09/20/2013 12:10 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

Guatemala's Children Have Been Waiting Too Long

Today in Guatemala, 31 children are waiting for their government to decide who their families should be.

Each of those children has a family waiting in the United States, trying to finalize an adoption. But authorities have been unable to determine whether the children were voluntarily surrendered by their biological parents, or unlawfully taken by agents of what was a corrupt and unregulated system.

For the children involved, and the people who want to be their parents, it's a situation fraught with pain: Children who don't know who to call family. Parents -- adoptive or biological -- who want nothing more than to bring them home.

Most of these cases began to draw attention in 2008. The United States and Guatemala had just joined 68 other countries around the world in agreeing to regulate adoptions -- requiring basic standards of documentation like DNA tests to verify that the person who surrenders a child for adoption is, in fact, a biological parent.

These rules -- called the Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption -- replaced a system in which adoption had become a profits-based business, with unscrupulous private attorneys buying and selling children whose biological parents still wanted them. In the years just before the Hague Convention took effect, Guatemala became a particular focus of such criminal activities.

Between 2002 and 2007, there was a 200 percent increase in adoptions from Guatemala to the United States. In 2008, after the U.S. signed the Hague Convention, there were approximately 3,000 Guatemalan children whose adoptions by Americans were in process. For both children and prospective adoptive parents, the wait has been excruciating.

The U.S. and Guatemala agreed that these cases could proceed, but would need to meet Hague standards. In some instances, the children waiting for homes had no documentation or birth certificates; others had been surrendered by attorneys who were later indicted for corruption. This made it difficult for case workers to verify identities and find the biological parents to ensure that he/she had been willingly surrendered.

By 2011, the number of children awaiting homes had been reduced to 714, and by March 2013 the number of cases remaining for investigation was about 100. In April, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake met with Guatemala's president, Attorney-General, Solicitor-General and Supreme Court justices. He urged them to prioritize the 100 children awaiting permanent homes, and they agreed to do so. They convened a working group to resolve the remaining cases by September, 2013.

And there has been progress. At this writing, the government has reduced the number of outstanding cases to eight, which could mean a delay of about two months from the timeline that was committed to during Mr. Lake's visit.

Guatemalan judges have completed 69 cases (49 for inter-country adoption and 20 for reunification). For those for whom inter-country adoption was recommended, eight children have already moved to the U.S., while the rest are being processed by Guatemalan and U.S. authorities to finalize their departure. The 20 children who were recommended for reunification with their birth families are being closely monitored by a local NGO to ensure a healthy and supportive transition, in line with Hague guidelines for reunification.

We commend the government of Guatemala for exposing an unregulated and corrupt system, and for committing to broader reforms. Likewise, we are grateful to organizations in Guatemala and the U.S. for their sustained and effective advocacy on behalf of the children caught in this transition.

But as these cases come to a close, we must not forget the Guatemalan parents who've been victimized, nor the Americans who have been lovingly parenting the children they are seeking to legally adopt. We must also note the costs to children whose young lives have been spent in institutional care. Though there are some good facilities that provide short-term homes for children, UNICEF strongly discourages the institutionalization of children. When a child cannot be raised by his/her biological family or relatives, an adoptive family is the very best alternative, either domestically or internationally.

It is for these children, who must be our first priority, that we urge Guatemala to resolve these remaining cases as soon as possible.