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Far from home

Congolese authorities are keeping hundreds of adopted orphans from joining their new families abroad

Far from home

WAITING GAME: Marianne and Chris Stroud are still in the adoption process for two Congolese children, Alima (left) and Masalay. (Shane Pequignot/Genesis )

Shane Pequignot/Genesis
Shane Pequignot/Genesis

Alima and Masalay, two 5-year-old children from Congo, are legally part of the Stroud family in Fort Wayne, Ind. Their adoption occurred last July, and they have passports and visas to leave Congo. But a year after their adoptions were finalized, they remain 7,000 miles away from their adoptive family.

The reason: Last September, Congolese authorities suspended issuing exit papers to children adopted by foreigners. The suspension left hundreds of cases stalled, with some parents already in the country but unable to get their children out. 

In late May a total of 62 children received exit permits to leave, the first movement by the Congolese authorities in months. But the majority of children in the process are stuck—and among them are Alima and Masalay.

This holdup is one of the largest in the history of international adoptions. According to numbers released by the U.S. Department of State in May, 792 children are stalled in adoptions. Of those, 368 have completed legal adoptions, and half of those have passports and visas ready to go. The only thing needed is the exit paper, a document required to take the children through airport security on their way out of the country.

The story of stalled adoption in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is part of a larger story of declining international adoption globally. International adoption has dropped 69 percent in the last decade, from 22,991 in 2004 to 7,092 in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of State. The decline is not for lack of orphans, or of parents who want to adopt them, but is instead a result of a complex web of international diplomacy and regulations.

“Sadly [Congo] has become yet another country where we have been struggling to work out a process of how we can do adoptions,” says Kathleen Strottman, executive director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Strottman says there is a growing bias against international adoption, fueled on many levels, both by countries that feel they are exporting their greatest resource and by organizations that fixate on a few cases of post-adoption tragedy. But while countries like Nepal, Guatemala, Russia, and, for now, Congo halt their adoption programs, Strottman says the underlying problem is unaddressed: “children languishing in institutional care.”

Chris and Marianne Stroud applied for an adoption decree in March 2013. In July 2013 Alima and Masalay were legally declared their children. “They have our last name. They have been on our health insurance since last July,” says Marianne, explaining how much she considers them hers.

Marianne remembers sitting in a circle with Chris and their three biological children, ages 12 to 16, looking at two grainy pictures printed off their computer. Little dark faces with big eyes, one boy and one girl, looked back at them. She says her family knew three things about the children: They were orphans, they were HIV negative, and the orphanage thought they were 4. That was it. They later found out Alima was found abandoned at a bus stop and Masalay was brought to a medical clinic when both his parents passed away. She says she wondered, “Are these the two little faces who are meant for us?” The Strouds prayed as a family, and decided to move forward. “We all had such a peace about it.”

‘I understand people are desperate. I’m desperate. But you have got to follow the rules.’ —Marianne Stroud

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO (formerly Zaire) is a tropical mass of mountains, lush river basins, plateaus, and grasslands. The 11th-largest country in the world and the second largest in Africa, it is home to the vast Congo rainforest, the winding Congo River system, whose tributaries cover most of the country, and a rich supply of natural resources.

But a tragic history of exploitation and political conflict since liberation stifle economic and social progress. Some estimate over 5 million Congolese have died since 1998 in the Second Congo War, a bloody and ongoing war involving nine African nations and 20 armed rebel militaries. The rebel forces, especially in the east, are known for their use of sexual violence to degrade and conquer enemies. In May, two Congolese men were sentenced to life in prison for their part in the systematic rape of 97 women and 33 girls over two days.

In an environment of instability, high poverty, epidemics of preventable diseases, and rape, UNICEF estimates there are at least 4 million Congolese orphans. 

Michele Jackson, a lawyer and the executive director at MLJ Adoptions Inc., the largest agency doing adoptions in the DRC, was in-country within weeks of the suspension announcement. She says authorities told her the country stopped issuing exit permits because of news reports they saw concerning a Reuters investigation into rehoming in the United States. Rehoming is a process where parents privately transfer the custody of their adopted children to another family, in some cases putting the kids at risk of abuse and mistreatment.

Though the Reuters report covered a rare situation affecting a minority of children who are adopted, it was a situation that alarmed authorities in the DRC. In a country with recent memories of colonial exploitation, there is wide skepticism and suspicion about why foreign families are so eager to adopt Congolese orphans. Marianne Stroud says another family who was in the DRC to adopt their child heard radio advertisements claiming that foreigners adopt Congolese children for slave labor and organ harvesting. 

Jackson says part of the problem is a lack of communication. She says that as she meets with Congolese in the adoption system she finds there is “little to no education about our screening or education about our process.” She is doing what she can as an adoption service provider, but believes that is the U.S. Department of State’s role primarily. She says it is important the United States acts in a way that is encouraging and collaborative. “It is a privilege for us to be able to adopt children from Congo.”

Kelly Dempsey is a private-practice attorney and the Director of Advocacy and Outreach for Both Ends Burning, an adoption advocacy organization. Both Ends Burning launched a petition that has gained over 100,000 signatures, calling on Congress to intervene in the DRC adoption halt.

She says the problem is a “fundamental lack of leadership for international adoption” and “a clear and undeniable bias [in the United States] against adoption in non-Hague countries.” The Hague Convention is an international treaty, entered into force in the United States in 2008, that governs how international adoptions take place. In non-Hague countries like the DRC, she says, the United States has enflamed an already fragile relationship by treating the country with suspicion, including extended investigations to ensure DRC processes are correct and allegations of fraud and corruption. 

“Hague is a good idea. A best practice policy. … But as implemented and as it is currently working, it is not protecting the best interest of children.”

Marianne Stroud is torn. “I applaud them that they want to fix their system. In the meantime, these are my children … they can’t stop the rock rolling down the hill and say, ‘Hold on, we’re going to freeze here.’”

UNTIL THEY ARE ABLE to bring the children home, the Strouds are responsible for Alima and Masalay’s care. They moved Alima from her orphanage to an American Christian missionary boarding school in December. The school is boarding nine other adopted children stuck in the adoption process. The Strouds had their first Skype call with Alima in late May. She had never seen a working computer. Marianne said she had her hands over her eyes, but kept peeping out.

After months of work, the Strouds were able to get Masalay out of his orphanage in early June. It is a sticky situation because the orphanages are desperate for resources. Marianne says, “The perverse incentive is that the orphanage does not want to release him because I pay for him to be there.” In late May the head of the orphanage signed his release paperwork, and he joined Alima at the boarding school. It was the first time Alima and Masalay met.

A few families have tried to go around the DRC’s restrictions, inciting Congolese authorities to clamp down even harder. A Belgian woman was caught trying to smuggle her child out of the country. An American family forged a date on an official letter in an attempt to get out sooner. Marianne says it is frustrating. “I understand people are desperate. I’m desperate. But you have got to follow the rules.”

But the rules are unclear. The State Department’s recent alert announcing the issuing of 62 exit papers also said that most people in the pipeline would have to wait until “a new law reforming intercountry adoption enters into force.” However, a network of adoption agencies, parents, and in-country experts are saying the DRC will soon release more exit permits. Marianne says she is glued to Facebook and blogs, where some of the quickest news and commentary is released. She says anything she is holding onto now is “part rumor, part hope, part a little bit of firsthand knowledge.”

The Strouds joined 55 other families in Washington, D.C. in late June to ask their senators and representatives for engagement in finding a resolution to their stalled adoption cases in Congo. They are still waiting to see if the effort will pay off. They hoped to generate interest in a Department of State and congressional delegation to Congo, and to get support for the Children in Families First Act, a bill currently making its way through congress that would restructure the way the United States handles international adoptions.

Chris, an OB-GYN physician who specializes in treating infertility, says the hardest part for him is feeling utterly helpless. “As the man of the family, I am sort of wired to go kill the bear. That’s my job. I want to go fix the problem.” He says this waiting and longing has made him understand his patients more. “It’s very humbling and very hard.”

Chris gets teary when he thinks about what he’ll say to them when they get home. “I’ll say that you are here. No matter what for the rest of your life you are a part of this family. You are unconditionally accepted. We are broken, we make big mistakes, but you are a part of us. We are glad you are here.”

Until then, Marianne keeps a pile of booster car seats, clothes, and supplies in the middle of their master bedroom. She says it is a daily reminder every morning that their family is not complete: “These car seats are going to rot until we get them home.”

Kiley Crossland

Kiley Crossland

Kiley is a WORLD Digital assistant editor and reports on marriage, family, and sexuality.