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'I probably average two calls a week inquiring about Mexico," says Brent Yoder, director of the Mission Valley-based international adoption agency Adoption Options. "I'm one of the few agencies that even indicates that I can help people with Mexico adoptions. So I get calls from all over the country."

Yoder isn't boasting. Calls to adoption agencies all over San Diego resulted in repeated referrals to Yoder and Adoption Options. But despite being one of the few adoption agents that will deal with Mexican adoptions, Yoder's response to such inquiries is a warning. "When people come to me and say, 'I want to adopt in Mexico,' " Yoder explains, "I say, 'I've got to warn you to start off with, adoptions in Mexico are extremely difficult.' "

What makes it so complicated? "DIF, to be blunt with you," Yoder answers.

DIF, pronounced "deef," is an acronym for the Mexican federal agency Desarollo Integral de la Familia, or Integral Development of the Family. A wing of the attorney general's office, it's the agency responsible for the care of orphans, abandoned children, and children who have been taken from their parents by the courts. Traditionally headed by the first lady of Mexico, the governor's wife, and the mayor's wife at the federal, state, and local levels, respectively, DIF coordinates adoptions of its wards and also plays a role in privately arranged adoptions of Mexican babies by Americans.

Bianka Ramos Fernandez is the head of adoptions for Tijuana's DIF office, which is located in La Mesa, about five miles east of downtown in the Tijuana River Valley. Though she can't give an exact number of children in the DIF system of orphanages and foster-care homes in Tijuana, she estimates that the figure is "over 200."

Of those, none are available for adoption by Americans, at least not as things stand now. That hasn't always been the case. "We used to allow people from the United States to adopt," Ramos explains, "but our director decided a few months ago to suspend adoptions to non-Mexicans. It was a policy that was adopted in response to minor trafficking that was going on. People were doing adoptions across the border that weren't perfectly legal. We didn't want be part of that, so we limited our adoptions to American citizens. But we may re-open the policy to include Americans because we have so many children. And though we have a lot of applicants for adoption, not all will qualify."

Applicants for adoption of DIF wards have to meet a 25-point list of qualifications. Chief among them are, prospective parents must be at least 25 and at least 17 years older than the child they will adopt. They must earn at least 10,000 pesos -- about $1100 -- per month. That figure was recently raised from 8000 pesos (around $890) per month. They should own a house or condo. Renters aren't disqualified but will be passed over in favor of home owners. Singles as well as married couples may adopt, but couples living together without the benefit of marriage may not. "If you are trying to raise a child correctly," Ramos explains, "what kind of moral teaching or example are you teaching the child by living together?"

Provided these qualifications are met and verified by DIF social workers, an applicant then submits to a thorough psychological evaluation performed by a DIF psychologist. "Also," Ramos says, "a socioeconomic study is done by a social worker. The social worker goes to your house and checks things: how many bedrooms, how neat and clean the place is, whether it would be a good place to raise children."

Once all studies have been done and their application approved, hopeful parents must wait for the next conference of an adoptions council, which meets "every three or six months." The local director, the wives of the governor and the mayor, a DIF psychologist, and Baja California's "attorney general for the protection of the minor and family" make up the council. Once convened, the group assigns children to applicants. "They look at their appearance, and they make a judgment over which one would be the best match. They try to match up the child with a similar-looking adopting parent. And the parent doesn't have a choice."

The assignments are also made on the basis of age. "For example, if there is a couple in their 30s, they are eligible for children between three and four years old, not newborns, because newborns require more energy. [People in their 30s] are not young enough to keep up with a newborn baby. Someone between 50 and 55 [the maximum age] will be assigned a child 10 to 12 years old. They will make exceptions in the case of siblings because we don't split siblings."

The adopting parents aren't legally bound to accept the child assigned to them. But, assuming they do accept the child, the adoption council's assignment alone does not make the adoption final. "You will be able to take the child to your house," Ramos explains, "but it is still not yours legally. You are a foster parent. And then they start the process of officially taking the custody from the parents, wherever they are, so they can give them to you."

At this point, if the child is of unknown origin, DIF will run television and newspaper ads with pictures of the child, asking for the parents or relatives of the child to come forward. Any relative that comes forward and wants to adopt the child will be given prior claim. If none do, or if they don't want to adopt the child, he/she is officially declared an orphan and the adoption can then be finalized by the court.

The process is not a quick one. "To give you an example," Yoder says, "in the past year and a half I've dealt with two families, American families who actually ran orphanages in Mexico through their church affiliation. Both of them tried to adopt, and it took a year and a half to complete their adoptions. And they had no idea whether they were going to be successful or not. That's how hard it is to work with DIF."

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