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‘Perilous Journey’ investigation uncovers controversial international adoption practices

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Ryan, Taylor, Kole, Jeri Lynn and Riley Owen

Watch “48 Hours” Saturday at 10 p.m. on CBS 6.

(CBS News) — Maureen Maher and “48 Hours” investigate the sometimes-shady business of international child adoptions and the lengths families will go to bring children home to the United States in “Perilous Journey,” Saturday at 10 p.m. on CBS.

Ryan, Taylor, Kole, Jeri Lynn and Riley Owen

Ryan, Taylor, Kole, Jeri Lynn and Riley Owen

The investigation reveals the extraordinary journey of one family to adopt two children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the questionable practices of the U.S.-based adoption agency they’d chosen, as well as the harrowing story of one woman’s attempt to adopt a child from Guatemala – through the same agency – and allegations of child trafficking against Guatemalan nationals that emerged afterward.

“We knew that international adoption is challenging. We were naïve in how much real trouble there is,” says adoptive parent Ryan Owen, an Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maher follows Owen and his wife, Jeri Lynn, who live at Fort Campbell, Ky., with three sons of their own, as they travel to Kinshasa and discover just what a perilous journey overseas adoption can be. The Owens began working on the adoption through Celebrate Children International (CCI), a small Florida agency, run by Sue Hedberg.

“Children need to be in families, not in institutions,” Hedberg tells  “48 Hours.” “Many of these children would die if it wasn’t for adoption.”

But the Owens’ relationship with CCI began to deteriorate when their adoption process inexplicably stalled and they started hearing disturbing things about Hedberg’s Congolese lawyer. The Owens took matters into their own hands, hiring their own attorney and travelling to the Congo to try to complete the adoption themselves.

“I love these kids enough to do whatever it takes to get them home – whatever it takes,” Jeri Lynn tells  “48 Hours.”

The Owens, who named their daughters Ava and Zoey, are not alone in their struggle to get children from abroad or to raise questions about the process. Nor are they alone in their questions about Sue Hedberg, who sent  “48 Hours”a written statement through a representative maintaining, “each and every adoption undertaken by CCI was, and is, in strict compliance with the laws of the United States and the laws and regulations of the originating nation at the time of the adoption.”

Ava and Zoey Owen.

Ava and Zoey Owen.

Betsy Emanuel, a Tennessee mother of five adopted children, talks with Maher about her attempt to adopt a child from Guatemala, also through Hedberg’s agency CCI. Emanuel fell in love with a girl named Maria Fernanda, after seeing her in a video CCI sent her.

Shortly thereafter, CCI offered her Maria Fernanda’s newborn sister, Ana Christina. Emanuel couldn’t afford to adopt two children, so she kept going with the adoption of Maria Fernanda – until one day, she says, a representative of CCI told her the girls’ mother had resurfaced and, accompanied by armed men, demanded the children back.

“I knew something was wrong,” Emanuel tells  “48 Hours.”

Having already invested heavily with CCI, Emanuel adopted a different child through the agency. Around the same time, she learned Maria Fernanda and her sister were again being offered for adoption, though this time not by CCI.

Preoccupied with the girl, she later searched online for Maria Fernanda’s name and found a Guatemalan newspaper story about children who had been abducted for adoption.

The story included Maria Fernanda and her sister. Emanuel was stunned to read the girls’ mother, Mildred Alvarado, had been looking for them for more than a year. Emanuel immediately got involved in exposing problems within the Guatemalan adoption system.

In an emotional interview with Maher in Guatemala, Alvarado recalled how she was coerced to give up her 3-year-old daughter, Maria Fernanda, being told that it was temporary. Then, she says, she was duped into undergoing an early C-section to deliver her daughter, Ana Christina. When she awoke, she was taped to the bed and the newborn was gone. More than a year later, Emanuel would help reunite the family when she found the article and Guatemalan authorities gave Mildred Alvarado her children back.

More than five years later, Maher travels with Emanuel to Guatemala to meet Alvarado, and her two girls, for the first time.