Jennifer and Todd Hemsley pose for a photograph at their home Sunday,
Oct. 26, 2008, in Los Angeles. Like thousands of other would-be
parents, the California couple went to Guatemala in hopes of bringing
home a baby, paying a $15,500 down payment to a U.S. agency that
guaranteed quick, hassle-free adoptions. And like all the rest, they
found themselves caught up in a bureaucratic limbo when Guatemala
began cracking down against systemic fraud last year. (AP Photo/Ric
To save adopted girl, Calif. couple gives her up
By JUAN CARLOS LLORCA 2 days ago
GUATEMALA CITY (AP) Jennifer and Todd Hemsley had to give up their
child to save her.
Like thousands of other would-be parents, the California couple made
$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
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
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
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
the industry was closed down, starting with an August 2007 raid on
what had been considered one of the country's most reputable adoption
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
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
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
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
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."
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
Dr. Aida Gutierrez handled the DNA for both Hazel and Esther
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
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.
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
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
"Todd and I felt a lot like, 'Gee, is this really happening?' Maybe
should just look the other way and keep plodding along, because every
time I tried to tell someone, nobody cared," Hemsley said. "I
look the other way. I just couldn't turn my head."
Ricardo Ordonez, the Hemsleys' adoption attorney, denied any fraud
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
"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."
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."