Gustavo, a 12-year-old orphan from Colombia, has spent a week at camp, attended the Catonsville July 4th parade and watched an IronBirds baseball game at Ripken Stadium during what he has been told is a vacation to America.
In reality, he and nine other Colombian orphans who have traveled thousands of miles are in search for a permanent home, even if they don't realize it.
For Gustavo, the ideal home would be in Harford County near his siblings. He is staying in Havre de Grace with a family who adopted his older sister Daniela two years ago. Another older sister, Yaqueline, will soon become part of a Bel Air family. His younger siblings have been adopted in Colombia.
"Now it is Gustavo's turn," said Marycarol Skaggs, the adoptive mother of Daniela and volunteer with Kidsave, an international adoption organization. "He is a bright, energetic and social boy, whose one hope of staying connected with his biological family is to find a family of his own here in Maryland."
Gustavo's case underscores the pitfalls of international adoptions, which have been on the decline as some countries changed rules to encourage domestic adoptions and as the economic downturn put the expensive process out of reach for many.
The process also is fraught with emotional issues, including what to tell children introduced to potential adoptive parents through organizations such as Kidsave, the group hosting Gustavo as part of its Summer Miracles program. And like adoptions worldwide, it's more difficult to place children over 2 years old.
According to the U.S. Department of State, Americans adopted more than 9,300 children from foreign countries last year, down from nearly 23,000 children who received visas to come to the United States for adoption in 2004, before recession hit the U.S. More than half of the children last year were under the age of 2; and the number of children adopted from each age group declined as they got older.
Gustavo and the other children return to their native Colombia Monday. They have promised to write and email their host families, and have no idea when or if they will see them again. Adoption proceedings take at least a year, and adoption by the host family or another family the children met while in Maryland is not guaranteed.
"We have promised Gustavo we will stay in touch, and he knows how to reach us and his sister," said Skaggs. "We will keep letting him know he is not forgotten. For now, there is a sadness as he prepares in his heart to go home."
The 10 orphaned or abandoned children arrived July 2 from Colombia, and have been introduced during their stay to a number of families considering adoption, through events such as swimming parties and picnics organized by Kidsave. The organization has found homes in the U.S. for about 80 percent of the 1,800 children brought here since 1999, according to Terry Baugh, president of Kidsave and mother of three children adopted from Russia.
"We try to bring children here who can fit into a family," Baugh said. "Our program allows much more engagement because we know that once people meet these kids, they see their value as human beings. We encourage familiarity and engagement."
Adolescents have little chance of being adopted in Colombia, where families prefer to adopt infants and toddlers, Baugh said. The preference for young children in adoption knows no geographic boundaries, said Elyn Jones, a spokeswoman for Maryland's Department of Human Resources.
"We recognize that older children are the hardest to find adoptive parents for," Jones said. "It is a critical age that needs support, but many of these children age out of the system without finding a family to adopt them."
At the insistence of the Colombian government, their legal caregiver, the children's identities and their home towns are strictly guarded, Baugh said. All the group knows about Gustavo is that his father is dead, his mother is missing and he lives in a foster home. Last year, 216 Colombian children were adopted by Americans.
"All governments are very much afraid of child trafficking and potential harm that can come to children,' Baugh said.
Many foreign countries have changed the rules governing out-of-country adoptions and are encouraging more domestic adoptions. Adoptions of Chinese children have dropped 20 percent in the past year and Ethiopia has seen a 30 percent drop in foreign adoptions. Russia and South Korea, both countries that have sent children to be adopted in the U.S., also are focusing on internal adoptions.
The U.S. economy also is playing a role in the decline of international adoptions, according to a State Department official. It can be an expensive process, given many countries, like Colombia, require prospective adoptive parents to spend up to a month in the child's native country.
The Colombian children have spent this month in Maryland with their host families and have experienced typical summertime activities. Baugh said they intentionally keep the children in the dark about the possibility of adoption, though some children deduce what's happening.
"We can't build up hopes of adoption in any way," Baugh said. "We tell them they may meet someone here who will stay in touch with them. But they will go home without hope of coming back."
Most children in such programs figure out they are here to find a permanent home, said Harriette Wimms, a psychologist and director of inpatient psychology at the Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital. As their situations are filled with emotional difficulties, she said the programs should be direct with the children.
"Children talk to each other," she said. "Even though they are on a wonderful vacation, some know they might be adopted. It would be better to be honest and give them all the parameters. Children are perceptive. When they don't know all the story, they will make up the rest."
Wimms also said that when the children return to Colombia, they will need support there as well as from the new friends they made in the U.S. "This program is great for the 80 percent who are adopted, but it is imperative that there is support for those who won't be," she said.
Nadu and Roberto Sanchez have opened their Clarksville home to three siblings from Colombia. A practicing physician and mother of three, two in college and one in high school, Nadu Sanchez had forgotten how daunting it would be to keep up with two boys and a girl, ages 9 through 12.
"I am getting whiplash as I keep counting heads at the neighborhood pool," she said. "It makes it all worth it to see how happy they are right now."
Language has not been a barrier, she said. Her husband knows some Spanish, and she has been able to figure out what the children want or need. She has found her temporary charges engaging, well-behaved and adorable.
"If nothing else, we want to give them a vacation to remember," she said. "At best, we can find them a permanent home. I know adopting three children is asking a lot of any one family, but they all get along so well. You can't help but get attached. It will be hard to send them home to an orphanage at the end of four weeks."
Foreign adoptions can take as long as a year and can be costly for families, often reaching thousands of dollars. But many organizations offer financial support, said Baugh.
"We need to figure out ways to pay for adoption programs here and abroad so that parents who have the will but not the financial means can pay for costly adoptions," Wimms said. "There are many parents with the love, patience and optimism to bring a child into their homes. If we can make the process less costly and complicated, then there would be 100 percent placement."
Sarah and Ryan Widman, a host family last year for 10-year-old Andres, are planning a sojourn in Colombia. They expect to return after a lengthy legal adoption process with Andres, who would be their first child. The little boy meshed so well with the couple that they immediately started adoption proceedings.
"We skipped diapers and sleepless nights and headed straight to elementary school," she said. "We have been in touch with him every week since. He is so excited and so eager to tell us the English phrases he is learning. All these kids are so amazing and brave. I wish everyone could get to know them."
Gustavo, who lives in foster care in a central Colombian city, wants to grow up near his sisters. For now, Chris and Marycarol Skaggs and their three children are crowding many experiences into Gustavo's time with them. Beachmont Camp in Kingsville offered hikes, art projects and archery and swimming lessons.
Gustavo was smaller than most of the campers in his age group, friendly with the counselors and his peers and eager to be involved in the myriad activities. Although he doesn't speak English, he does not hesitate to add to the conversation, and often the other children grasp his meaning. He is generous to a fault, sharing his lunch and any treats given to him.
"This is a unique challenge, but everyone seems to be having fun with it," said Rebekah Dumm, senior camp counselor. "All the kids are trying hard to communicate with Gustavo and they are helping him. They are really trying to interpret."
Daniela, who speaks fluent English now, can translate for her brother. She attended the same camp a few years ago and joined him in several activities. She feels certain he is enjoying his whirlwind stay.
"I didn't understand the language, when I came here three years ago, but I had fun," said Daniela. "Then, I came back to my new country and my new family."
That is the Skaggs' hope for Gustavo. Marycarol Skaggs said she has been in contact with Gustavo's social worker and foster mother in Colombia and knows he is receiving good care. But the child longs to be with his sisters, she said.
Luz Myriam, a Colombian caseworker who accompanied the children on the trip, said "una familia" — or "one family" — is the fervent hope of every child.
"Most of these children are orphaned or abandoned," she said. "Many have never had a family."
When asked if she misses her homeland, Daniela, who is preparing to enter high school in the fall, answered with a question. "What home? I had no home there. This is my forever home."
Her adoptive mother said, "That is what she wants for her brother, too. If he does not find a home here, she will feel that he has been left behind. It will bother her deep in her soul."