KIEV, Ukraine-After 18 months of grueling paperwork, we finally arrived on the other side of the adoption process, climbing the narrow stairwell at Ukraine's State Department of Adoptions (SDA) in Kiev on Jan. 18. We had read the blogs of couples who had gone before us, but nothing prepared us for what was ahead: Inside this office we would be shown multiple files of orphans who were available for adoption-and given no more than an hour to pick a child.
We sat down in a room adorned with photographs of beaming children, and a jovial SDA worker began bringing out a few files at a time. None were individual girls under age 7, as we had requested. Our three "homegrown" kids were 7 and older; my husband and I wanted to keep the birth order and round out the family with one little girl.
As sibling groups of two, then three, then four kids were placed on the table, it became clear that God perhaps had charted a different course. As I mentally began counting the number of seats in our van back home, I was reminded of the wise counsel from a family who had made two adoption trips to Ukraine: "Do not forget that God is in control, and keep your eyes fixed on the big picture when the process is making you crazy." Those were words I would need to cling to.
Choosing a child based on a dated photograph and background information written in a foreign language is difficult. Our adoption facilitator said he has watched CEOs of large corporations panic as they gazed at the files. Others know right away. When Felix and Heidi Rogé riffled through 27 files during their first adoption process two years ago, they immediately knew: "I kept trying to discriminate against them. Kolya looked angry. 'He needs a dad and a mom,' I heard my mind say. Julia was beautiful. 'She will amaze you,' the voice said. Nadia looked hurt and confused. 'She needs your help and guidance,' it said again. I truly believe God was speaking to me," Felix Rogé said.
For us, the process was agonizing until the SDA worker brought out the files of two little girls, ages 3 and 4. The older one had an inquisitive look on her face, and the younger sister was crying and appeared distraught. We were told they have two older siblings in another orphanage, but a phone call to the local social worker confirmed that separation would be possible.
That was all the information we needed. Our facilitator conveyed in Ukrainian our decision to visit these two little girls, and the next day we returned to pick up our official referral paper that we would take with us to the orphanage in Khmelnitsky, a five-hour train ride from Kiev.
That night, just as jetlag began to set in, we made our way to the train station-a massive building adorned with chandeliers. At 5 a.m., our train arrived in Khmelnitsky, a charming city of about 250,000 people. Hours later we arrived at the orphanage, blanketed in fresh snow and nestled at the end of path that had not been shoveled. Peeling green paint and an unpleasant smell greeted us as we entered the Soviet-era building, but the rooms inside were cheery, clean, and warm. A fish tank and two parakeets made it seem more like a preschool, and beautiful draperies lined the windows above 15 little beds, all neatly made.
Ukraine's state-run orphanages house an estimated 100,000 kids-with close to that number also living on the streets or in private facilities. This particular orphanage, one of the nicer ones, houses kids under age 6. Orphans age out of the system when they turn 16 or 17, and a startling number-60 percent to 70 percent according to some estimates-then turn to drugs and prostitution to survive. "You're talking about 16-year-old girls who are going to be on the streets selling their bodies to get a sandwich," said adoption facilitator Konstantin Farkovets.
When two little brown-eyed girls with pigtails peeked around the corner, we immediately wanted to take them home. We were introduced as "visitors," and they began to inch their way toward us when they saw the giant stuffed animals we had brought. They may have been cautious, but we were smitten.
Not every first referral is "successful." Many families travel hours to find that the child has more serious medical conditions than they were led to believe, or they discover previously undisclosed siblings. They can go back to SDA, a process that can add an extra week to a journey already five or more weeks long.
Only about 10 percent of these children are orphaned due to death of one or both parents. Most are social orphans-abandoned or removed from their home because of alcoholism or imprisonment of their parents. Our girls were removed from their home 2½ years ago due to "unfit living conditions."
We soon discovered that the orphanage director was against the adoption for a variety of suspicious reasons, and the social worker in the girls' hometown could not give her consent without a vote from a city board. Both consents were necessary before we could have a court date.
Unpredictable challenges, we learned, are a trademark of many Ukrainian adoptions but also an avenue to see up-close the hand of God. The Rogé's first adoption was a smooth journey. But prior to adopting Kole, Julia, and Nadia in 2008 (now ages 10, 12, and 13), they met Rimma and Zina during a hosting program and thought they too were meant to be their daughters. They were heartbroken when they learned the girls weren't registered, a necessary and potentially difficult requirement.
"We were told, and it was evident, that it would never happen," Felix Rogé said. "A difficult director and a hateful caretaker added insult to injury, but we persevered and will have all our kids under one roof by 2011."
Two years and hundreds of phone calls and emails later, the Rogés returned to Ukraine, finalizing 13-year-old Rimma's adoption. "I knew it would be a long road, but I knew it needed to be done. If I didn't fight for them, who would?" Rogé said. They plan to return for Zina, 14, when she becomes eligible for adoption next year.
Our fight for our daughters was brief in comparison but no less intense. We spent several days meeting with social workers, racing to notary offices, and squeezing in visits with the girls, making many of our journeys on foot. Ukrainians prefer to walk, even in subzero temperatures-a hefty challenge for two warm-blooded people from California.
On Jan. 22, we walked into the most crucial appointment of the week: an emergency committee meeting in the girls' hometown where council members would vote on whether or not to separate the girls from their older siblings. We passed a statue of Lenin as we walked to the old building and into the meeting room where 13 government officials had gathered for the vote, including two older women, an older man with a gold tooth, several disgruntled-looking younger women, and the deputy head administrator of the region, who graciously welcomed us.
Our facilitators translated their questions: Why can't you adopt all four children? What assurances can you give us that you won't grow tired of these kids and send them back? Why do you want to adopt from Ukraine? We did not want to be cruel, but like other adoptive parents, we felt that separation would give the children a greater chance of being adopted. After an hour of brutal questioning, we stepped outside and anxiously awaited the vote.
An hour later, we were called back in. "We had a very difficult time with this decision," the deputy head administrator said. "The vote was very close, but we have decided to grant permission to separate the siblings." We had more hurdles, but our biggest had just been removed.
Three days later, our journey was cut short: Ukraine had just passed a new law requiring all adoptive parents (including those already in the country) to obtain Interpol clearance before booking official court dates. The process could take one week to 40 days, and we decided it would be best to return home and wait for our clearances. We were disappointed about leaving the girls, but we could not add weeks onto an already lengthy journey.
Felix Rogé was one of the few who decided to stay in Ukraine while waiting for clearance. Rogé-a volunteer board member for Ukraine Orphan Outreach, a ministry that sponsors annual cultural exchange camps to the United States for Ukraine's older orphans-made good use of the surprise hiatus by spending time with Rimma and Zina and ministering to the orphans he had developed relationships with over the past few years.
The adventure continues for both of our families. Rogé flew home with Rimma on March 3 after an emotional week full of goodbyes to Zina. She knows they will return for her when she is available for adoption, but the wait will be difficult for all of them.
Our Interpol clearance finally emerged, and on Feb. 26 we rejoiced as a judge pronounced us the parents of Josefin Albina and Ella Zolushka Nelson. After court came a mandatory 10-day wait and more than a week's worth of tracking down birth certificates, passports, medical certificates, and visas.
The end of our journey was in sight, but the real adventure is just beginning.
For thousands of Americans waiting to adopt children from Russia, the beginning of spring brought a deep freeze: Russian authorities announced they were temporarily suspending all adoptions to U.S. families.
The adoption hold came after a Tennessee woman sent back to Moscow the 7-year-old boy she adopted from Russia last year. The boy arrived on a plane in Moscow alone on April 8, bearing a note from his mother: Torry Ann Hansen said her adopted son has severe psychological problems, and she wanted to return him. In response, Russian authorities are demanding a new bilateral agreement on adoption and have suspended U.S. adoptions until the agreement is signed, which could take months.
For Russell Moore, the crisis is "heartbreaking across the board." Moore, dean and vice president at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and author of Adopted for Life, adopted two sons from Russia seven years ago. Since April, Moore has heard from couples all over the United States, agonizing over adoptions put on hold by Russia.
Moore points out that most adoption scenarios go well, but he acknowledges that some families do face problems, especially if children are older: "So that means God is calling up many families who are able and willing to take on the additional risk that comes along with loving those children."
Loving those children through difficulties isn't a private endeavor, he says: "The whole church is to work together in bearing one another's burdens, including in parenting." He points out that many Christian parents privatize their parenting instead of asking for help.
Moore says watching his boys' healthy physical and spiritual development reminds him of their pitiful condition when he first met them in Russia, and of other orphans "languishing in cribs all over Russia. It's really traumatic to even contemplate what the future holds for them."