The Complexities of International Adoptions

When Sina and I decided to try and adopt Emmanuel, a four year old boy from Ghana, we had no idea the years of paperwork and frustration that lay ahead of us.  In 2008, within a year after we had both left our jobs at the same hotel company, Sina decided to volunteer in Aflao, a small village about 3 hours outside of Ghana.  At the school where Sina was teaching, there was one boy that stood out from the rest.  He was cute, very attentive, and funny.  Since he didn’t have parents in Aflao, Sina inquired at the school about teaching him after school.  “Sure!” they responded, “Go ahead, you can take him.  He can stay with you!”  While this may come as a shock to us here in the United States, this was not at all strange behavior in Ghana.

For the next few months, Sina and Emmanuel were inseparable.  Sina and I weren’t a couple yet but we had been friends for five years and there was always a mutual attraction between us.  For more on that story, click here.  I went to visit Sina in Ghana and met Emmanuel.  Our plan was for Sina to come to the USA after Ghana, and we would then start the process for adopting Emmanuel.

The first step was to get married.  While in the United States it is not a requirement to be a married couple to adopt a child, in Ghana (and in many other countries), it is.  Sina arrived just before the first of the year, and 5 months later we got legally married so that we could start the adoption proceedings.  In case you don’t have time to read our story, I should mention that Sina and I felt like we should have become a couple years ago and so getting married felt completely natural.  We had our wedding in October of that same year and have been married ever since.

Many couples who adopt overseas work with an agency, which is quite typical.  These agencies work with local orphanages and will match a couple seeking to adopt with a child in need of adoption.  The problem is that if you already know the child you want to adopt, none of the agencies will help you, as their objective is to get their children adopted.  We had found a lawyer in Ghana who was recommended by Sina’s volunteer program, and hired him to help us.  Unfortunately, he was very unresponsive and it was very difficult to get reliable information.  We were sending money via Western Union which may sound sketchy, but we just assumed that was the way people did business in Ghana.

Meanwhile, we started the adoption process here in the United States as well, through USCIS, or the Department of Homeland Security.  We figured that the process in Ghana would be extremely difficult, but that here in the US everything would be straight forward and organized.  We were wrong.

After appointments to be fingerprinted and submitting several documents, getting interviewed by a case worker to complete an extensive home study, furnishing everything about our finances, and I don’t even remember what else…  we were finally approved to be adoptive parents by the United States.  This document was needed to proceed with the adoption in Ghana.  The problem is, as soon as you are approved to be adoptive parents by the United States, the clock starts ticking… and you have a set period of time to complete the adoption that you are pursuing.  In Ghana, it is extremely difficult to keep to any timelines.

After submitting the documentation provided by our lawyer in Ghana, we were told that the documentation we provided was not an official adoption order.  This prompted us to do some research on the lawyer that had been recommended to us and we discovered that he worked at a bank, and was not really a ‘lawyer’ at all.  So we had now wasted a lot of time and money.  We were finally put in touch with a real lawyer through a family member, who agreed to take on our case.  The only problem is… our approval to be adoptive parents from the United States had now expired!  Now we had to start all over again.

When Luka, our first daughter was about 6 months old, we took her to Ghana to meet Emmanuel.  We also got to meet the lawyer in person and make sure this time that the process was in good hands.  We had started this process in 2009, and by now it was 2012.  Emmanuel was now 7 years old instead of 4 and this started to cause concerns.  We had no idea this process was going to take this long, and we thought that even if it takes a year, or even two, he would be able to start school at a young enough age where he would not fall behind.  But the schools in Aflao were meager at best.  It is not uncommon for the teachers to take naps during class, or for the kids to have their hands hit with a ruler or piece of bamboo if they are not behaving.  It was basically a mass baby-sitting operation.  But we thought, ok now that we have a real lawyer maybe this is one more year, it’s not so bad.

Meanwhile, we wanted to send money to help Emannuel, but we were advised against this.  Emmanuel did in fact have a father who lived 3 hours away in the main city of Accra, and we thought if we send the father some money every month, then he could at least pay for a decent school so that by the time Emmanuel is with us, he will not be so far behind.  But we were advised against this.  We were told that if we send money to the boy’s father, it could be construed as ‘trafficking’ and we could be accused of buying the child.  “This is unbelievable!” I remember Sina and I exclaiming to each other in frustration with the system.

Finally, our lawyer in Ghana got everything in order.  I flew to Ghana, attended court with the laywer… and I have to tell you this was an unforgettable experience.  They were literally hand writing everything that was said into a book.  When it was our turn, they could not proceed because they could not find the book where our previous case work had been written!  I wish I was, but I’m really not joking.  Keep in mind that I started my own company in 2010, right about the time that we started to pursue this adoption.  By now it was 2012 and it was not easy to just fly to Ghana for a court date!  The cool thing was that I got to spend some time on my own with Emmanuel and we went to the movies, to some swimming pools, and had a great time.  Luckily the judge took note that I had appeared for the court date and did not require me to appear again for the next one which would be more than a month later.

We received all of the documentation from Ghana, submitted it to USCIS here in the United States and waited patiently.  When we got the letter back from USCIS we tore it open.  The letter indicated that there was some missing documentation from our case!  How could this be??  I had spoken directly to the case worker and was sure I had furnished everything they had asked for.  I called again, only our case had now been transferred to someone else… and therein, my friends, lies the problem.  USCIS is another large bureaucratic organization, and just because one person tells you one thing, it does not mean that the same rules will apply when you speak with the next person.

I finally got our new caseworker on the line.  He explained to me that under US law, an adoption cannot be ‘nationalized’ or recognized by the United States if only the father has agreed to the adoption.  I explained that nobody had seen the mother since child birth, but according to our caseworker, we had to prove it.  We had to provide documentation that Emmanuel’s mother could either not be found, or was deceased.  Our lawyer in Ghana explained to us that this would be extremely difficult.  But we begged him to try, and sent extra money to fund an investigation.

After months of waiting, we received the news…  Our lawyer had tracked down Emmanuel’s mother in another village.  He had to bring her to the main city of Accra to be somehow formally documented, as people in the villages have no government issued form of identification.  She signed all of the paperwork we needed and we sent it all into the USCIS.  We were sure that finally, after waiting now for at least 4 or 5 years, all of this heartache, time, and money would be worth it.  We finally got the letter from USCIS, indicating that our request for having our adoption recognized by the US was declined.  The letter went on to indicate that according to US law, since we had now proven that Emmanuel had a living father and a living mother, he was not legally considered to be an orphan and therefore, no longer adoptable.

While were extremely saddened by this news, it was a relief at the same time.  We could finally have some closure on this never-ending hope that would never be fulfilled.  Most importantly, we could start sending money to Emmanuel’s father to pay for school and have Emmanuel live with him in Accra.  We will never know what all of our lives would have been like if Emmanuel could have joined us, but life goes on, and we look forward to seeing him again on our next visit.