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

Far from home

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

Issue: "China's abortion regime," July 26, 2014

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.

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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.


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