A seven-month KVUE Defenders investigation uncovered a broken foreign adoption system potentially putting children living in orphanages in danger, while their adoptive parents fight U.S. government red tape to bring them home.
Numerous central Texas parents in the process of adopting children from different countries say the process takes years and is too expensive.
KVUE's Andy Pierrotti traveled to Haiti in his search for answers.
Click the player below to watch Part 1 of his report. Scroll to the bottom of the page to read his script.
Part 2: Dangers of Delays
Part 3: Potential Changes
Part 4: The Homecomings
Part 5: Still Stuck
KVUE News talked to parents trying to adopt children from numerous foreign countries.
"It's a long time emotionally, because we come here for a week or two weeks, and he’s our kid. Then we have to go home and leave him here. It's very difficult," explains Christy Guenther. She and her husband have been waiting to bring their adoptive son Wilson home from Haiti for nearly three years.
They met Wilson while volunteering in Haiti a few months after a earthquake devastated the country in 2010. When they returned in December, they had an important question for Wilson. "I asked him if it would be ok if I became your papa, and he looked at me and said, 'Yes!'" said Brian, Christy’s husband.
This past July, the San Marcos parents invited KVUE on a trip to meet Wilson and visit the orphanage where he lives.
Wilson’s orphanage is in Port-au-Prince, about a 15 minute car ride from the airport. Roads leading up to the orphanage are filled with trash, homeless camps, and earthquake damage. Our driver asks us not to open the windows. Unemployment in Haiti hovers around 80 percent, and it is the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
When our cameras arrive, Wilson greets our KVUE crew immediately. “Andy! Where’s Andy?!” Wilson shouts. The 10-year-old Haitian boy lives at an orphanage called Maison des Enfants de Dieu with 90 other orphans. While considered one of nicer institutions in the city, it would never pass health inspections in the United States.
"Wilson and the kids here have no hope. They have no family to take care of them,” Christy Guenther contends.
According to U.S. State Department records reviewed by the KVUE Defenders, foreign adoptions have dropped more 50 percent in the past several years from 22,734 in 2008 to 8,668 in 2012.
According to numerous agencies, the average adoption process takes between 2.5 to three years and costs at least $28,000. Expenses include adoption fees, background checks and trips to visit children.
"It shouldn't cost that much," argues Kimberly Stewart. She and her husband said they spent at least $40,000 on adoption fees and trips to visit their six-year-old son Kelly in Haiti before they were able to bring him home in September.
The Austin couple says it took nearly three years for Kelly’s adoption to finalize.
The KVUE Defenders found delays happen in other countries too. Maggie and Chris Rometty filed to adopt their daughter Vania from Guatemala in 2007. They met her as an infant, but it took nearly six years to get Vania home in Austin.
While Guatemala shut down its international adoptions for several years due to fears of child trafficking, Vania’s parents say the U.S. government didn’t make the process any easier.
"We missed the first lost tooth; of course, we missed all the walking. We would go every few months [to visit her], but she still seems like a completely different child. We've missed so much. It's heartbreaking," Maggie Rometty contends.
Every parent places most of the blame on the U.S. State Department.
They say the federal agency requests unnecessary repeated paperwork. For example, the Guenthers have gone through the same background checks several times. That includes numerous from Texas and homeland security. That's not counting the background checks Haiti requires. Each one costs money and takes months to complete.
While parents say they understand the importance of vetting families for children’s safety, they think the agency could streamline the process to make it faster and less expensive.
"The State Department does all of this same background checking Haiti has already done. They build the social history; they research into the family; they do everything that Haiti has already done," Mr. Guenther explains.
Some parents also blame a multi-national adoption treaty called The Hague. It's designed to prevent human trafficking, but parents say the treaty goes too far by forcing adoption agencies to spend years searching for biological parents never to be found.
The KVUE Defenders discovered delays persist even when parents are located.
KVUE tracked down Wilson’s mother, Neva Edward, while in Haiti. She lives in a tent city a few miles away with four other children. Through a translator, she explained she gave up Wilson because she couldn't afford to take care of him. "I live in a rough area. I don't want my kid to be raised there. That's the reason I gave Wilson up to the Guenthers," Edward told KVUE.
She said Wilson’s father died of electrocution in an accident a few years ago.
Wilson’s orphanage director, Pierre Alexis, says parents sometimes cancel adoptions because the process takes too long.
"Sometimes the kids feel hopeless, but we have to comfort that kid. We have to remind them that there will be someone else. God will provide someone else," said Alexis.
Danger of delays
Adoptive parents and experts in child psychology say delays can potentially put children in danger and slow development.
Austin parents Matt and Julie Kouri have three adoptive children under nine-years-old. Their two sons, West and Creed, are from the same country. "So we signed up for Russia, and at the time, it was supposed to be a pretty smooth nine month process, similar to a pregnancy. It didn't quite turn out that way,” explained Mr. Kouri.
A few years later, they met a little girl while volunteering in Ethiopia. The Kouris say all of their children’s adoptions took more than two years to complete.
When they finally did get them home to Austin, they quickly realized their work had just begun. "They didn't understand the concept of a primary caregiver who loves in a nurturin,g kind way -- gave them what they needed," said Julie Kouri. She said it took years for her two sons to trust them.
"There is a lot of depravation that goes on," explains Dr. Jon Bergeron, a child psychologist in College Station who works for the adoption advocate organization Hope for Orphans.
"When a child is picked up and held and touched and talked to, that begins the wiring process in our brain. So, these kids are often left in huge rooms, in crib after crib after crib and fed and kept clean, but that's it. What happens is, their brains don't develop in a normal way," said Dr. Bergeron.
According to a report published in Pediatric Research, one study found children fell behind one month in development for every three months living in an orphanage. "So in a period of three years, you’re basically seven months behind development. That may not sound like a lot, but it can drastically affect a child's ability to function," contends Dr. Bergeron.
The longer they’re institutionalized, the higher risk of physical and sexual abuse. "Sometimes it's the caretakers because these kids are vulnerable. These caretakers have a lot of power and little oversight, and if you have a predator, these kids often get abused," Dr. Bergeron.
The College Station psychologist knows the challengers of foreign adoption, because he's living it. He and his wife have two adoptive children. Both children are deaf. Their oldest, Jian, is from China.
Before the Bergerons adopted Jian, he lived in the same orphanage for 13 years. Jian said as a child, staff would tie him and others to chairs. "It started when I was a baby. I was tied down to the bed as I grew up. It stopped when I was four or five years old."
His stories got worse. "Some of the women did not take care of the babies, did not feed them. Some died. Sometimes I would help them after they died; they wanted me to go put the babies in the freezer," Jian told KVUE.
Jian’s father says those experiences have impacted his son years after the adoption. "He still struggles. There's that immediate aggressive response, rather than ‘Hey, let's work this out and communicate about this,’" Dr. Bergeron explained.
Craig Juntunen is on a mission to fix the international adoption system. After adopting three children from Haiti in 2006, he produced a documentary titled "Stuck." He and his crew filmed in 30 orphanages around the world.
Juntunen contends the U.S State Department can expedite adoptions faster while maintaining safeguards to prevent human trafficking. “What if instead of 33 months, it took nine months? And, what if instead of $28,000, it costs maybe $7,000? How many more children would find their way into a family? While I don't have the exact number, the answer is a lot," he said.
To get his message out, Juntunen traveled the country on a bus earlier this year and stopped to show his documentary in dozens of cities. He finished with a rally in Washington, D.C. in May, hoping to compel members of Congress to act.
"Well, I just think we need to be vigilant and step in where we can," explained U.S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas. The senator helped bring Vania home by writing letters to the U.S. State Department and the Guatemalan government.
While the Texas Republican says he can only deal with problems on a case by case basis at this time, U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana wants major reform.
Landrieu plans to file legislation that would streamline the process. She says the foreign adoption office in the U.S. State Department lacks the skills and ambition to help parents.
The legislation, called CHIFF, stands for Children in Families First. Landrieu’s goal is to place all foreign adoption responsibilities out of one immigration office. According to proposed legislation, “operational responsibilities would be transferred to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Department of Health and Human Services based on their respective strengths”
"We're not lowering any standards. We're not whisking kids out of countries to bring them to the United States without the proper safeguards. But we have had enough of State Department feet dragging, bureaucracy and heartbreak," Landrieu told the Defenders.
Landrieu says when the U.S. government wants to make process adoptions fast, it can.
In China, children cannot be adopted after they turn 14-years-old. When Jian’s parents, Jon and Shelly Bergeron, filed to adopt him, he was only four months away from his 14th birthday.
"When the system works well, it can happen in a matter of months, which it had to for him. I think it has to for all these kids," Dr. Bergeron contends.
“We're just talking about getting this process into the hands and arms of somebody that's just interested in doing it. Right now, it's not the State Department," Landrieu said. Senator Cornyn said he plans to work with Landrieu on her legislation.
Click here for a look at proposed U.S. legislation to change adoption laws.
How to contact Central Texas Lawmakers:
U.S. Texas Senators:
Sen. John Cornyn
221 West Sixth Street
Austin, TX 78701
Office locations: http://www.cornyn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=OfficeLocations
Sen. Ted Cruz
300 E. 8th., Suite #961
Austin, TX 78701
Phone: (512) 916-5834
Office locations: http://www.cruz.senate.gov/contact.cfm
Central Texas U.S. Congressman:
Rep. Lloyd Doggett
300 East 8th St. #763
Austin, TX 78701
Online contact info: http://doggett.house.gov/index.php/contact-lloyd-doggett
Rep. John Carter
One Financial Centre
1717 North IH 35
Round Rock, TX 78664
Online Contact: https://carterforms.house.gov/email-john2
Rep. Michael McCaul
9009 Mountain Ridge Drive
Austin, TX 78759
Online Contact: http://mccaul.house.gov/index.cfm?sectionid=133
Rep. Bill Flores
14205 Burnet Road
Austin, TX 78728
Online Contact: https://billflores.house.gov/contact/