Gustavo, 12, (left) is one of 10 orphaned children recently arrived in the Maryland area from Colombia as part of the Kidsave international adoption program. Marycoral Skaggs, of Havre de Grace, (right) is hosting his month-long stay in Maryland. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / July 12, 2012)

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."