19 Sep 2011

The Author

Author of the award-winning book Finding Fernanda. Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Redux Pictures photographer. Read more here.


10 Questions with Kathleen Strottman, Executive Director of Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute

1. How long have you been with CCAI, and can you talk a little about your day-to-day work?

I have been with CCAI for three years.  One of the reasons I like working at CCAI is that there is no such thing as a typical day for us!  We sponsor a series of five core programs each united by the belief that children have a basic human right to a family and that there are many instances in which U.S. and international law and policy are hindering them from realizing this basic right.

Some of our work is designed to bring federal policymakers up close and personal with the issues that affect children without families.  For instance, we sponsor a program called the Foster Youth Internship (FYI) through which 15 young people who have been emancipated from the US foster care system without a family have the chance to not only intern for a summer with a Member of Congress but also present formal recommendations for legislative change to Congress as a whole.

Some of our work is designed to create the opportunities for dialogue needed to advance policies and programs that serve children in and through families as opposed to institutions.  For instance, we hosted a one day convening for international child welfare experts to discuss how Haiti might rebuild its child welfare system to be more family based and are about to complete a year long working group process on how U.S. funding and policy might better support the development of family based care in six countries in Africa.

And finally some of our work entails assisting in cases where children are having their basic right to a family denied through government bureaucracy.  The majority of these cases involve international adoptions.

2. Who were the members of the recent Congressional Delegation to
Guatemala, and how were they chosen?

The principals of the trip were the following:

Senator Mary Landrieu

Paul Foldi, representing Senator Richard Lugar

Emily Mandrela, representing Senator John Kerry

Marian Grove, representing Senator Amy Klobuchar

Ambassador Susan Jacobs

Wally Bird, USCIS

The Members were chosen and invited by Senator Landrieu because of their involvement in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or Senate Judiciary Committee.

3. What were some of the highlights of the trip, and what’s next in terms of the Congressional Delegation’s involvement with the Guatemalan transition adoption cases? Could you talk a little bit about the history of CCAI’s work in Guatemala?

The delegation not only had the opportunity to meet again with all of the principals involved in the administration of the remaining transition cases but also those tasked with re-establishing Guatemala’s child welfare system so that it better meets the needs of their children.  In addition, we had the opportunity to meet with Norma Cruz and two birthmothers whose have alleged that there children were stolen.

I was personally pleased with the trip because I felt that unlike last time we were there (in April), there was real agreement that the 400 or so children in question deserve to have their cases resolved one way or another.  I was also pleased that there have and will continue to be criminal prosecutions in cases where criminal actions were found. What has always bothered me in cases like these is that it is the innocent children who end up spending their lives in a prison like setting and the alleged wrongdoers get off scott free.

Our work in Guatemala has and will continue to be on two fronts.  First, we believe that every one of the 400 children USCIS has identified as being a transition case has the right to a family, preferably their biological family or the adoptive family they have come to know and love as their own.  We believe the Guatemalan and US government owe it to them to ensure that they realize this right.  Second, we are working with the Guatemalan authorities to develop a child welfare system that is not centered on institutional care.  When we were in Guatemala in April we visited the City of Children, where there are now almost 1,000 children ages 0-15 living.  There are no plans for these children other than spending their lives in this institution.  That is not in accordance with the UN Guidelines on Alternative Care or more importantly what we know is in their best interest.

4. In our 2008 conversation, you mentioned frustration with ongoing problems related to corruption, saying “I could have told you five years ago that Guatemala was going to implode, I could have told you that Vietnam was going to continue to have problems, because I think that we need to be a little bit more proactive with our efforts…” Could you talk a little more about what being proactive meant, then and now?

In both Vietnam and Guatemala you had governments who were not involved in any meaningful way in oversight of their child welfare and/or international adoption systems.  While both may have had laws against trafficking in children, instances of abuse of this law were not prosecuted.  Finally, you have very high levels of corruption in both countries, including various parts of the Government.  These types of issues are not isolated to child welfare.  The difference is that when these issues interfere with things such as drug trafficking, international business or trade, the US and others make it our business to be apart of addressing them.  I personally believe we should do so here.

5. Is the US government and/or CCAI supporting Guatemala’s Ministerio Público with their ongoing investigations into transition adoption cases? What is being done to help resolve those cases?

 Yes.  A great deal of the conversations with CICIG, the MP and President centered on the importance of prosecuting those involved in the abduction and sale of children for adoption and ways that our two countries might work together on this front.  A major reason for the delay thus far has been that the Guatemalans lack the resources, both human and financial, to conduct these investigations in a timely fashion.  This was discussed and options for cooperation and assistance were discussed. In addition, the group discussed what to do in cases where the birthmothers are looked for and cannot be found.


6. During a 2005 visit to Guatemala, you mentioned that Senator Landrieu had encouraged Guatemala to implement the Hague Convention, and met with Guatemalan government officials about various issues, including the need for greater protection against fraud. You said ”…for years the US Embassy was concerned about issues where people would not be the birth parent bringing the child for adoption, and so there was the institution of the DNA requirement in showing that you
are in fact biologically related to the child… a lot of it [the visit] was to follow up on those types of things on a diplomatic level, and say how can we work together and bring our collective resources together to make sure that the children who are being made available for adoption are truly in need of a home, and that our presence here and our interest in adopting is not causing more children to be abandoned…”  Are similar preventative efforts being made in other non-Hague sending countries to make sure that US interest in adoption isn’t driving child abandonment? (For example, post-war countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, where international adoption numbers- though few- have doubled between 2009 and 2010)

Not to the extent we would like.  If I had my way we would be doing a great deal more to support families before they come to find themselves in a position to have to abandon their child.  When we were in Guatemala in April, we were able to visit with social workers and judges working to implement a pilot program on family preservation and reunification.  This program was enjoying enormous success in preventing children from abandoning their children as well as reunifying institutionalized children with their families.  They told us that in many cases they were able to do this by connecting people with government programs already in place to serve them.  This is the kind of work we would like to the US government to support in Guatemala.

7. Last time we spoke, I asked for your perspective regarding what might have been done differently in Guatemala to prevent adoption corruption, and you brought up the topic of regulation. “…For instance, if we see a developing country has a banking system that is overly open to corruption, we would, through technical assistance, send teams of lawyers over, we would help develop laws and procedures, and maybe even fund them in technical assistance grants to help develop things that regulate these issues a little bit more. In Guatemala, again, in addition to the statistics [one out of every hundred babies born being sent to the US in adoption], there was absolutely no government regulation whatsoever. It was a complete free
for all, and you had it being done by private individuals. Because there was no involvement by either the Guatemalan government and less so of the United States, it just was this open ground for corruption.” I’m interested in the idea of technical support, and how it might help other developing countries sending children in adoption with meager resources to regulate their own adoption industries. Could you talk a little bit about the rise of adoptions in Ethiopia and the recent decline in case processing in this context, e.g, how is what is happening in Ethiopia similar and different from what happened in Guatemala?

There are a lot of similarities between the situation in Guatemala and Ethiopia.  First, you have a country where a large number of families and children are at risk due to things such as poverty, disease, and social inequalities.  Second, you have governments that are under resourced and pulled in several different directions. Thirdly, you have a lot of interest from Western countries in international adoption.  What happened in Guatemala and might also end up happening in Ethiopia is that the number of international adoptions grew before the host governments had an opportunity to put in place a system to manage these adoptions.  What is frustrating though is that this dramatic increase is not a surprise, its happened in other places and will happen anywhere there is a large number of children living outside of parental care.

What is also frustrating is that the pattern usually is to suspend international adoption, put a bunch of restrictions on who can run orphanages and when international adoption can be used and that is it.  Not much is done to address why children were and are in orphanages in the first place or promote other forms of alternative family based care (kinship, guardianship, foster care, domestic adoption).


8. This week, Senator Landrieu’s office said, in a statement issued by Amber McDowell, that the Senator was “pleased by the progress the Guatemalan government has made since April ” and that the Congressional Delegation “sought to knit longer-lasting relationships with the Guatemalan government in order to promote international best practices in a country which continues to build a Hague-compliant child welfare system.” Could you elaborate on how the US intends to help Guatemala promote international best practices?

Well, as a non-governmental person, I cannot speak for the Senator or the US but I can say that I would like to see the Guatemalans set up a system under which less children are abandoned to institutions or removed from their homes because of abuse, and more children are living in either the families to which they were born or another family that can provide the love and support that they need.  To do this, the Guatemalans need to develop a social work infrastructure complete with trained social workers who are assessing the needs of children and families and working to connect them with appropriate resources to address those needs.  You would need to amend the laws in Guatemala so that the Guatemalan courts play a more direct role in the supervision of children in institutional care and are better able to protect their right to a family.  You would need to develop a foster care system so that children who are removed from their families have an alternative to institutions.

Specifically on intercountry adoptions, the CNA is working to collect information on the children in orphanages.  They estimate there are about 7,000.  To date, they have been able to place about 500 in families through domestic adoption.  They reported to us that they are struggling to find homes for children who are older, who are in a sibling group of two or more or who have a medical need.  A system needs to be developed so that once it is determined that a family in Guatemala is not possible, children such as these can find homes in another country.

The Guatemalans are also focused on children’s homes and how they are operated.  In my opinion there should be no such thing as a purely private orphanage, there should be either orphanages run under public laws with government funds or privately run but under government oversight.  Such homes should also continue to have no role in the placement of children.

Finally, the US needs to support the continued prosecution of individuals or rings involved in the sale or theft of children.  This will send the message that people caught doing these things will suffer consequences.  That is not the case right now.  The US and Guatemala work very closely together in prosecuting drug crimes, such a relationship could be developed here.

9. According to the Department of State, the numbers of children adopted internationally has dropped off by about 50% from 2005 to 2010. Could you comment how and why this decline has occurred, and the impact on authentically orphaned children?

This decline is due to two things.  First, several countries have suspended or limited intercountry adoption as a means for children without parents to find families.  Secondly, countries have begun to develop and support domestic adoption and long term foster care.

Again, in my view, we will live in an ideal world when no child ever is abandoned or separated from the family to which they were born.  Recognizing that may not be possible in the near future, we must collectively agree that the basic right to a family is as important to a child’s development as education, food, shelter and health care and support systems that protect and provide for that right.  That is not the case in most countries.  There is no outrage or concern in countries like Guatemala that thousands of children will grow up in orphanages.   That is just accepted as being the necessary outcome.  I saw 1,000 of these children with my own eyes at the City of Children.  Rooms full of healthy children under the age of 1 whose development is being slowed by their presence there.  Until now, international adoption has kept the spotlight on the existence of these conditions, without that spotlight people are less motivated to address these issues.  This is not to say that the answer for all 1,000 of those children is international adoption but to say these children need and deserve a family.

10. When we last discussed about the International Adoption Act, we spoke about how  American adoption agencies weren’t legally responsible for the actions of their in-country adoption facilitators, and you mentioned that “a lot of members of Congress felt that was really a “loophole” perhaps in which unfortunate behavior…” could occur. Some adoptive parents I’ve spoken to have expressed similar sentiments: that they feel like the US government is or was unable to investigate their complaints because of their adoption agency wasn’t responsible for the actions of their foreign partners. Should American adoption agencies be held legally accountable for the actions of their foreign partners/ facilitators? Why doesn’t the International Adoption Act criminalize child-buying in countries that haven’t signed onto the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption?

These are both valid concerns and ones I would like to see addressed in law.  We have worked with several members, including Albio Sires (D-NJ), to develop legislation that would require that all adoption service providers who engage in intercountry adoption, regardless of whether the country they are working in is Hague or not, to be accredited.  Such legislation also attempts to strengthen the accreditation process and related laws.  It has been over 10 years since the IAA passed. We have learned a lot, good and bad, in that time, and hope that this new law can use those lessons to better protect children, birth and adoptive families.

EDITOR’S NOTE (9/30): An investigator in Guatemala emailed me the following, after reading this interview: ”There are not 7,000 orphaned children. There are around 5,000 children in orphanages but many of them are just on a day-care basis, because their mothers work. Most of them do not fit the US orphan status and not even 10 %  of them are adoptable.”

I sent Kathleen a follow up email to ask about the 7,000 statistic, and here's her response:
"...We were told by the CNA that while they are still in the process of implementing a formal database and data, they estimated that there are approximately 7,000 children living in about 145 orphanages/children's homes.  These numbers are consistent with a USAID funded study released in June 2008 which found that at that time there were 5,600 children living in institutions, eight percent of which (443) were "adoptable" and 58 percent of which (3,227) were categorized as "pending".  That being said, I think this comment brings up an area of constant confusion.  A child can have living parents and be adoptable.  In fact, approximately 99 percent of the children adopted out of the US foster care system have at least one living parent.  They were deemed adoptable because that parent or parents were deemed by a court of law to be unable or unfit to care for that child.
I reiterate my earlier point.  What Guatemala needs is a child welfare system which has the capacity to both identify and address individual children's need for a family.  This involves setting up a data system with uniform definitions which would allow CNA to track the progress of children's cases once identified of being in need of state care and a legal and social services system that provides legal protections and social services based on such need."
  1. Good to see Strottman being so open to talking about the unfortunate realities of adoption fraud and systematic responses to needed changes. Seems like there is a lot more transparency on many fronts these days.

  2. What a great interview. What a great woman. Thank God there are people willing to sped their lives working for moral re-vamping of a system that must not shut down. Thank you Erin for posting this and for all the great work you are doing. http://findingaster.com/2011/09/keep-international-adoption-open/

  3. Ms. Strottman, thank you for your unflagging efforts. Please keep fighting the good fight.
    Jessica O’Dwyer

  4. I enjoyed the C-Span program this morning and do appreciate the efforts of Kathleen Strottman. This is such a great cause. We have two adopted grandchildren who are terrific kids. One is 5 years old who is a girl and a 9 year old boy. They are such a delight. What a win/win blessing for family and the world at large.

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