Jennifer and Todd Hemsley had to give up their child to save her.
Like thousands of other would-be parents, the California couple made a $15,500 down payment to a U.S. agency that guaranteed quick, hassle-free adoptions of Guatemalan babies. And like the others, they were caught in a bureaucratic limbo after Guatemala began cracking down on systemic fraud last year.
Many Americans with pending adoptions lobbied hard for quick approval of their cases, trying to bypass a new system designed to prevent identity fraud and the sale or even theft of children to feed Guatemala's $100 million adoption business.
But Jennifer Hemsley did what Guatemala's new National Adoptions Council says no other American has done this year: She refused to look the other way when she suspected her would-be daughter's identity and DNA samples were faked.
She halted the adoption of Maria Eugenia Cua Yax, whom the couple named Hazel. And she stayed in Guatemala for months, spending thousands of dollars, until she could safely deliver the girl into state custody.
'It's so crazy'
Her decision could mean the Hemsleys — Jennifer is a freelance designer and Todd creates visual effects in the film industry — may never be able to adopt the little girl they nicknamed "la boca," or mouth in Spanish, in honor of her outsized spirit.
"It's so crazy. None of this makes any sense," Hemsley told The Associated Press. "I miss her deeply. There are no words."
But she says it was the only thing she could have done, morally.
"It wasn't even a choice. We did what I hope any parent would do: put their child first."
The Hemsleys say they had many reasons for suspicion. But the final straw was a doctor's statement that said DNA samples were taken from the baby and birth mother on a date when Hazel was with Jennifer Hemsley. She said her Guatemalan attorney told her, "Don't worry about it, you want the adoption to go through, don't you?"
If all it takes is a doctor's signature to hide a switch in DNA, it would challenge the bedrock evidence on which the U.S. Embassy has depended to guarantee the legitimacy of thousands of Guatemalan adoptions over the past 10 years. Doctors' statements are routinely accepted on faith by the U.S. Embassy, Guatemalan authorities and adoptive American parents.
Neither country has the appetite for challenging already-approved adoptions. But Hemsley says anyone who has doubts about an adopted baby's true identity should know that the Guatemalan DNA evidence might be worthless.
Guatemala's quick adoptions made the nation of 13 million the world's second largest source of babies to the U.S. after China. But last year the industry was closed down, starting with an August 2007 raid on what had been considered one of the country's most reputable adoption agencies.
Voluminous fraud has been exposed since then — false paperwork, fake birth certificates, women coerced into giving up their children and even baby theft. At least 25 cases resulted in criminal charges against doctors, lawyers, mothers and civil registrars.
Thousands of adoptions, including that of the Hemsleys, were put on hold until this year, when the newly formed National Adoptions Council began requiring birth mothers to personally verify they still wanted to give up their children. Of 3,032 pending cases, nearly 1,000 were dismissed because no birth mother showed up.
Prosecutors suspect many of the babies in these cases never existed — that Guatemalan baby brokers registered false identities with the council in hopes of matching them later to babies obtained through fraud.
Understaffed and with few resources, the adoptions council ruled out new DNA tests as too costly and time-consuming. All but a few hundred cases have been pushed through in the months since.
"The ramifications are immense," Hemsley said. "How many children adopted by U.S. families may have had DNA falsifications such as this, and the U.S. adopting family is unknowing of the fraud?"
Prompted by the Hemsleys, Guatemalan investigators are trying to determine Hazel's true identity and have opened a criminal investigation into the people who vouched for her paperwork — from the U.S. adoption agency to Guatemalan notaries, foster parents, a doctor and the laboratory that said it collected the girl's DNA.
Jaime Tecu, a former prosecutor who now leads investigations for the adoptions council, praised Jennifer Hemsley.
"This makes me believe that there are people who still hold ethical values," he said. "She could have easily ignored her suspicions and gone ahead with the paperwork; instead she decided to risk the adoption to do what she believes was right."
Problems with cases
In an earlier case of switched DNA, Esther Sulamita, a girl stolen at gunpoint and given a false identity, was recognized and recovered by her birth mother in July just before an unknowing Indiana couple could adopt her.
Dr. Aida Gutierrez handled the DNA for both Hazel and Esther Sulamita. Now under investigation for allegedly forging birth documents, she told prosecutors she followed established procedures. She refused an interview, saying the embassy prohibited her from talking with the media, a claim the embassy denies.
The problem could be solved by improving the chain of custody over DNA evidence — for example, by requiring new mother-and-child saliva samples taken under the supervision of a government authority that would send it directly to U.S. labs for testing.
But the embassy still says it must depend on the ethics of the Guatemalan doctors involved. The adoptions council president, Elizabeth de Larios, says more DNA tests would mean more costs and "more and more months of being away from loving families" for the babies in question.
'Magical and a gift'
Guatemala's old, fraud-plagued adoption industry was still going full speed in June 2007 when the Hemsleys first held the 4-month-old girl.
"It was magical and a gift, and a feeling beyond description," Jennifer Hemsley said.
But even before their case was turned over to the adoptions council, the Hemsleys were suspicious. The supposed birth mother disappeared after a brief meeting where she "had no visible reaction at all to the child," Hemsley said.
Medical reports seemed obvious forgeries, without letterhead or doctor's signature. And during a critical hearing, Hemsley said, her Guatemalan advisers tried to pay a stranger to pose as Hazel's foster mother.
"Todd and I felt a lot like, 'Gee, is this really happening?' Maybe we should just look the other way and keep plodding along, because every time I tried to tell someone, nobody cared," Hemsley said. "I couldn't look the other way. I just couldn't turn my head."
Ricardo Ordonez, the Hemsleys' adoption attorney, denied any fraud and vowed to clear his name by producing the birth mother for new DNA tests. Another court hearing is pending.
If the Hemsleys had walked away, as hundreds of other Americans did after problems surfaced, Hazel would likely have been abandoned or reoffered for adoption under another false identity, Tecu said. Instead, Jennifer Hemsley stayed with Hazel for months, draining more than $70,000 from a second mortgage on their home and paying for a trusted nanny.
"She was a real take-charge little girl," Hemsley said. "We had a little walker for her and she's just a real daredevil. She always let you know what she wanted."
Finally, as a colleague of Ordonez threatened to take the girl away, she asked the adoptions council for a "rescue."
'Horrifying on many levels'
The new rules require authorities to consider Guatemalan citizens before Americans, and several dozen Guatemalan couples are in line ahead of the Hemsleys. But they aren't giving up yet.
Jennifer Hemsley returned this month to Guatemala City, where she briefly held Hazel — now more than 19 months old — at a crowded orphanage. She emerged devastated.
Crying and shaking, she said Hazel had open sores on her face and a cut on her head. Within hours, she managed to persuade authorities to transfer the girl to a better nursery while the case is resolved.
"I think about her every day," Hemsley said. "It's horrifying on many levels. It's horrifying for Guatemalan women who may have missing children ... It's horrifying for adoptive families in the U.S. My parents are devastated over this. This affects our whole entire family, our friends, our neighbors."