Devoid of its once palpable social stigma, adoption has become a beautiful and natural way to complete a family. In addition to biological children or children adopted in the United States, international adoption has been a viable option for thousands of families.
The challenges of international adoption — travel, staying in country, dealing with two separate federal governments — are myriad. However, as the vast majority of international adoptive parents will attest, the payoff is far greater than the obstacles.
Studies by the U.S. State Department and CNN show a 55 percent decline in international adoptions in the past decade. The reasons do not include a lack of children available for adoption, nor a dearth of parents wanting someone to love. Eastern bloc nations and other countries around the world that once welcomed adoptions from the United States have put a moratorium on proceedings. While those countries often cite rare and random cases of abuse or neglect, most industry professionals agree the bans have more to do with political posturing and the decline of the United States’ stature in the world.
Vicki and Craig Wilkes adopted their daughter, Susannah Kate, from Russia in 2006. “We have called her our Victory Day Baby. She was born on May 9, 2005. May 9 is the day Russians celebrate their victory over Hitler, sort of a 4th of July for them, and very special. She was born in Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia, about 250 miles east of Moscow on the famous Trans Siberian railway route to the Far East. We brought her home May 1, 2006, and celebrated her first birthday just eight days later!” Vicki shares.
The Wilkes chose Russia at the advice of their agency because, at the time, Russia was very open to the Wilkes’ ages and their desire to not jump the birth order of their then 2-year-old biological son. Also, the adoption could generally be accomplished in two relatively short trips of a week to 10 days each. “We knew we wanted Ukraine or Russia, as both of us had traveled to Ukraine several times on mission trips before we even knew each other, as well as on a trip together a few months after our wedding.”
For Vicki and Craig, building their family begins and ends in faith. “Craig and I married for the first time each just shy of his 48th and my 44th birthday. From that point, we knew we would try to have a family, first biologically, and then, if that were not God’s plan, to adopt. Ten months after our wedding, on Valentine’s Day 2002, I discovered I was pregnant. Months before that, one doctor said I had less than a 5 percent chance of bringing home a live baby, much less a healthy one, but on my 45-and-a-half birthday, I gave birth to a healthy baby boy, George, now 12 years old and a sixth grader.” The day he was born, Vicki felt a supreme sense of peace that a sibling for George would come via adoption, and that they would head back to the part of the world where they had each found so many wonderful Christian friends through their travels to Ukraine and where they knew there were so many children who needed a family. “I never doubted it would come to be,” she says.
When George was 2, the Wilkes decided to go on their international adventure to bring him a little sister. “It was Valentine’s Day 2006, exactly four years to the day I’d discovered I was pregnant with our son, that we met Susannah Kate. She was just 9 months old, and a hefty, healthy, beautiful, blonde-haired ‘doll baby’ with steel-blue eyes and a spunky spirit,” Vicki says. “We bonded immediately.” Today she is a third grader with an energetic and winsome personality who loves doing cartwheels and back flips on her backyard trampoline.
Five years ago, Stephanie and Joseph Lorick completed an adoption in a unique way. Just like the Wilkes, the Loricks ground their adoption decisions in faith. “We had a colicky 2-month-old, and I felt called in my heart to talk to my husband about adoption. I’m sure he thought I was crazy at first. I told him I meant we should think about it down the road, but it is definitely one of those things I felt very called to,” says Stephanie. They hosted a 13-year-old young man, Vadim, from Latvia. The weeks he spent with them proved to be momentous not only for him but for the family as a whole.
“We were actually pursuing infant adoption when a friend of ours, who also has an adopted son, linked us to a hosting program. We decided that to host a child from Eastern Europe would be a neat idea; at that time our daughters were 5 and 2 years old. Because the girls were so young, we decided to try to get a child of the opposite sex, just so they didn’t feel encroached upon,” Stephanie says.
Expanding a family by any means can be challenging, and while adopting a teen at all, much less one from another country, presents its own issues. The Loricks found the challenges were relatively easy to overcome when the result is a more fulfilled family unit. “He had 14 years of life that he brought to us,” Stephanie says. “We handled small things — such as him calling us by our first names, not mom and dad. I guess some of the big situations were things like English. He spoke Russian, and we had to get him up to speed, but he now speaks very well and does very well in his schoolwork.”
Another challenge was helping Vadim to understand boundaries, the importance of following a moral code and to accept being parented. “We strove to teach him these things,” Stephanie continues, “as well as just being able to weave him into the family and to help him feel a part of our fabric. It was integral, but a challenge at times.”
Joseph estimates the cost of adopting internationally ranges between $25,000 and $50,000, including travel and paperwork fees. Some of it depends on the country. “For example, one of the things unique to Latvia is that Vadim was able to come back with us on a visa before we finalized our adoption,” he says. “Before hosting Vadim, we were open to adopting him, but we knew we would pursue him about two weeks into his four-week visit. He was required to return to Latvia after the four-week hosting. We started the process to adopt him in January, and he was able to come back to America with us on a visitor’s visa after our first trip to Latvia. We had to return twice more to Latvia to finalize the adoption.” What that meant was that they actually had to travel to Latvia three different times during the process, thus, the travel costs were three times what they would normally be in a country where only one trip was needed.
“I will say for us, we looked at the money piece of it,” Joseph says. “We just prayed about it, and we let God be in control. He provided all of the money for it. The money aspect will deter some people, but it can be done.”
The family is so pleased with their experience that they are doing it again — adopting a daughter from China. “We have what they call a lock on a child, meaning her file is at our agency right now. But we don’t yet have the authorized letter to adopt,” Stephanie says.
One of the aspects of international adoption that can seem daunting is having to deal with two different federal governments: the U.S. government and federal authorities from the country of adoption. For the Loricks, that has been one of the less consternating issues. “The agencies have been such strong go-betweens, and they’ve been through the process so many times that everything has gone smoothly,” Stephanie points out. “The most nerve-wracking time for me was when we had to go down to the immigration office in Charleston and get fingerprinted. It made it clear that this was a really big deal, and that people are really investigating who you are.”
Stephanie’s big desire is to get people to look past the money. “If you have the heart to help a child, talk to your spouse and try to find room in your home. There are so many children out there who just want to be loved.”
Any family looking to complete an overseas adoption should get all of the information they possibly can. The Internet is replete with horror stories of adoptions gone wrong. While most of those stories are hyped urban myths, some of them are indeed true and can be heartbreaking.
In September 2013, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) decided it would no longer issue exit letters for children adopted by foreign nationals. “When they issued the suspension,” says Kelly Dempsey, an executive with the advocacy group Both Ends Burning, “we thought it would last no longer than one year and that it was based on their concerns about the health and well-being of children placed in adoptive homes. It seemed at the time to be a response to a series of articles that had come out on Reuters about adoption disruption or what is commonly called ‘re-homing.’”
At that time there were several hundred American families who had fully adopted children still in the country, and there were several hundred more in the process of adopting from the DRC. “We all expected that the receiving governments, largely the United States, Belgium, France, etc. would work with the DRC to address their concerns and demonstrate that, in fact, the kids were safe and well cared for in their adoptive homes and that the suspension would lift. It turns out our government did virtually nothing for several months, and there was no progress made at all,” Kelly says.
All the while, more American families were signing up to adopt children from the DRC, and more American families were completing those adoptions. At the time people could still adopt children, still become their legal parents and guardians, but they could not bring them home.
Suzanne and Paul Sanders used to live in the Midlands, but now make their home in the Upstate. They are one of the hundreds of families affected by the DRC exit ban. They have a son, Solomon, whom they have never met.
“From the onset, we had a desire to adopt internationally. I have loved Africa from my childhood, and so our search to adopt an orphan in need has been focused upon Africa. We decided on the DRC because of several reasons: in short, the requirements for adoption from there fit us best. We wanted to partner with an adoption agency with high standards in regards to ethics, and so the one we selected had a good reputation and was doing work out of the DRC,” Suzanne says. “The need in the DRC was a convincing factor to adopt from there. Many children have been left as orphans due to war, AIDS, abandonment and other socio-economic issues.”
The Sanders hope to travel for the first time this spring to file paperwork with the U.S. Embassy to meet their son, Solomon and his foster mother. “No one had any idea the suspension would last this long,” Suzanne says.
Because the Congolese government recognizes the legality of the adoptions, the children become the fiscal responsibility of the adoptive families. Hundreds of Americans, including Suzanne and Paul, pay monthly fees to foster families that provide clothes, doctor visits, medicine, toys, food and anything else that goes along with caring for a child. According to Kelly, the payments range between $300 and $500 per month per child.
“We receive regular updated pictures, videos and the medical stats of our son,” Suzanne says.
The source of the problem is DRC President Joseph Kabila who has reached the end of his constitutionally mandated stay in office. He does not want to relinquish power, and he is using the children to get the United States to back, or at least not oppose, his power grab. “Now it has become clear to all of us that this is not about children at all. These kids are now pawns in a greater global game,” says Kelly.
The longer they waited, the more the Sanders realized there was something bigger going on within the DRC government. “My son and more than 500 other children are legally adopted in the eyes of the DRC and the United States but are not allowed to leave their country to be united with their families. President Kabila has the power to let these children leave at any moment, but for now, he continues to choose not to. Solomon is our child, but we cannot bring him home,” says Suzanne.
Greg Von Schleh, a foreign service officer who served in the DRC for three years, says, “This is really a poor situation. The cities are full of street kids they refer to as ‘shegés.’ They’re anywhere from about 5 to 12 years old and all they do all day is beg. It’s really a shame that some of these kids can find a decent home to go to, a decent life for the future and Kabila is just putting a stop to it. These children will suffer more. If anything I thought Kabila would be lying low because his father was assassinated in the early 2000s. They’re dictators. They get in and get all this power, and they don’t want to let it go.”
Since Both Ends Burning got involved on April 1 of last year, they have determined the scope of the issue. “It’s really big,” Kelly says. “And we now have the full support and attention of both the House and the Senate. Both unanimously passed resolutions to support lifting the suspension. Secretary of State John Kerry has met with President Kabila. Chairman (Ed) Royce (House Foreign Affairs Committee) has met with President Kabila. Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs have sent staff delegations. Ambassador Swan, who is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is actively engaged.”
In the meantime, waiting can literally mean the difference between life and death. “We have a number of medically fragile children who are unable to get the treatment they need. We have had a dozen adopted children die, and more children are now critically ill,” Kelly says. “We have had some success in getting a handful of very sick children out of the country, bringing home a total of 11. We believe there are 25 to 30 more who are very sick — and legally adopted by American parents — children that we must get to medical treatment not available to them in the DRC. It‘s one of our highest priorities to make sure those kids live to receive the treatment they need.”
Meanwhile, the American-adopted children of Congo just want to come home. To find out more about issues regarding the DRC, log onto www.bothendsburning.org or find the organization on Facebook at Facebook.com/BEBCampaign.