GUATEMALA CITY The 24-year-old Guatemalan mother had already given up her baby once. Now, months later, the baby girl was back in her lap, smiling and playing with her mother's fingers.
And Karen Donis had to make the decision all over again.
The heart-wrenching process is part of a new Guatemalan government effort to ensure that mothers really wanted to give their babies up and that children weren't bought or even stolen to be adopted to U.S. couples.
Sitting on a plastic chair in a neon-lit room cuddling her 8-month-old daughter, Donis ached to keep the child. But she knew she could never give her the life she deserved.
"I have turned the problem inside out, and I can't, I can't ... " said Donis, tears falling onto the girl. "I thought about keeping the baby, but I can't."
Once just steps away from joining new families as U.S. citizens, the child is one of 2,286 Guatemalan babies now stuck in limbo, facing uncertain futures as Guatemala reviews every pending case.
One by one, women were called into a large room to prove they gave birth to the babies and swear they were not sold or stolen. Then, they were asked to make what for many had been the most difficult decision of their lives again.
Almost all insisted on remaining anonymous and would not talk to journalists, fearing public scorn. But Donis agreed to let an Associated Press reporter attend her interview, a rare and exclusive glimpse into the heart-wrenching government review process.
The old system was riddled with conflicts of interest, false paperwork and illegal payments, but it quickly delivered babies to U.S. homes, and birth mothers could console themselves that their babies would have abundant opportunities for a better life.
Now, most of these women don't even have that: Babies whose adoptions have been annulled will likely spend years in government-run orphanages before they can be adopted under the new rules.
Of the 2,286 pending cases, authorities have reviewed about 750, annulled 26 adoptions and are pressing criminal charges in nine against birth mothers, lawyers and civil registrars who allegedly forged documents, said Jorge Meng, spokesman for Guatamala's attorney general.
Four birth mothers have decided to take their babies back, but even those cases must be cleared first, Meng said.
Meng suspects only a fraction of the fraud cases have been uncovered so far, since the easiest ones were reviewed first those involving birth mothers who agreed to come in. Hundreds of other mothers have simply disappeared, and authorities suspect the people involved are laying low to avoid being charged with crimes.
Guatemalan adoptions used to be so quick and hassle-free that the nation of 13 million became the world's second-largest source of babies to U.S. couples, a $100 million-a-year industry managed nearly entirely by lawyers with almost no government oversight.
But since the government took over in January, not one new adoption has begun, while all pending cases are being reviewed by the attorney general's office and a newly created National Adoptions Council.
The new law is Guatemala's attempt to comply with the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions, a treaty designed to prevent trafficking in humans. The U.S. Embassy lobbied in support of the new law, arguing that Guatemala and other countries with foreign adoptions need to ensure babies weren't being exploited.
Donis told the interviewers her baby's father took off as soon as he found out about the pregnancy, and that she is the only breadwinner for her three other children and two underage siblings. She has an on-and-off job giving out free food samples at supermarkets. "I have no help," she said.
Then, her lawyer was asked to leave the room, and she was given one last chance to change her mind.
After almost 25,000 adoptions over the past 18 years, this is the first time mothers have been required to legally relinquish their children in front of a government official. Before, U.S. and Guatemalan authorities simply accepted a sworn statement provided by the same lawyer who handled the adoption.
Of 66 women called in each day, only half show up.
"I had three appointments today; only one could make it because roads were closed on account of the heavy rains and I have yet to find one of the mothers," said Rosa Maria Vides, a lawyer who fears her adoption cases won't move forward.
Babies whose birth mothers don't appear are declared abandoned by a judge and placed in government-run orphanages while their cases start all over again. The new process could take years, and the U.S. couples involved, many of whom have already spent as much as $30,000 and bonded with the babies under the old system, have no guarantee of getting the same child.
The adoptions council works out of borrowed space in a library, and there are only 13 investigators to examine the thousands of cases. For now, most of the babies remain in private adoption agencies that are being phased out. A new government-run orphanage hasn't been finished.
Few U.S. couples can be seen at Guatemala City's Marriott Hotel, once known as "baby central" because it hosted so many adoptive parents. Those who still visit their would-be adoptive children are too scared to talk to reporters.
"They told us our cases were going to be grandfathered in. This is not grandfathering," said one woman, who feared her case would be jeopardized if she gave her name.
"Not only the Americans are scared. Birth mothers are concerned that their kids will end up in a government orphanage," said Alejandra Corzo, a lawyer for All God's Children International, a U.S-based nonprofit that runs orphanages around the world. Corzo said she has 14 cases pending and none have been cleared.
The adoption of Donis' daughter was determined to be legitimate, but clearing the paperwork will take at least two more months before the child can join her adoptive family in New Hampshire. If any problems crop up, it could take up to a year.
Handing over the girl once again, Donis said she wants her to have a better life in the U.S. and wants to keep in touch with the American family. She hopes the baby grows up to be a doctor, she said just like her adoptive father.