A raid on a Guatemalan orphanage has thrown the spotlight on overseas adoptions which have tripled in the United States in 15 years despite many perils, corrupt officials and exorbitant fees.
"There are tremendous stresses that come with building a family through adoption," Sandra Hanks Benoiton, the mother of two adopted children from Cambodia, told AFP.
Advertisement"Situations like the present one in Guatemala make things much worse," she added, after police earlier this month seized a children's home run by an American in the tourist area of Old Guatemala, where officials said nearly 50 boys and girls were victims of an illegal adoption ring.
"Imagine the horror that comes when a parent learns that their child -- and these children are as much theirs as any gestating infant -- has been removed at gunpoint from what they have come to accept as a safe environment (and) transported to who-knows-where," Benoiton said, an American who lives in the Seychelles.
"Add to that the possibility that all this could be happening for nothing more than political maneuvering, and you're beginning to get the picture."
International adoptions by US families have more than tripled since 1992, when 6,472 children were brought into the United States, according to data compiled by the State Department.
Of just over 20,000 international adoptions by US families last year, 4,000 were from Guatemala, which was ranked second behind China.
The State Department has described the adoption situation in Guatemala as "volatile and unpredictable" and has called repeatedly on Guatemala to tighten regulations on adoption, which critics say has now crossed the line into outright baby-selling.
On its website, the US embassy in Guatemala warns adoptive families of several pitfalls including an imposter claiming to be the biological mother of the child or the real parents of a child having never relinquished their custodial rights.
Other obstacles to international adoption are the huge financial burden and bogus agencies.
Lauren Gold was told to expect to pay around 20,000 dollars (14,000 euros) to adopt a child from Ukraine.
"I haven't gone through my papers to work out the final cost, but it was more than that," said Gold.
Ann Spurbeck and her husband, Andrew, from Minnesota paid 25,000 dollars over nearly two years after they set their sights on adopting a girl from Ukraine.
"We took out a loan against our home to pay for the adoption," said Spurbeck, who also has three biological children.
But after numerous battles with corrupt officials, both in Ukraine and the United States, the Spurbecks abandoned their dream.
"Some countries have systems in place that cause these little ones to stumble on the road to being adopted. They make so many roadblocks and hindrances, and the price is exorbitant," Spurbeck told AFP.
Most of the Spurbecks' money went to the Minnesota-based Reaching Arms agency, which had its licence revoked in March and is currently being investigated by US authorities.
"Using children as a commodity is shameful," Spurbeck told AFP.
"If I had a soapbox and could stand up and say something to the world, that's what I would say," she said, adding the high cost of her failed bid to adopt has ruled out any further attempts.
Gold, who also went through Reaching Arms, was able to adopt a brother and sister from Ukraine.
But the process required Gold and her husband to spend seven weeks in Ukraine and pay out tens of thousands of dollars in fees and kickbacks.
"We spent a lot of time dealing with bribes, which we were told by Reaching Arms we wouldn't have to do," said Gold.
"It was harrowing because we were never sure we would actually get the kids," said Gold, who eventually returned home to Florida with nine-year-old Nastia and her four-year-old brother, Sasha.
The Spurbecks and Golds have been asked many times why they did not adopt domestically.
"Our first thought was to adopt in the US," Gold stressed.
"But we have family ties to eastern Europe, and we had friends who had successfully adopted in Ukraine.
"And a course we had to take, before we began the domestic adoption process, made it sound as if we would be part of a system and would spend all our time working within that system, not being parents. It painted a very grim picture."
Spurbeck, who had also considered domestic adoption, said simply: "An orphan is an orphan, no matter where they come from."
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