What's most sad is for these kids. Every day that passes, they stay in the orphanage and every day in the orphanage is away from a family that loves them, who wants nothing more than to be with them. —Jeff DenBleyker
SOUTH JORDAN — When people ask Jenna DenBleyker how many children she has, she's never quite sure what to say.
"It's a hard answer for me," she said. "Usually I'll say five and one on the way. People will be like, 'Are you pregnant?' Not exactly. It's a very long gestation."
Close to five years, in fact.
At least that's how long it's been since DenBleyker, her husband, Jeff, and their children have been waiting to bring their would-be daughter home from Guatemala.
"In 2007, we got a picture of a beautiful little girl named Jazmin and she caught our heart and we decided to start the process to adopt her," Jeff DenBleyker said. "That was about a month after we started the adoption process on our other daughter, Chloe. … In April 2008, we brought Chloe home."
But the process stalled when it came to the other little girl, whom they planned to call Lauren Jazmin. The girl who has grown up in an orphanage as Jazmin will turn 5 on Saturday.
"She's been called Jazmin her whole life, so we'll let her choose whether she wants to be called Jazmin or Lauren Jazmin," Jenna DenBleyker said. "For her every birthday we've done a birthday party with a cake, present, balloons. We sing. We get it on video so if she comes home next year, she'll know we've always celebrated."
But the DenBleykers have become accustomed to the persistent unknown, the irrepressible "if" — if the birth mother is found and can undergo an interview; if the numerous court hearings aren't postponed; if their Guatemala-based "angel" Miriam can get the ear of the right government official.
"The government has told us there's no problem with our case, it's an easy case," Jeff DenBleyker said. "There's no problem with our paperwork. However, they do not move our case forward."
"The DenBleykers are the perfect example of people caught in the red tape of international adoption," said Suzanne Stott, who has worked with the family as the executive director of Families for Children.
Stott has been working in international adoptions for upwards of 33 years and said what happened to the DenBleykers could have as much to do with the Netherlands as it does with Guatemala. Back in 1993, the Hague Adoption Convention was held in an effort to establish "international standards of practices for intercountry adoptions," according to the U.S. Department of State's Intercountry Adoption website. The United States signed the convention in 2004 and it went into effect for the nation in 2008.
Guatemala's new adoption law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2008. The DenBleykers were told that any cases initiated under the old law would be grandfathered in and completed under the prior process. They began the adoption process with both Chloe and Jazmin before Dec. 31, 2007.
"In 2008, the government required a final interview of the birth mother that had not been required previously," Jeff DenBleyker said. "We were initially supposed to be following the old law of Guatemala for adoptions … the government was supposed to follow the old law's requirements and we were meeting all of those requirements."
Chareyl Moyes, a program manager for Wasatch International Adoptions, said the country was not in compliance with the regulations set forth under the Hague Convention. Because the United States is a Hague country, it can't process adoptions with a Hague country that is not in compliance, she said.
Moyes does not know the DenBleykers, but she was handling a number of Guatemala-based cases when she realized the country's adoptions would soon close and she struggled to get them completed before it was too late. She was able to complete the adoptions she was handling, but 900 families weren't so lucky.
"I know it's got to be devastating to be caught in that," Moyes said. "If a country closes down, it's just a hard place to be in. Both governments have to agree to allow that child (into and out of the respective countries). That's a lot of red tape when there's no longer an agreement between the two countries."
Statistics from the U.S. Department of State indicate that U.S. adoptions from Guatemala in 2004 — the year the DenBleykers' daughter Ellie was adopted — totaled 3,264. In 2007, the year they initiated Chloe and Lauren Jazmin's adoption, they peaked at 4,726. The adoptions declined slightly to 4,112 in 2008, before dropping to only 754 in 2009.
In 2011, just 32 adoptions were completed.
"What's most sad is for these kids," Jeff DenBleyker said. "Every day that passes, they stay in the orphanage and every day in the orphanage is away from a family that loves them, who wants nothing more than to be with them."
Moyes believes the Hague regulations are a good safeguard for children and can also give countries confidence in where their children end up. Still, when a Hague country is out of compliance, the U.S. has no choice but to suspend the adoptions.
"I can totally see how families could get caught because you're thinking they'll extend that or they'll grandfather all these cases," she said.
Stott feels "thwarted" by the Hague regulations. In her mind, the DenBleyker case is a no-brainer.
"They have been so diligent in flying down to the country and seeing what they can do and hanging in there for this child," she said. "They are the premier example for me of people being able to work within a system and respect the country's policies and cultures."
Jeff and Jenna DenBleyker try to fly to Guatemala twice a year. Their entire family chats on the Internet with Jazmin at least once a month. Their children pray for Lauren to come home.
"Our kids have bonded to her," Jeff DenBleyker said. "They know her as their sister and she knows that she has brothers and sisters here. … It's very hard for them as well as us."
The DenBleykers both frequently use the word "heartbreaking." They have come to love the shy, sweet little girl who loves dance, art and telling stories. But sometimes, the wait and the setbacks become almost too much for them.
"There's days I just say, 'I'm done. I can't do this anymore and my heart can't break any more over her,'" Jenna DenBleyker said. "And then I just think of her future and that she's not just some face or some name in an orphanages or a statistic or whatever.
"We know her and love her."
So the family just keeps fighting. They continue to put one foot in front of the other and, when a door looks to be closing, jam that foot back in the door.
The family estimates they have spent $25,000 fighting for Lauren Jazmin. They have passed every evaluation and checkpoint they know of, in addition to government investigations. They have contacted every Utah state senator.
They believe their rights have been violated. They entered into an adoption procedure in good faith and feel Guatemala failed to hold up its side of the bargain. They don't know what else to do.
A court hearing is scheduled for Oct. 4 in Guatemala. It is the DenBleykers' understanding that the judge will ask to have the government show evidence that it cannot find the birth mother. The judge is then anticipated to declare Jazmin an abandoned child, a legal orphan.
Jeff DenBleyker fears that judgment may mean starting the adoption process all over again.
"Every time we see her on the Internet, the web chat, she's getting bigger," he said. "She's growing up. We're missing all these milestones that we love with our other kids — experiencing that. it's hard to see her grow up when we can't hold her, can't talk to her, can't give her a hug or a kiss good night."
"We just want all of our kids in one place," Jenna DenBleyker said.
Contributing: Nkoyo Iyamba