Her room is waiting

Bureaucratic changes,
missing birth mother
dash hopes of Columbia
couple who want to
adopt 6-year-old
girl from Guatemala
Friday, November 14, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:47 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Rosalina smiles out from a photograph above Butch and Debbie Putnam’s desks. Her little-girl pigtails, mischievous-looking dimples and big brown eyes could break the heart of anyone, but none more so than the woman who was so close to calling Rosalina her daughter.

The Putnams have been trying to adopt the 6-year-old from Guatemala for almost two years.

“I have given up on Rosalina,” Debbie Putnam said. “But my husband has not. He thinks she’ll come home someday.”

The Putnams’ situation is not unusual. Guatemala is the third most popular country for international adoptions. But the procedures have become bogged down in legal hurdles and red tape, some of which are designed to head off illegal trafficking in children. Several countries, as well as some agencies in the United States, have suspended adoptions from the Central American nation.

The Putnams, who co-own Putnam Boat Sales, had never planned to adopt, but when Debbie Putnam’s sister adopted a girl from Vietnam in 2000, the couple began to consider that option. In 2001, the Putnams adopted Katy, a 3-year-old from China.

A few months later, said Debbie Putnam, “We decided we wanted a sister for Katy.”

The Putnams were introduced to Rosalina through a Louisiana-based adoption agency and began the paperwork to adopt her.

“A friend of ours had recently adopted from Guatemala, and everything had gone smoothly,” Debbie Putnam said. “When we started in January of 2002, we thought it would take about six months.”

During the past two years, the Putnams visited Rosalina twice and talked to her on the phone.

“She only speaks Spanish,” Debbie Putnam said. “So when we would speak, the only thing she would really say is, ‘Hi Mommy.’ “

The last time the Putnams traveled to Guatemala to visit Rosalina was in February for her birthday. Putnam said there was one phrase the girl kept repeating as they walked around holding hands: “It’s my birthday, and this is my mommy.”

The Columbia couple’s case is one of more than 1,000 adoptions halted in Guatemala since the implementation ofthe Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, a multilateral treaty that establishes adoption regulations between countries.

In September, a Guatemalan court ruled that the country’s accession to the treaty was unconstitutional. Guatemala dropped out of the convention, but even so, hundreds of adoption cases there remain in limbo.

Kelly Shannon of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs said the U.S. State Department is drafting regulations to implement the Hague Convention as well.

If these regulations are adopted in the United States, situations such as the Putnams’ could be avoided. Adoptees would not be permitted to have contact with their prospective new families until both countries rule them adoptable.

“It’s a protection for the adopting parents,” Shannon said.

Marie Cook, director of Adoption Counseling in Columbia, said agencies in Guatemala were directed to place many children in state-run orphanages after Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo signed the Hague Convention. The cases were put on hold to be examined by a central government authority.

“They sent all these kids’ cases into investigations,” Cook said. “It is absolutely not in the best interest of the children.” Cook said the system never became fully organized enough to operate, and that is why many cases remain unresolved.

Children’s Hope International, a St. Louis-based adoption agency, has decided not to start any new adoptions in Guatemala due to the instability of the system.

“We have stopped taking applications from couples wanting to adopt from down there,” Children’s Hope spokesman Cory Barron said. “Anyone who has already put in one with us, we are suggesting they go through one of our other programs with another country.”

The Putnams’ case has been complicated by several issues, including difficulties with a lawyer working for the adoption agency and questions regarding whether or not Rosalina is adoptable under Guatemalan law.

One difficulty was that Guatemalan officials had not ruled Rosalina adoptable before she was matched with the Putnams.

Putnam said the birth mother cannot be located and there are documents that require her signature so that Rosalina can come to the United States.

Rosalina cannot read or write and is not going to school, Putnam said. There is no school near her foster home, she added.”She wants to come to America,” Putnam said. “She has said she wants to learn English and learn to read.”

Rosalina’s foster home is in a dangerous part of Guatemala City, Putnam said. “We hired a tutor down there to teach her English, and when we told him her address, he said he was scared to go to her house.”

The Putnams learned last week that their attorney in Guatemala is trying to drop their case altogether. If that occurs, Putnam said, Rosalina might be transferred from her foster home in Guatemala City to an orphanage.

The impasse has left the Putnams to consider adopting another girl from China.

However, they haven’t given up on Rosalina.

“If we can’t get her up here soon, we were hoping we would be able to pay to have her come when she is 18 and maybe go to school here, although we don’t know if that’s possible,” Debbie Putnam said. “We’re still going to bring Rosalina home.”

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