Luke Stasi hasn’t seen his family since January. As his wife, Brittney, has been managing five children and a small business alone in South Carolina, Luke has spent the past seven months stuck in Africa with their sixth child, Victor.
It was December 12, 2018, when a Nigerian court finalized the family’s adoption of Victor, declaring the child (then age five) to be their son. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service duly approved the family’s I-600 application, recognizing the adoption. Yet as of this writing, eight months later, the U.S. Consulate in Lagos, Nigeria, has failed to issue a visa so Victor can come home.
As Americans continue to grapple with the separation of families at our southern border, a quieter immigration crisis is separating parents from children—not migrant families this time, but U.S. citizens. The Stasis are one of dozens of adoptive families facing a frightening new trend: an eleventh-hour stall in the international adoption process that leaves them stuck overseas with a child who is legally theirs, but is unable to enter the United States.
‘Just Stick Him in an Orphanage’
Luke and Brittney appear to have been victims of an unannounced policy change at the Lagos consulate in particular, and the U.S. State Department in general. “Of all of the families from our adoption agency who came to Nigeria before us, their cases were approved in four weeks or less,” Luke told me in an interview. “We were seeing families get their visas in a matter of days.”
But when the Christmas holidays forced the Stasi family to wait until 2019 for their visa interview, they found a grim new reality. “Starting in January, the whole thing shut down,” Luke said. “Every family that has applied since we did is still waiting. We know of six other families who are stuck.”
Nigerian law requires American adoptive families to travel to Nigeria for a supervised “bonding period” with their child prior to finalizing the adoption. This means that by the time families apply for a U.S. immigrant visa, they have already spent several weeks living with and caring for their child in Nigeria. With the visa-approval process now dragging on for months to no end in sight, families face an agonizing choice: stay in Africa for an indefinite length of time, or abandon the child with whom they’ve been building a fragile, new bond.
“When my wife went to the consulate in January to ask about our visa interview, the consular official just ripped her head off,” Luke remembers. “‘This could take six months to a year!’ she said.” When Brittney asked how they could ever manage to stay in Africa up to a year, Luke says the staffer told her to go home and leave their son behind. “She actually told my wife: ‘There are orphanages all over the country. Just stick him in one of those.’”
Unwilling to subject Victor to the emotional damage of a second abandonment, the Stasis decided that Luke would stay in Africa, with Brittney and their five other children returning home. Days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, without a single word from U.S. consular officials on the reason for the delay, a progress report, or an expected date of resolution.
“We can’t even get the names of the officials we’re working with,” Luke told me. “Everything is anonymous. There is no accountability at all.”
In addition to crippling financial costs and lost income—“We’ll probably have to sell our house when I get back just to make ends meet”—Luke says the separation is taking a severe emotional toll. “My kids are really suffering. We’ve missed so many birthdays together, Easter, Fourth of July. They’ve given up their dad so their new brother can have one. But it’s hard.”
Other adoptive families haven’t been able to withstand the strain and financial costs. Several have been forced to return to their homes and jobs in the United States, leaving their newly adopted children with paid caregivers—or placing them back into orphanages.
A Cloak of Invisibility
In all the stalled Nigeria cases, the U.S. State Department has invoked a murky investigative process called “administrative processing,” used for traditional visa applications to screen for national security threats, but previously unknown in the world of international adoption. The process is shrouded in secrecy. Last year, a State Department staffer answered one adoption agency’s query as follows: “The sections of the Foreign Affairs Manual that discuss administrative processing are also not available to the public since they are not unclassified.”
“Nobody knows what administrative processing even is,” says Kelly Dempsey, an adoption attorney based in North Carolina. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and it’s not something we ever used to see. It used to be that if the State Department thought something was wrong with a child’s file, they would mark the case as ‘not clearly approvable’ and send it back to USCIS to investigate. Then the burden of proof would be on the petitioner—the family—to answer questions and prove everything was legitimate.”
“Now, families still bear that burden,” Dempsey continues, “but they don’t even know what the issues are, or what problems the State Department is investigating. It’s this cloak of protection and invisibility that the State Department gets to impose upon adoption cases.” She notes that thus far, every family who has made it through administrative processing has been vindicated, with their visa ultimately approved. After parents and children have suffered months of delay, heartache, and financial strain, no fraudulent adoptions have been uncovered.
It’s not just happening in Nigeria. While no comprehensive data on administrative processing exists, interviews with a half-dozen U.S. adoption agencies point to a broad and growing trend. Five of six agencies reported a combined total of 34 adoption cases stuck in administrative processing since 2017. These have occurred in 11 countries, two of which have implemented the Hague Adoption Convention.
Considering that these numbers come from just six of nearly 100 American agencies doing international placements, it’s fair to conclude the actual numbers are significantly higher. The longest cases have seen parents separated from their adopted children for more than two years.
‘They Can Never Give Me Back These Two Years’
Sophie Hartman has the grim distinction of being one of the parents whose suffering has lasted longest, and there’s no end in sight. Ghana finalized Sophie’s adoption of seven-year-old Leya, who has special medical needs, in July 2017.
Like the Stasi family, Hartman promptly received I-600 approval from USCIS, as well as a visa interview. Yet more than two years have gone by with the case languishing in “administrative processing”—no visa issued, and no word on when the ordeal might end. Leya, now nine years old, remains alone in an orphanage in Ghana, half a world away from her mother and two adoptive sisters.
“It’s so confusing to her—she just doesn’t understand why it’s taking so long, or why we can’t get this one piece of paper to bring her home,” Sophie told me in an interview. “I was able to Facetime with her some, but we decided to stop doing that quite so much. It became so painful for her that it was actually harming her as much as it was helping.”
Having lived five years in Africa and adopted two girls from Zambia several years ago, Sophie tells me that dealing with the U.S. government for Leya’s adoption has been a comparative nightmare. “In Zambia, they answered my questions and kept me informed as to what was happening throughout the process,” she said. “But now, they won’t tell me a single thing. Not a word.”
Hartman has records of 14 requests she and her U.S. senator have made to various State Department officials for meetings, assistance, and updates on Leya’s case. None of these requests has yielded a shred of information.
Sophie worries that her daughter is not receiving the nutrition and medical care she could be getting at home—not to mention love, attention, and belonging. In addition, a precious bed at an AIDS orphanage has been filled for two years by a child who has a family, while other children affected by the AIDS epidemic go without care.
“Someone has to be held accountable for this,” Sophie told me. “They can never give me back these two years with my kid. They have stolen that forever. How do you buy back two years of your child’s life that you didn’t even get to be a single part of?”
‘The State Department Is Derelict in Its Duty’
It’s hard not to see the connection between this new rash of heartless family separations and the dramatic recent downturn in international adoption. Both trails lead back to an anti-adoption ideology currently governing the Office of Children’s Issues in the U.S. State Department. The chief of OCI’s Adoption Division, who was appointed to the job in 2014, once called international adoption “a profoundly problematic institution.”
Indeed, the co-opting of “administrative processing” for a new purpose fits the pattern of State Department behavior since 2017. The department has repeatedly invented creative re-interpretations of rules and policies to restrict adoption. (State has been sued twice in federal court for these improper interpretations. It lost one case, and the other is ongoing.)
Proper government oversight of international adoption is an imperative for the welfare of vulnerable children and adoptive families alike. But this lengthy, utterly unaccountable separation of parents and children—citizens of the United States—is both tyrannical and inhumane.
“The State Department is derelict in it is duty to serve American families,” Dempsey says. Will Congress stand by and allow a rogue office in the U.S. State Department to bring about the near-extinction of international adoption?
Just as this story was being finalized, Luke Stasi informed me that at long last, he’s seen movement in Victor’s case. “We’ve been reaching desperate straits,” he wrote, “and we were forced to consider leaving our adopted son here in Africa. As a last-ditch effort we reached out to friends and family and asked them to email the Department of State Office of Children’s Issues and plead that our case be completed.”
Just days after the Stasis’ friends began bombarding the State Department with emails, the unthinkable happened: Luke heard from the consulate to schedule a visa interview. “But it’s not over till it’s over,” he says, noting that the first available appointments are eight weeks away. “I won’t celebrate until I’ve got a visa in hand.”