GUATEMALA CITY – The little boy flies like an airplane through the hotel, his arms outstretched. Then he leaps like a superhero, beaming as the red lights on his new sneakers flash and flicker, while the American couple he is with dissolve in laughter.
He calls them Mama and Papi. They call him Hijo – Son. He corrects their fledgling Spanish. They teach him English. "Awe-some," he repeats carefully, eyeing his new shoes.
To outsiders, they look like a family. But Geovany Archilla Rodas, an impish 6-year-old boy with spiky black hair, lives in an orphanage on the outskirts of this capital city. The Americans – Amy and Rob Carr of Reno – live a world away. They are the only parents he has ever known.
They have been visiting him every year, usually twice a year, since he was a toddler, flying into the Central American city for a few days at a time to buy him clothes and to read him stories, to wipe his tears and to tickle him until he collapses in giggles at their hotel or in the orphanage.
Yet half a decade after agreeing to adopt him, the Carrs still have no idea when – or if – they will ever take Geovany home.
"There's this hope in you that doesn't want to die," said Amy Carr, who arrived last month with her husband, more determined than ever to cut through the bureaucracy. "In my heart, he's my son."
The Carrs are among the 4,000 Americans who found themselves stuck in limbo when Guatemala shut down its international adoption program in January 2008 amid mounting evidence of corruption and child trafficking. Officials in Guatemala and Washington promised at the time to process the remaining cases expeditiously.
But officials and prospective parents say that bureaucratic delays, lengthy investigations and casework hobbled by shortages of staff and resources have left hundreds of children stranded in institutions for years. Today, 150 children – including Geovany – are still waiting in orphanages and foster homes while the Guatemalan authorities weigh whether to approve their adoptions to families in the United States.
Stalled adoptions are not unique to Guatemala. Concerns about fraud, including allegations of kidnappings and baby selling, have held up U.S. adoptions for months, and sometimes years, from Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam and Haiti. The State Department refuses to approve adoptions from Cambodia and Vietnam to pressure those countries to install safeguards so that children with biological relatives who can care for them are not shipped overseas, officials say.
But the problem of delayed adoptions is particularly acute in Guatemala, a country of about 14 million people, which in 2007 ranked second only to China in the number of children sent to the United States.
As Guatemalan officials have spent months, and then years, trying to distinguish legitimate adoptions from fraudulent ones, many hopeful couples who had painted nurseries, hosted baby showers and bought brand new cribs began to despair as the infants they had hoped to adopt took their first steps and spoke their first words without them.
Faced with a seemingly endless process, scores of prospective parents quietly abandoned their efforts to adopt the children they once considered their own, officials say.
Guatemalan officials said they never intended for the children to remain institutionalized for so long. They say they have had to thoroughly investigate the cases, some of which are complicated by inconsistencies, false documents and questionable stories, to ensure that the children were not bought or stolen from impoverished rural women.
"These are very vulnerable people, who can be easily taken advantage of," said Elizabeth Orrego de Llerena, president of the board of directors of the National Adoption Council, which is processing the adoption cases once they have been cleared by the child welfare investigative branch. "At times, they have not had the opportunity to make a complaint or to seek solutions."
Orrego de Llerena said that the investigations, which typically include searches for biological relatives, were necessary to ensure that children were given up voluntarily.
U.S. officials counter that the process has taken long enough, noting that officials have published notices seeking out birth parents in local newspapers, have encouraged parents to report missing children and have sought out adoptive parents domestically.
They added that anomalies in case files often reflect complicated family situations, not corruption, pointing to instances in which unmarried teenagers and victims of rape and incest have lied about their identities or asked others to hand over their babies to protect themselves and their families from shame.
Desperate for a resolution, the prospective parents have created websites and Facebook pages to highlight their plight, made costly visits to Guatemala to maintain their fragile bonds with their faraway sons and daughters, and pleaded with lawmakers and administration officials for help. They found a champion in Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who has prodded U.S. and Guatemalan officials to focus on their situation.
But so far, only five adoptions have been made final this year. More than 100 cases remain unresolved, including Geovany's, without any word of a concrete timeline.
A test of patience
In November, the Carrs packed a green suitcase full of socks, underwear, Legos and coloring books for Geovany and flew to Guatemala for four full days, determined to make some headway on their ninth trip to the country in five years.
They arrived on a Friday evening at the Grand Tikal Futura Hotel, armed with a letter from their senator, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and a plan to meet with their lawyer as well as officials at the National Adoption Council and the U.S. Embassy.
And as they unpacked, they prayed that they would finally clear the last hurdles, even as they worried about the inevitable difficulties ahead.
The Carrs, who have three biological children, adopted a little girl named Samantha from Guatemala without a hitch. They agreed to adopt Geovany in December 2007, just weeks before Guatemala closed its program. He was abandoned, their adoption agency told them. A clear-cut case.
They were told he would be home within six months, a toddler who would integrate relatively easily into their lives. They never dreamed that they would be trying someday to assimilate a Spanish-speaking boy who had grown up in an orphanage, or that they would be forced to confront the unexpected mysteries in his past.
Amy Carr, 42, who is a stay-at-home mother, and her husband, 43, who is a software engineer, firmly believe that God has called on them to give Geovany a home.
But they still wonder: How will Geovany cope in school without speaking English? How will he adjust to a life that is considerably more free-flowing than the regimented rhythms of the orphanage? And what about the effect of years of institutionalization?
Geovany, who has lived in an orphanage since he was an infant, shies away from hugs and kisses and rarely seeks comfort from adults if he is sad or hurt.
But during their brief visit, there was little time to mull over such worries. A manager from the Remar Foundation, which runs the City of Children orphanage where Geovany lives, brought him to the hotel lobby on Saturday morning. He hurtled into Rob Carr's arms.
For four precious days, Geovany was no longer a child without parents, a face in the crowd among the nearly 300 children at the Remar orphanage. Instead, he was the center of attention as he pored over the Carrs' family photos and greeted their children and parents in the United States using a video chatting program.
The Carrs tried to treasure the moments as the time flew by, counting down to the day when Geovany would return to the orphanage and they would have to fly back to Reno.
They alternated story time with Geovany with emails and phone calls to their lawyer, their interpreter and government officials, as they tried to set up the appointments they prayed would help them complete their adoption.
The Carrs no longer expect miracles. They know it is possible that they may never take Geovany home. But on this trip, they were determined to finally get what has long eluded them.
"Straight answers," Rob Carr said.
At their home in Reno, the uncertainty often feels unbearable.
Geovany is there, but not there. He is an ephemeral presence, peering out of a black frame that hangs on the wall alongside photos of all the Carr children. A group photo of the entire family, with Geovany when he was just a baby, sits on a shelf in the living room.
Their adopted daughter Samantha conjures him up in her evening prayers. And he occasionally slips into Amy Carr's dreams or into her mind during the day when someone asks, unwittingly, how many children she has.
The caseworkers at their adoption agency advised them several years ago to give up on the process. Even Rob Carr has wondered at times how long they should continue to wait. In October, as they planned their trip, he told his wife that he did not think he could do it again.
A tangled background
It was not the journey that the Carrs envisioned when they first saw Geovany's photograph. He was a baby boy in a battered wooden crib with a runny nose and a missing sock. It was December 2007, and in the midst of completing the adoption of Samantha, the Carrs were studying the pictures of hundreds of children who were available for adoption, trying to decide whether to bring one last needy child home.
Rob Carr stopped short when he saw the dark-eyed baby with the bare foot. He could not explain the wave of emotion that swept over him. But suddenly he was sure. "That boy needs a dad," he said, "and I'm his dad."
So the Carrs accepted Geovany on the spot, without worrying about the identity of his mother or how or why he had been deserted by his biological family. Their adoption agency assured them that the courts had issued a decree certifying that he had been abandoned, and that was good enough.
But the case stalled. First, they were told that there was a typo on their power of attorney form. Then in November 2008, they learned that their case was being investigated, because the woman who had given him up for adoption was not his birth mother.
Astonished, the Carrs turned to the only tangible link they had to Geovany's past, an eight-page abandonment decree issued by the courts, which they had never read because it is in Spanish. To their dismay, they learned that Geovany's story was not straightforward at all.
His surname in the records was different from the one that the adoption agency had given them. He was months older than they had been told. The court records said that he had been given up for adoption by a woman who had described him as her son. The woman agreed to take a DNA test to prove the relationship, but she vanished before the results came back. The test results showed that the woman was not Geovany's mother.
Notices were placed in the newspapers calling on the woman, her relatives or anyone who knew anything about the child to come forward. No one responded.
Officials also checked with the national police, who reported that no child of Geovany's description had been reported missing or kidnapped. Finally, Geovany was formally declared eligible for adoption.
But while a judge had certified that Geovany could be adopted, the decree was written up incorrectly, the family's lawyer said. It was likely that the National Adoption Council would reject it and the Carrs would have to go back to court to have it reissued.
To make matters worse, there had been some confusion about the length of their visit, and as a result they would not be able to meet with anyone at the Adoption Council.
Geovany, who listened quietly as the legal discussion swirled around him, was somber after the meeting, which took place on a Monday afternoon. That evening, the Carrs told him that he would be going back home the next day.
"To the United States?" Geovany asked.
They shook their heads. To the orphanage, they said.
How many more delays?
Nearly 300 children live in the sprawling orphanage that sits behind a black metal gate in the impoverished community of San Jose Villanueva. Ask Geovany and he will tell you that he was born there, even though the administrators know that is not true. It is the only home he has ever known.
Inside the compound, he shares the top floor of a spare house, which bears the name "The Love of God," with other abandoned children.
Sofia Villanova, the house mother, was waiting for Geovany to return from his visit with the Carrs. She was bracing herself for the emotional turmoil she said she knew he would experience once the Americans were gone.
"Every time that they leave, he finds himself alone once again; he is sad, solitary, isolated," Villanova said. "We try to give him the most support, the most love that we can. But it's not the same as having parents. It takes time to reintegrate him to the routines of the house."
The orphanage's administrators say that none of Geovany's blood relatives has come to visit him in all the years he has lived at the institution. No one, they said, knows who they are.
But on Tuesday, their last full day in Guatemala, as they settled in for a meeting with officials at the U.S. Embassy who had reviewed their case file, the Carrs learned that the Guatemalan authorities had finally unraveled the mystery of Geovany's origins. They had located Geovany's birth mother.
Their adoption, the U.S. officials told the couple, was delayed once again while Guatemalan caseworkers tried to reach the woman, who lives in a remote area. They wanted to give her a DNA test and to interview her to determine once and for all if she had voluntarily given up Geovany when he was a baby.
The Carrs were stunned. Their lawyer had not mentioned a word of this. It had been nearly four years since anyone had brought up Geovany's birth mother. Geovany, unable to understand the conversation in English, sat quietly on Rob Carr's lap.
"My heart just sank," he said. "Another hurdle. How many hurdles are we going to have to go through to get this kid home?"
Geovany and the Carrs wept quietly in the hotel lobby when it was finally time for him to go, and they clung to each other on the bus ride back to the orphanage. But the little boy's face brightened when he stepped into his house and received a hero's welcome.
It was dark by the time the Americans finally said goodbye to Geovany and clambered back onto the bus. As they headed back to the hotel, they tried not to lose themselves in sorrow.
The months fly by so quickly, the Carrs reminded each other. Soon there would be Christmas to celebrate and the New Year and their children's birthdays. And then it would be spring again, time to start planning another trip to Guatemala.