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.

Moises Castillo/AP
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.

It should have been good news.

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.

She expected to see Daniel running around, arms flailing with hints of baby talk.

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.

Landrieu discovered there was no list of people whose cases had been dropped due to Guatemala's adoption ban.

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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