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A Family Left Behind

By Ellen Guettler

Thousands of children come to the United States from abroad each year. Each child represents a joy and a celebration for the family he or she joins. But each child also represents a loss for the family left behind. Most children come from poor and troubled situations. And nearly everyone involved in adoption agrees that in a perfect world the poverty and violence that forces families to give their children up wouldn't exist.

Independent filmmaker Laurie Stern has become familiar with the bittersweet movement of children from those who can't take care of them to those who can. When she adopted her son Diego from Guatemala in 1999, she became curious about the Guatemalan women who chose adoption for their children. Laurie's quest to find out why Guatemalan women make that choice has allowed her to be present during some of the most intimate adoption moments.

On her most recent trip to Guatemala, Laurie accompanied a 16-year-old girl to conduct the DNA test required by the Guatemalan government. Due to allegations of child-trafficking, the tests are required in all Guatemalan adoptions in order to prove that the woman relinquishing a child is the child's biological mother.

Inma Rivera Xec is the 16-year-old mother of a baby being placed for adoption abroad. She waits for a DNA test appointment - the test is required to confirm that the baby she's relinquishing is biologically her own.
photo by Ellen Guettler

Outside a crowded bus station in Guatemala City, Laurie Stern and I wait on a street curb with adoption facilitator Rosa Rivera. We're waiting for the arrival of 16-year-old Inma Rivera Xec, who knows Rosa only as the woman who is arranging the adoption of her five-week-old baby. Relinquished immediately, Inma's baby lives in foster care in Guatemala City until her adoption abroad can be finalized. Inma has traveled six hours from her home in northwestern Guatemala to the city to complete a key part in this process: a DNA test to confirm she is relinquishing her biological child.

Inma steps off the bus after her long trip. Her eyes are small and dark. Her round cheeks have a constant pink glow. She's accompanied by one of Rosa's helpers, a smiling young woman who doesn't leave Inma's side.

Inma's mother works as a maid in Guatemala City and sends her wages home to her husband, who lives with Inma in their village. Inma's father is ill and unable to work. She says that's why she can't raise her baby; her help is needed at home. Inma's parents are scheduled to arrive later that day. Since Inma is a minor, they must give their consent in their granddaughter's adoption.

Laurie approaches Inma and explains in rusty Spanish that she is an adoptive mother of a Guatemalan-born child. She pulls out pictures of her son Diego and Inma nods as Laurie flips through them. Laurie asks her how she feels. Inma explains that she felt sad when she first relinquished her baby, but that now she's feeling okay.

"But you're going to see the baby again." Laurie replies, referring to the DNA test that's about to take place. Inma just nods.

The doctor's office is inside a nearby mall. Inma's parents meet her outside the waiting room and they file in to a brightly lit room with white walls and a linoleum floor. Three babies wait for their tests; the sound of their occasional cries bounces off the blank walls. Each baby is accompanied by its own entourage: a birth mother, a foster mother and a handful of facilitators, there to handle paperwork and direct traffic. Inma's father is the only man in the waiting room. Laurie looks around in wonderment.

"I can't say, in all my adoption experience, I've ever been anywhere like this," Laurie tells me. "It all seems kind of businesslike. Everybody knows their place and what to do."

Laurie is surprised that Inma doesn't make any contact with her 43-day old daughter.

"She's just beautiful," Laurie says. "I have no way of knowing if it's intentional that they're avoiding each other, but so far they are."

Inma also avoids her baby's foster mother. Inma hasn't seen her baby since she was placed with the foster mother after birth. But she does not ask how the baby is doing, and the foster mother doesn't offer any information. They don't speak to each other at all.

A clinician steps out of a tiny examining room and motions to Rosa that the group may enter. The foster mother stands with the baby in her arms; Inma and her mother follow her inside. The examining room is so small, Laurie has to stand and turn sideways to let the two clinicians get at Inma and her baby. No one says a word.

Inma Rivera Xec holds her baby for a photograph that will be used to confirm that she is voluntarily placing her biological child for adoption.
photo by Ellen Guettler

Inma and her mother sit in the two available chairs and the foster mother places Inma's baby in her lap so the two can be photographed together. Inma doesn't look at the child. Instead she props her up like a doll and looks straight ahead while a clinician snaps the picture. The clinician unwraps three sets of color-coded swabs: Pink for Inma, yellow for the baby, and the blue swabs are labeled "alleged father." In this case, the blue swabs won't be used; Inma says the baby's father never knew about her pregnancy.

The clinician coos to the baby as she uses three yellow swabs to vigorously rub the inside of the baby's cheeks. Inma opens her mouth for the clinician as her mother looks on. Laurie kneels beside Inma's mother and explains again that she adopted a Guatemalan-born son.

"Is it hard?" Laurie asks.

"It's better this way," says Inma's mother, "because there are many children who suffer here in Guatemala." She begins to cry and continues, "For what? If there's someone who can give them what they needů it's better. But it's hard"

"I think it's tragic that it's necessary," Laurie replies.

Their conversation is broken by the baby's cries; the clinician explains they had to ink her finger for a fingerprint and she didn't like it.

The group files out of the small examining room and Laurie seems almost angry about what she's just seen.

"I can't think of an appropriate way to describe it," she says. "This is where it happens, you know? It's where it becomes official. It seems absurd that it's necessary."

Her voice cracks as she adds, "I'm also looking at that 43-day old baby and I'm wishing I'd known Diego because I missed those months and I just can't imagine giving him up. I can't imagine what that must be like. How come I'm the only one crying in this room? I don't get it."

The foster mother leaves with the baby without exchanging a word with Inma. Rosa leads Inma and her parents through the mall and back out to the street. Inma doesn't speak with her parents, instead she walks with Rosa's helper who accompanied her on the bus and her parents follow at a small distance.

As they walk Laurie tells Rosa that the baby's grandmother was more emotional in the examining room than the mother herself was. Rosa says it's typical for grandparents to be more choked up than the woman relinquishing the child. Laurie asks why.

Rosa replies, "Because grandparents know what it is to raise a child."

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