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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Landrieu discovered there was no list of people whose cases had been dropped due to Guatemala's adoption ban.Skip to next paragraph
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The US had forbidden new adoptions from Guatemala, but the pending cases were something else.
She assembled a team of staff and immigration services experts to help Guatemalans sift through the files and find out which ones had the proper records, making five trips to the country herself.
Of the original 3,032 cases interrupted at the end of 2007, officials found 180 cases of children still waiting to be adopted.
The first of these cases was Daniel's.
Landrieu's team worked with the US Embassy and Guatemalan officials to broker an agreement that would allow certain cases to go forward if they met the criteria of both Guatemalan officials and the U.S. State Department.
She contacted many American families to see if they were still interested, discovering that many couples had spent tens of thousands of dollars, traveling up to 20 times to keep contact with the children.
Last December, the Hookers got a call saying they were one of 44 families whose cases were ready to move forward.
It would still be another eight months before they embarked on Aug. 21, hoping to become the first of those families eligible to collect their child under the new agreement.
Things were looking up.
Then, this past Monday, Jess, who had flown in with Ellyson and her mother to Guatemala City, sat inside the Hookers' room at the Radisson staring at the latest document. She couldn't believe it.
Her computer chimed, and with tears in her eyes, she made her way over to it. Someone back in Tennessee was calling her on Skype.
When she saw that it was her brother, she turned on the camera.
Before Jose could say hello or see her wet cheekbones, she hovered over the camera and covered it with a thin sheet.
The paper read: "Daniel Ryan Hooker born in Quiche, Guatemala on December 2006 son of Jessica Russell Hooker and Ryan Hooker.
Jose began to cry.
Jess' brother, Jose, had been adopted 22 years earlier, when he was almost 6 years old, from the same orphanage. That adoption took her parents three years to complete. He, too, had been born in Quiche.
At one point, when things were really grim and there was no end in sight, Jose had said that he would go to Guatemala and adopt Daniel himself, since he was Guatemalan.
And now, here they were. All they needed was Daniel's Guatemalan passport, and his adoption visa.
This time, Jess was sure, everything would work out. It said so right there on the paper.
She was Daniel's mother.
Early Saturday morning, they checked out of the Radisson for the last time. An airport shuttle arrived at Guatemala's La Aurora Airport. Out came Jess and her mom, Bubba, baby Ellyson and Daniel. Everyone sported matching red-and-white Maryville High T-shirts. There was even a small one with a big embroidered M at the center for Daniel.
At a distance Daniel could see his beloved planes as Jess carried him in toward check-in.
"I've been waiting so long to carry you like this," Jess told Daniel.
"Avion," he replied, the Spanish word for plane, a huge smile on his face. He gave his momma a wet kiss and motioned to be put on the floor. He went over to Ellyson and started to open his arms wide and spun like a plane. She giggled and mimicked him.
Meanwhile, Bubba was grabbing their boarding passes.
After all his family visits, he'd accrued 700,000 frequent flier miles he had been saving for the day he would take his son home. Soon, they would be sitting in first class. The plane was set to take off just before 1 p.m.
Jess prepped his bag full of knickknacks. Back in Maryville, friends and colleagues at school had thrown her a surprise baby shower.
When asked how she thought Daniel would adapt to the room and house back in Maryville, she laughed.
"I think he's going to be a bit disappointed when we get home and he realizes there is no pool on our roof, no elevator, and he can't watch planes from the window."
Associated Press writer Romina Ruiz-Goiriena reported this story in Guatemala and Travis Loller reported in Tennessee.
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