Atala Ruiz is facilitating the placement of unwanted and abused children in new families by creating an alternative process for adoption in Mexico.
The New Idea
In 1986, Atala Ruiz set out to change the way adoption is handled in Mexico. In contrast to the existing system, which is characterized by obsolete legislation, bureaucratic red tape and cultural taboos, she has developed a wide-ranging program that supports all the parties to adoption and lobbies for needed legal changes. Her model begins to protect the rights of unwanted children before they are born and continues through their permanent placement as the members of new families. She assists both biological mothers and adoptive parents through the entire adoption process. By simplifying the process and affecting changes in the legal requirements for adoption, she is reducing the underground "gray market" in adoptive babies. Atala works through an organization that she founded, which is the first in Mexico to standardized an effective, all-encompassing approach.
Mexican culture stigmatizes both sterility and the desire to give up a child. Adoption is thus rarely experienced as an alternative for women with unwanted pregnancies. Often, especially among people with low incomes, an unwanted child is handed over to relatives, who sometimes exploit and abuse the child with few legal constraints since they are usually not designated as legal guardians. Such children do not have the same rights as their surrogate parents' biological children. The issue of guardianship extends to orphanages: because existing law in Mexico does not assign legal guardianship to them and since only a legal guardian can agree to an adoption, abandoned children have little access to potential adoptive parents and are instead "warehoused" in the institutions.
Couples who want to adopt children and could provide alternatives to unsatisfactory intra-family or institutional placement face a difficult task. The process is handled through the Ministry of Public Affairs/Security, which is renowned for its corrupt and bureaucratic manner. Only one government institution and four private ones are empowered by it to enact adoptions throughout the country, and there are long waiting lists at each one. The normal processing pattern takes up to five years. To encourage cooperation from the authorities, adopting couples are forced to pay high bribes. The one other organization, named Life and Family, that is comparable to Atala's work is very religious in its orientation and therefore only places children with married, affluent, Catholic couples; and it is only legal in two of Mexico's 32 states.
Most couples who want to adopt a child prefer to look for avenues other than the lengthy, complicated and stressful legal process. The only alternative has been the "gray market" in which unregulated private operators broker arrangements between them and a biological mother for a fee.
Atala has determined that three areas are strategically fundamental to achieving her goal of an adoption system that effectively addresses children's needs. The first two are comprehensive support services for biological expectant mothers who are considering not keeping their babies and for adopting parents; the third is to protect the rights of children by introducing the necessary legislation. Atala does her work through an organization that she founded, named New Times.
In her work with pregnant women, Atala provides support that could be described as "whatever it takes." Typically the women need medical assistance, psychological counseling, employment and housing. In the course of providing such services, New Times helps the mother decide whether she wishes to keep her baby and maintains a protective posture for the rights of the unborn child.
If the child is to be given up to adoption, New Times oversees every step both with the biological mother and the adopting parents. Under its leadership, this procedure takes from one to two months. The work with adopting parents includes a series of workshops and seminars in which they learn how to adjust to sterility, if that is what brought them to choose adoption, and are prepared to cope with the various aspects of being adoptive parents. The training emphasizes key subjects: married life, communication (including dealing with the truth about the adoption), genetics and education about needed legal changes. After participating in the workshops, the potential adoptive parents are invited to join support groups and an association of adopting parents. The association of adopting parents that Atala is building is a key part of her strategy. They have the commitment and, once united, the capacity to be a powerful force for change.
Atala is proposing the following legislative changes in adoption laws: (1) that a child left in the care of any adult have the same rights as those who are living with their biological parents and that the adult should be obligated to assume the responsibilities of a legal guardian; (2) that the governmental institution responsible for the care of children and families should take custody of any abused child and the offender should be treated as a criminal; (3) that final adoption should be systematized and enforced in order to prevent continuing demands for payment from biological parents; (4) that orphanages should become the legal guardians of children in their care and have the right to authorize adoptions; (5) that New Times' screening and training program should be enforced nationwide in order to protect children from abusive adopting parents.
Atala's model is being replicated by other groups in four states, and she is working closely with the appropriate government agencies to implement her program throughout the country. In addition, she has been instrumental in initiating a government-sponsored, nationwide study to determine the number of adoptions and the means used in securing them.
Born in Mexico City, the third of three children, Atala always felt herself to be a rejected and unwanted child. Although she lived with her parents, she was actually reared by her aunt, who had strong inclinations to social activism. Unable to continue her schooling, Atala started working at the age of seventeen. Shortly after she was married eight years later, she discovered she was sterile. She and her husband decided to adopt children and after waiting for four years finally resorted to a middleman to get a baby girl. They later adopted a one-month old baby through a government agency. Later, Atala moved to Guadalajara with her children and soon initiated a process to link biological mothers with adopting parents. That early version of her work was halted by regulatory troubles. After several years of study and careful thought, she launched New Times on a very small scale that, based on its early success and attractiveness, has quickly moved to its broad national influence.