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February 8, 2011

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Struggle to adopt Nepalese children

LAST summer, Vicki and Jed Taufer excitedly traveled from their home in Illinois, the United States to Nepal to adopt a baby girl. "We'll be back in September," Vicki wrote on August 4 in a new blog named after their daughter-to-be.

That hopeful timetable did not hold.

Only two weeks ago, after six challenging months in Nepal, is Vicki finally due home with 19-month-old Purnima. For most of that time the couple was divided, with Jed back at his job in the US, trying to minimize the huge financial hit resulting from the delay.

The very day of the Taufers' arrival in Katmandu, August 6, the US government suspended adoptions of abandoned children from Nepal due to concerns about unreliable and fabricated documents such as birth certificates. US officials cited a case where a child put up for US adoption was being sought by her Nepalese birth parents.

Pending adoptions by the Taufers and about 80 other US families were put on hold and subjected to lengthy new investigations requiring solid evidence that the children were indeed legitimate orphans. Many felt compelled to hire private investigators to make their case.

Other countries - including Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Italy and Britain - preceded the US in suspending adoptions from Nepal based on similar worries.

Some families gave up but more than 60 persevered. As of mid-January, 13 of them, including the Taufers, had received US visas for their children, but most remained in limbo after months of uncertainty, separations and financial stress.

Many of the families have formed close bonds, sharing skepticism over the US government's action and vowing to see their planned adoptions through to completion.

"The other moms have been my family for the past six months," Vicki Taufer says via Skype from Katmandu. "They are the only ones who understand."

The Taufers first met Purnima Jade, their new daughter, on August 7 at the orphanage she entered as a newborn.

"She spent this afternoon eating my watch," Vicki Taufer wrote in a euphoric entry on her blog, "I am going to have to get her some toys to chew on."

Taufer gave a hug to one of the other babies at the orphanage.

"Nima got jealous and crawled right up onto my lap!" she wrote. "It was the best feeling in the world."

Within days, the couple realized that their timetable had been thwarted by the suspension. They completed the adoption under Nepalese law and moved Purnima into their Katmandu apartment. By early September, Jed Taufer, 36, was back to work in Illinois, not to return to Nepal until a brief Christmas visit.

"The hardest part was not knowing what would happen and when it was going to happen," he says.

He says his employers at a printing lab have been supportive, but the photography business that he and his wife started 10 years ago suffered greatly without Vicki, a 35-year-old professional photographer.

"Right out of pocket, this adoption has cost about US$100,000, when it should have been US$30,000," Jed says. "Add the revenue we lost and the total hit is US$250,000 or US$300,000 - we're pushed to the limit, emotionally and financially."

The family sold one car and a mountain bike to help raise money. Eventually, they overcame potential embarrassment and solicited donations via PayPal on their blog. "Staying here with Nima makes sense only in our hearts, not financially," Vicki wrote. She declined to cite donations but said gifts helped Jed afford his Christmas visit.

One of her toughest moments was late September, when she returned to the US for three weeks to shore up the photo business, feeling guilty leaving Purnima in the care of her visiting American grandparents.

Utterly incomplete

"I feel so utterly and completely incomplete now that she is in Nepal and I am on my way back to the US," she blogged from the airport in New Delhi.

By October 20, she was back in Katmandu, living through many more weeks of ups and downs.

They bonded intensely with other waiting families and coped with hardships unavoidable in one of the world's poorest nations. At one point, Vicki rushed to a clinic to check out an injury to Purnima's arm, only to find that the X-ray machine was knocked out by a power failure.

Vicki worked with a private investigator who pieced together the background to Purnima's abandonment. One benefit was obtaining a photo of her daughter as an eyes-closed, angelic-looking newborn.

On January 12, shortly after Jed Taufer returned to the US, the phone rang in Katmandu - Purnima's visa had been approved.

"I am ecstatic, scared, hesitant, happy, nervous, excited, anxious, joyful," Vicki blogged.

US officials insist the suspension and the rigorous reviews of pending adoptions were justified because of numerous earlier cases in which Nepalese children's birth certificates had been falsified.

Because of unreliable documents and "the general situation of noncooperation with and even active hindrance of investigations," US authorities said they cannot determine if a child is an orphan.

Susan Jacobs, the State Department's special adviser on children's issues, sympathizes with the families but defends the suspension.

"We cannot close our eyes to what we see as significant problems," she says.

The Nepalese government has taken several steps to improve its adoption system, banning adoption of street children, requiring better verification that a child is an orphan, and tightening oversight of organizations dealing with orphans. But there's no way to know when the US and other countries might reauthorize adoptions.

The State Department cited a case in which a US couple discovered the Nepalese "orphan" girl they were to adopt was in fact sought by her birth parents. It turned out she and her brother were placed at the orphanage by their father for temporary safekeeping, not for adoption.

"The whole experience was a nightmare," says Kyla Romanach, a lawyer in Louisiana. "When we knew parents were looking for her, we couldn't bring her back."

To bolster their case, the waiting families circulated a petition to Congress, wrote to President Barack Obama and circulated an expert's letter saying there was no link between rampant trafficking and the orphanage/adoption system. They say US officials overreacted, rather than dealt pragmatically with adoption in a country where poverty and a long-running insurgency fueled widespread child abandonment, impaired record-keeping and hampered official investigations.

Even at the peak of international adoptions from Nepal a few years ago, no more than a few hundred children annually were adopted by foreigners, a drop in the bucket in a nation where, according to UNICEF estimates, nearly 1 million children under 18 are orphans out of a total population of about 29 million.

Some live on the street, but life can be harsh in orphanages, says Sharon Vause, an American mother who settled in Katmandu while waiting for her own adoption to be approved. She described orphanages as chilly concrete buildings which, like much of the capital, had power only half the day during the winter and posed health risks.

"It's a grim situation that no one would ever want for their child," says Vause.


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