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.
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She expected to see Daniel running around, arms flailing with hints of baby talk.Skip to next paragraph
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Instead, there was silence.
Something was wrong, but she was not Daniel's legal guardian. Jess couldn't take him to see a pediatrician. Maybe it was normal considering that he was such a small kid, but she was worried. She was a special needs teacher.
Five months later, Daniel still wasn't talking.
At the Radisson Hotel, where the Hookers started the first of many family visits, he would race to the window inside their room to watch the airplanes. He was obsessed with them. But when Bubba gave him headphones, Daniel always tore off the one in his right ear.
He needed to see a specialist. The adoption could not come soon enough. They'd hoped their connections to the orphanage, their family's story, would make things easier since some adoptions pending when the ban was imposed were being allowed to go through. Jess's parents were missionaries who founded the charity Samaritan Hands, which ran the orphanage. Bubba sat on the charity's board.
Plus, his grandmother had been an orphan herself. And so was Jess's younger brother, Jose.
But though they had filed reams of paperwork, nothing seemed to be happening, and no one could tell them why. Finally, in May 2009, they got a call confirming a meeting with the adoption council's head, Jaime Tecu. The Hookers were ecstatic.
After hours in the waiting room with Daniel and Jess' mom, Judy, who would translate, they were ushered into an office overlooking the south of the capital.
Daniel sat upright in a chair close to the director's desk and fiddled with a toy car.
And then the bombshell.
"I'm sorry," Tecu said, "your case is not registered with the Solicitor General's office. It is not official."
Judy began to sob. Bubba was furious.
Jess was crushed.
Everything had to be investigated anew. Daniel's birth mom needed to be found, tested for a DNA match and give consent for the adoption. The case also had to be transferred to a court in the district where Daniel was born.
The Hookers filled out and submitted the same forms numerous times. They had a second home study — translated into Spanish. But nothing changed.
In May 2010, a weeklong trip turned into a three-week stay when the Pacaya volcano, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Guatemala City, began spewing lava and rocks, blanketing the capital with ash and closing the international airport.
The Hookers used the extra time with Daniel to take him to an audiologist.
When the doctor walked in to give the results, they already knew — Daniel was almost completely deaf.
The Hookers created a routine between regular trips to the Radisson in Guatemala and life back home in Maryville, Tennessee. Jess took advantage of holidays at the high school where she worked, while Bubba, a real estate developer, set his own schedule so he could visit Daniel every two or three months.
It was not an easy way to live.
They turned down a job offer overseas that they feared would have further complicated the adoption process.
When Daniel was already 4 and there was still no end in sight, Jess gave birth to a daughter, Ellyson.
On their visits at the Radisson when Jess was pregnant, Daniel would touch her belly and say, "Sister."
They hung photos of Daniel and Ellyson all over the walls of the two-story brick house on their Maryville cul-de-sac. They put a play structure in the yard and fenced it in for Daniel. In his bedroom, a large red airplane sat atop the armoire. His beloved plane.
Jess felt like she was missing Daniel's entire childhood — his first steps, his first words.
And then came some luck.
In early 2011, the Guatemalan adoption fiasco came to the attention of US Sen. Mary Landrieu, who served on the Senate appropriations subcommittee on the State Department's foreign operations and related programs, which dealt with foreign adoptions. She also presided over the Senate appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, which funds US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
She was also the mother of two adopted children.