Kyrgyzstan: Foreign Adoptions in Long Limbo

A prospective mother and the child she hopes to adopt walk the grounds of an orphanage in Kyrgyzstan in 2008.

When the news broke about Torry Ann Hansen, the Tennessee woman who pinned a note on her adopted son and sent him alone on a plane back to Russia, Pennsylvania pediatric nurse Ann Bates composed a one-word e-mail from her Moscow hotel room. It said: "Seriously?"

That was the most that Bates, who was in Moscow to meet the 18-month-old boy she was in the process of adopting, could muster. Thanks to Hansen, it looked as though Bates's Russian adoption was going to be suspended. But this was frustratingly familiar territory for her. She and 64 other U.S. families are already mired in an endless-seeming battle in Kyrgyzstan to bring home 65 orphans whose adoptions were nearly finalized almost two years ago but have since been held up by obstacle after obstacle. To wit: two days before the Russian announcement that Hansen had sent her son back, Kyrgyzstan toppled its own government in a bloody revolution.

"I was sitting in the hotel room just bawling the first night, worried about Bishkek and my friends there and the little girl I hope to one day call my daughter," said Bates, who started the adoption process for the Russian boy in 2009, after mounting obstacles left her fearing she would never be allowed to complete the Kyrgyz adoption. She still hopes to bring both special-needs children to the U.S. "The second night, I heard about the Russian thing. I just couldn't believe it." That's when she sent her e-mail to the other waiting parents in the Kyrgyz group.

In the days since Russia announced a temporary freeze on American adoptions, these 65 families have watched the flurry of media coverage and rapid U.S. government action that's followed: the State Department will send a delegation to meet with Russian officials on April 29 and 30 to smooth over the crisis. In response, many of them have echoed Bates's sentiment of "Seriously?" For all the attention being given to people who might have their adoptions frozen, lost in the noise is the struggle of the families adopting from Kyrgyzstan who have already spent almost two years stuck in a dark comedy of errors.

"I am absolutely supportive of [the U.S. State Department] doing those things [in Russia]. I feel for all those people," says Lisa Brotherton, a California woman trying to complete the adoption of a 23-month-old Kyrgyz girl with cerebral palsy with whom she and her husband were matched in June 2008. "But where's the white horse for our kids?"

It was right around June 2008 that Kyrgyz adoptions began falling apart. Up to that point, the number of American adoptions of orphans from Kyrgyzstan had been increasing for four years, with 78 in 2008, compared with just one in 2004, soon after adoption from Kyrgyzstan first became available. (In 2003 a Colorado woman working in a Kyrgyz orphanage petitioned the government to bring a toddler with severe facial deformities to the U.S. for reconstructive surgeries. After the successful surgeries, she worked with the government to formally adopt the child, opening the door for U.S. adoptions.) Ironically, many prospective parents who had been seeking to adopt internationally wound up in Kyrgyzstan because of the comparative ease of requirements and speed of the process.

After they were matched with and visited a child in Kyrgyzstan, many of the families were told that their adoptions would be completed within weeks. Then a quiet freeze took hold of the process. Scheduled court dates in late summer and early fall that were necessary to finalize adoptions were postponed again and again, but waiting parents were told that their cases would likely be resolved soon. "We all really believed that at the beginning of the year, things would turn around," says Suzanne Boutilier, a California advertising copywriter hoping to complete her adoption of a toddler.

Weeks pushed into months until Feb. 2, 2009, when Igor Chudinov, Kyrgyzstan's then–prime minister, called a moratorium on all international adoptions. He cited fraud and abuses of the system by orphanages and adoption-agency liaisons, and said his government would investigate these cases, work with UNICEF to start drafting new laws for such adoptions, and consider joining the Hague Adoption Convention, the international treaty designed to set consistent and transparent country protocols for international adoptions.

That's when the 65 prospective parents whose cases were stuck in the pipeline contacted the U.S. State Department for help. "I applaud them," Boutilier said of the Kyrgyz legislators. "I would never want to find out after the fact that I adopted a child that wasn't legally adoptable. Unfortunately, it's caused an incredible delay." Time is vital for many of the pipeline children who have disabilities and other special needs—everything from severe cleft palates to cerebral palsy—and the adoptive parents want to address these issues medically as soon as possible. They also fear that the kids will develop attachment disorders and other emotional and intellectual issues that commonly result from growing up in an institution. A study out of Boston's Children's Hospital, the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, found that children raised in orphanages had on average significantly lower IQs and higher rates of mental illness than those raised in family-type environments. "In my nightmares it's going to be another few years [before the adoptions are processed]," says Brotherton, "and we're going to get her home and we're going to have to deal with all the stuff that happened from the time we met her as a 3-month-old until then."

Although the State Department did not send a delegation, as with Russia, it did host a small group of Kyrgyz legislators in Washington and introduced them to some of the waiting families last May. In June it sent a U.S. adoption expert to the country to meet with Kyrgyz lawmakers. And then, after a few more months of inactivity, adoptive parents thought they got their big break.

Prime Minister Chudinov was headed to the U.S. for the U.N. General Assembly in September, so the waiting parents lobbied their respective representatives, asking them to press their cause with him when he was in the country. Both Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey met with the prime minister on behalf of the stranded orphans. According to Brownback's office, Chudinov declared that upon his return he would tell the parliamentary committee in charge of adoption legislation to expedite the 65 waiting cases.

Three weeks later, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev dissolved his cabinet, forcing Chudinov to resign. The waiting parents were crestfallen.

Proposed deadlines for the Parliament to present and vote on new adoption laws came and went. This February three waiting parents, including Brotherton and Boutilier, went to Kyrgyzstan with an international-adoption advocate to meet with members of the Kyrgyz Parliament, the ministries of health and education, and UNICEF. They also saw almost all the 65 pipeline children in their orphanages in Bishkek and outlying regions, and were able to take pictures and provide updates to the parents waiting stateside. When they left, the four had little hope that their trip had truly changed things.

To their surprise, a month later, on March 19, the English-language news agency reported that the Kyrgyz Parliament had passed the bill addressing adoption by foreigners. But two weeks later the rumblings of unrest that would eventually foment the overthrow of President Bakiyev and his administration began. As a result, the Kyrgyz Parliament and the entire administration, which had each spent nearly a year and a half working on the issue, were dissolved, and a new government is now being built, piece by piece.

A U.S. State Department official said that "we are working to determine the provisional government's stance on the pending cases, and the status of the bill and the related draft regulations. We will continue to urge the Kyrgyz government to resolve the 65 cases."

But the families don't know where the bill itself lies, whether it will be enacted by the interim government of former opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva, or whether they'll have to wait for what many are saying will be six months until a new government is elected. Or whether anything will happen at all.