April 08, 2013 12:00 PM

Byron Rafael Navarro was a chubby-cheeked baby, just 1 month old, when he captured the hearts of Jen and Andrew DeTolve in September 2007. “The adoption agency sent a photo,” says Jen. “He was so handsome. He spoke with his eyes. It was love at first sight.” When they held him in their arms for the first time after traveling to Guatemala from their hometown in Montgomery, Ill., the connection was immediate. “We were total strangers, and he didn’t cry once,” says Andy of the easygoing baby whose birth mom named him Byron. “He was instantly ours.” Over five days of near total togetherness, Jen fell ever more deeply for the newborn’s sweet quirks. “He slept on his back with his hands on either side of his head,” she says, pointing to a photo of him doing just that.”We thought we’d be getting him soon. We were very excited.”

From that joyful beginning, however, the family would be plunged into a 5½-year ordeal riddled with heartache, foreign corruption and red tape. The nightmare began in January 2008, when Guatemala shut down all international adoptions amid a headline-making scandal in which locals allegedly faked birth certificates and kidnapped infants—leaving thousands of U.S. families in limbo. “Our lives froze,” says Jen, 44, a radiology technologist. As years passed many families reluctantly gave up on babies they’d hoped to adopt. The DeTolves couldn’t. “Byron was our child,” says Andy, 41, a firefighter. “We’re all he knew as his family. We owed it to him to fight until the day we died to bring him home.”

Jen had already begun buying onesies and decorating the nursery when they got horrifying news: Byron’s foster mother had been arrested for child trafficking, and Byron had been taken into protective custody. “We were in shock,” recalls Andy. “Where’s our son?” No one could, or would, tell them anything. A year passed. “Here I am, a father to this little boy, and he’s in trouble, and I couldn’t do anything to help him,” Andy recalls feeling. “I wanted to explode.” Jen spent endless hours searching Guatemalan adoption websites and message boards. In June 2009 she spotted a cryptic posting on guatadopt.com listing the initials of four boys who had been moved to an orphanage; one set matched Byron’s. “I started screaming to Andy, ‘You have to see this!’ ” says Jen. “We called them and gave them Byron’s full name. They said, ‘It’s him.’ ”

Andy flew down the next day. “I was nervous—he was a baby the last time I saw him,” he says. “Now he could walk.” At first Byron just stared at him, “so I pulled out a photo album and said, ‘Look, this is tu papa,’ ” recalls Andy. “When he saw the picture of me in the hammock with him, he jumped into my arms. I started crying. He was saying, ‘Papa! Papa!’ He would not let me go.” Thrillingly the adoption was back on track; the couple traveled to Guatemala, going to court hearings and bringing teddy bears to Byron. Back home Andy took on extra shifts to pay a tab that would grow to more than $80,000 for legal fees and 16 Guatemala trips; it took a toll on daughter Madison, 8, whom they’d adopted from China as a baby. “Boo-hoo. I miss Daddy!” she wrote in a note. Says Andy: “It kinda broke my heart.”

Then their worst nightmare came to pass. In June 2010, after renting an apartment not far from the orphanage to finalize paperwork, the DeTolves were told there was no process to complete the adoption. Two weeks of bonding as a family, watching Madison and Byron color together as brother and sister—it was all for nothing. They would have to go home without him. Saying goodbye at the orphanage gate, Andy held Byron in his arms while Madison and Jen huddled in the car, weeping. “He was holding on to my neck, screaming, clawing, saying, ‘No, Dada! No!’ ” recalls Andy. “I felt like someone tore my guts out.” Flying home, Jen says, “I was devastated.” Cut off from all communication with Byron for another full year, “we felt hopeless,” says Andy. Madison would wake at night, screaming for her brother, and look at photos of Byron on the wall and start sobbing. “I’d say, ‘Do you want me to take those down?’ ” Jen recalls. “She’d say, ‘No, Mom. I don’t want to take away the memories.’ ”

They’d all but given up hope when fate took a surprising turn. First they learned an adoption application they’d filed years earlier in China was approved, and in June 2011 they brought home 2½-year-old son Anderson. And yet “I didn’t feel complete,” says Jen. “I knew Byron was out there somewhere.” Just one month later, the long-dreamed-about call came through: The U.S. had brokered a deal with Guatemala, facilitating 100 of the long-delayed adoptions after their legality had been confirmed. Jen felt cautious. “Until I knew for sure we could have him, I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t go through that again.” On March 4, 20 months after getting the news, the DeTolves boarded a plane with Byron in tow. “He kept looking out the window saying, ‘Adios, Guatemala!’ ” Jen recalls. Greeting them at the airport in Chicago were family and friends, none happier than Madison and Anderson, who held signs saying, “We Love You Byron” and “Welcome Home Byron.” Tucking him into bed that first night, Jen wept: “It was so surreal, so emotional. He was here.”

Now, home for a little more than a month, Byron’s first weeks have been a whirlwind of new experiences: flicking light switches on and off; enjoying his first-ever bath in a tub; learning a new language. For the DeTolves, all the anguish was worth it—”every time I see his smile,” Andy says. Adds Jen: “We had this missing piece. It was a void only he could fill. I never thought this day would come. Our family is complete. Finally.”

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