking to adopt don’t want to wait for years so they eventually decide to travel to the provinces and enter into a direct agreement with a mother. To complete the circle, the high number of direct adoptions further complicates the system because it limits the amount of children that reach the courts.
She stated that another problem is the amount of time it takes before a child is eligible for adoption. A child will be put into an institution when it becomes clear that the family cannot take care of them. However, it takes much longer before they reach “a state of adoptability” because the court is reluctant to fully relinquish custody from the biological family. “The children grow up in the institutions and children’s homes, and the older they get, the more difficult it is for them to be adopted because people want to adopt babies and toddlers.”
A national register
In 2005, new legislation was brought forward to try to clarify and speed up the process of adopting through the state. The National Register of Aspiring Adopters (DNRUA) was created as a national list of people waiting to adopt. According to the law, each provincial register submits the names of all those on the waiting-list to the national register in the capital. The courts then use the list to choose the best candidates for each child.
All those wishing to adopt should register with the DNRUA. Foundations such as Equipo and Adoptare walk these people through the steps to registering, providing them with professional services and compiling the file that is sent to the register. Once they are on the list, the waiting begins.
Even with this new system, the process remains slow. People can remain on the list for four or five years, and sometimes even longer. “I think the register has its benefits but if faces many difficulties,” said Galliano. She explained how the process is slow not only because of the register, but also because of the time that the children spend in institutions waiting to become eligible. “There are also not enough specialised teams to work with these families that cannot sustain their kids,” she added, explaining how many children don’t reach the courts.
Additionally, she believes that the biggest problem facing the register is that not all of the provinces have added to it. “The problem is that here, there is a federalism and each province keeps its own register.”
It is because of the waiting period that many people choose to take the situation into their own hands. Like Gelman, she points out that it is a circle. People resort to direct adoption because they don’t want to spend years waiting for the register to find them a child. “The problem is that all of these cases take place outside of the state and if we took steps against direct adoption and all of these cases were entered into the register, the national register itself would also move a lot more quickly.”
An over-preoccupation with blood?
When asked why the process of adopting in Argentina is so difficult, Cecilia Médici, a psychologist and social worker for the Centro de Adopción y Familia Vivir, described how one aspect is ideological. She explained that there is confusion between what constitutes adoption and appropriation. “The concept, the ideology of many is that adoption is the appropriation of a creature.” It is a matter of identity, and people believe that the practise takes away the child’s identity.
She goes on to explain that people perceive it as being tied directly to a social state: “The rich and the middle class are robbing the poor of their children,” she said, describing this perception. “But adoption is not a poor person giving their child to a rich person; people give up their children under a series of circumstances.
“People overvalue blood,” she said as she discussed how the biological identity of the child is valued above everything else. There is a belief that the child belongs with its biological family. Médici says: “When a mother in Argentina puts her child up for adoption, it means that she is a bad mother.”