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Adopting Daniel: One family's struggle navigating Guatemala's adoption system

Guatemala was once the second-largest source of babies to the US. But in 2007, the system came to a halt while fake birth certificates and other dubious practices were investigated. Many families, including the Hookers from Tennessee, were left in limbo, wondering when they would be able to bring the child they loved home.

By Travis LollerAssociated Press / September 9, 2012

Judy Russell, (l.), Jessica Hooker's mother poses for a family portrait with Jessica, (c.), Jessica's husband, Ryan Hooker, (r.), and their children; Ellyson and Daniel in Guatemala City on Sept. 6. Daniel was 18 months old when the Tennessee couple Ryan and Jessica Hooker began the process to adopt him in Guatemala. They just got him at age 6.

Moises Castillo/AP

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Guatemala City

It should have been good news.

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The US Embassy called to say the Guatemalan government would begin to authorize adoptions five years after a scandal froze the system that sent as many as 4,000 Guatemalan children a year to the United States.

Ryan "Bubba" Hooker and his wife, Jess, might finally be able to collect the little boy they wanted to adopt and bring him home.

But Hooker wasn't sure. This would be his 36th trip to Guatemala City. The 18-month-old toddler they had met in an orphanage was now a 6-year-old kindergartener. The couple had moved homes, passed up a job, spent untold amounts of money trying to adopt Daniel.

If all went well, they were told, they would be the first U.S. family to adopt under the Central American nation's new adoption laws.

At least, that's what they told him over the phone.

On Aug. 21, an anxious Bubba boarded the plane for Guatemala City. All he had to do was get an adoption certificate, a birth certificate and a passport, meet with the people at the US Embassy yet again, get an adoption visa, and then he and Jess could bring Daniel home.

Maybe this time it would work.

Jess and Bubba had been married less than a year when they decided to go to Guatemala on a mission trip in June 2007.

The day he met Daniel, Bubba had been working on the plumbing in the orphanage when he decided to take a break. He took a wander through the rooms and found the boy.

The child was just 18 months old but looked younger, sitting stranded in a walker. He was the youngest kid in the orphanage, the frailest, too, with his pigeon chest and little legs that turned out. Bubba knelt beside the little boy and they began to play. Before long Bubba was holding him, then he fed him. He forgot about the plumbing.

It wasn't until that night, when they were in bed, that he told his wife.

"I think I met our son," Bubba said.

At 28, Jess was five years older than her husband and the more practical partner. She listened quietly as he told her about his day with the boy, who wasn't just cute, he said, but his name was Daniel, just like Bubba's uncle who had just died. She was skeptical.

"Uh oh," she thought, "what has Bubba gotten us into?" But the next day, when she pulled the child into her arms, it felt like he was hers.

The couple had always wanted to adopt; Daniel just sped up their plans. They immediately told the orphanage director and started the paperwork.

Two months later, Guatemala's thriving adoption industry fell apart.

The country's quick-stop adoptions had made the nation of 14 million people the world's second-largest source of babies to the US after China. But the vibrant business came to a halt after an August 2007 raid on what was considered the country's most reputable adoption agency, used by many Americans.

An investigation exposed a system of fake birth certificates and DNA samples, of mothers coerced into giving up children. Some claimed their children were kidnapped for sale. Adoptive parents paid up to $30,000 for a child in a country where the average person earns $5,000 a year.

Guatemalan birth parents poured into government- run centers looking for their missing children and ran ads in local papers.

Guatemalan doctors, lawyers, mothers and civil registrars were arrested and prosecuted, with some convictions for human trafficking and adoption fraud. The Solicitor General's office was put under investigation by a U.N.-backed commission against impunity.

The Guatemalan government was forced to overhaul its adoption laws. The US suspended all new adoptions from Guatemala.

By the beginning of 2008, a new council had to be established to clean up proceedings, including verifying the identity of birth mothers and their willingness to give up their children.

The old system, a mostly unsupervised network of private attorneys and notaries, was abolished.

Daniel was among 3,032 children caught in limbo.

In October 2008, Jess traveled to Guatemala with her mother over her school's fall break. It was her fourth visit.

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