Saturday, October 18, 2008

Vietnam Adoption Part One: A System Destined to Fail

I adopted my beautiful, precious, enchanting daughter Emma Linh Joelle last October. Adoption should be a beautiful experience and Gotcha Day should be like giving birth, the joyous resolution to months of waiting for your child.

But my Gotcha Day, or Giving and Receiving ceremony as it is called in Vietnam, was not a joyous occasion. It was a day marked with fear and anxiety. It was a day filled with self doubt as to whether I was doing the right thing for my soon to be daughter, myself and my children whom I had left on the other side of the world, and had been home without me for over 4 weeks already.

As I was driving 2 and half hours over bumpy, partially paved roads to get my daughter, my friend and travel mate, Brooke, was on her way to the American Embassy to receive her daughter's NOID-- Notice of Intent to Deny-- her visa was denied.

How could this happen?

Vietnam adoptions prior to 2003 were in the top 10 countries for Americans to adopt from internationally. Prior to the first closing of adoptions many allegations of corruption were made. Vietnam passed a new law and adoptions in the US resumed in 2006. (This is an extremely simplistic overview of the history of VN adoptions.) With the new rules, Vietnam required a MOU, a Memorandum of Agreement, between both countries. The MOU was signed in 2005 and lasted 3 years. The current MOU expires on September 1st. Vietnam chose to not renew the MOU after the US Embassy issued reports about alleged corruption in the adoption system. The US also stated that Vietnam had not held up one part of the agreement-- providing a break down of the adoption fees required of adoptive parents.

Adoption agencies working in Vietnam were required to be licensed in Vietnam. They were also required to provide humanitarian aid. Agencies would work in one or more provinces and form a relationship with an orphanage. The humanitarian aid went to the orphanage. Referrals came from the provincial level, often from the orphanage itself, rather than the DIA, Department of International Adoption, the central adoption agency for the country.

To me this was a total recipe for disaster.

Humanitarian aid came in many forms. From food and clothing to orphans to new cars for orphanage directors. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that if referrals come from orphanages, agencies that provide the best "aid" will get the most referrals. Agencies were competing for referrals. Also, some provinces moved faster than others. Some provinces would move paperwork through in a matter of a month or two while others would take several months. There was no consistency, no gold standard to hold an adoption to.

China is far from perfect but one of its greatest strengths is the relative "fairness" of how referrals are handled. Dossiers come in and are logged in and referred out in order of the date that the dossier came in to the central adoption agency, the CCAA. Children's paperwork is sent to the CCAA and referrals are matched there. The province and orphanage is not involved in the referral process.

I know that allegations of baby trafficking for Vietnamese international adoption have been made but I truly feel that this number is on the low side. That's not to say there isn't corruption in Vietnamese adoptions. I think it is more reflected in the orphanage and provincial level. Humanitarian aid becomes bribes to the orphanage. Provincial officials receive "gifts" to process paperwork faster.

So if it gets babies out of orphanages what's the problem?

The problem, in my opinion, is that in some provinces and orphanages, babies and children become a commodity, a source of revenue. Children that are too sick and aren't expected to live or will be difficult to care for are not given medical care or attention that they need. Sounds reminiscent of China's Dying Rooms, doesn't it? I believe some Vietnamese orphanages still have that mind set.

Last fall, 2007, the US Embassy said that they were seeing inconsistency in paperwork. The usual process for a visa in Vietnam was to have 2 interviews and then receive the visa the day after the second interview. This took a matter of 3-5 days. But last October without warning, the Embassy decided to start field investigating every case. Visas were taking 2 to 3 weeks instead of days. Families were literally stuck in Hanoi. People's lives were abruptly put on hold.

I have no idea what the true motive of the Embassy was. Were they really trying to stop trafficked babies from coming to the US? Were they trying to stop adoptions with false allegations? I really don't know but I do know that their tactics were despicable. I cannot believe that any family would knowingly adopt a child that was trafficked. But the treatment that these families received from their own government was something you would expect to see in an espionage movie, not experience in real life. I only know that if these families really had legally adopted a child that was trafficked they deserved compassion and guidance from their own country not sneers, obviously fake sympathy and thinly veiled glee.

In the end 20 or more NOIDs were issued and many thousands of dollars and many thousands of tears later, at least 19 were overturned and the children came home.

There is plenty of blame to go around with the fall of Vietnamese adoptions to the US. Unfortunately there are two parties that will suffer the most: Hopeful adoptive families who desperately want a child and innocent children who are stuck in orphanages, and neither of them is to blame.

This was originally posted at There's Always Room for One More on August, 22 2008

Vietnam Adoption Part Two: How I got to Vietnam

My Vietnam adoption story, like many other's, started in China.

When we adopted Jenna 4 years ago I was married. I don't mention it often, but I am a widow. My husband died from burn injuries from a single engine plane crash 2 and a half years ago. When the love of your life dies many other things die with them. One thing we had talked about doing was adopting again to give Jenna a sister from China. At first I thought, that dream is dead too. But then I realized not necessarily.

Darrell died in March of 2006 and in December I started to see rumors that China was going to implement new restrictions for adoptions. One that effected me the most was that singles were no longer allowed to adopt if their paperwork was not turned in by May 1. I was lucky enough to get a singles slot with my wonderful China agency, CCAI, and the paper chase began. I must add that along with all of these decisions were many prayers. I learned after Darrell's accident and during his 5 week ICU stay before his death that GOD is in charge and you can't go wrong if you are living in HIS will, not your own. So with all decisions now I pray and pray and pray that He will show me HIS will and not mine.

I was fortunate enough to find a social worker in Nashville who understood my tight time constraints (my dossier had to be turned in and logged into China by May 1st.) Things just clicked along without many problems so I knew that I was doing the right thing. Around the middle of March I Fed-Exed my dossier to my agency and then it hit me. I was in for an incredibly long wait. At that point I knew I would wait at least 3 years for a referral. Jenna was 4 and that meant she would be at least 7 before her new sister arrived. I had hoped to have them closer in age. I posted this on my original October 2003 DTC group and a friend there emailed me about her recent adoptions from Vietnam.

I'll be honest; I was leery of Vietnam. I had heard that unethical things were happening there and like any sane person this scared me. But I talked to Jody on the phone for about an hour and half and she assured me things were good there. She told me that the unethical practices occurred prior to the last shut down. Things were better now. She told me that her agency was extremely ethical and it was very small. This meant there was a shorter wait time. I explained the reasoning behind this in Part One.

So after more prayers and great fears I signed a contract with my new Vietnam agency, before my dossier was even logged into China. The question was then, what do I do? Switch my paperwork with Immigration from China to Vietnam or start the Immigration paperwork all over again? I just felt that God wanted me to leave my paperwork in China. At that point I still wasn't sure if I would follow through on the China adoption but it was only going to cost me the $545 to reapply for a new I-600A and $70 for fingerprinting. I knew if I pulled my China paperwork I couldn't resubmit it but I could leave it and then decide not to adopt later. The paperwork stayed.

The Vietnam dossier was easier than the Chinese dossier but I had wait to be re fingerprinted and get the new approval from Immigration. In the meantime, my dossier was logged into China on April 5 (LID 4/5/07) so I beat the May 1st deadline by a little less than a month.

By now everyone knew I was adopting from China and the response was better than I had anticipated. I expected great resistance since I hadn't even been widowed a year yet and I had 4 other children. But everyone knows how much I love being a mom and although no one voiced this, I think that they thought it would be a good thing for me to focus on. But how would they react to TWO adoptions? And I wasn't even sure if there would be two adoptions. So not wanting to lie but not wanting have to explain the situation I told people "The wait for China is so long that I have decided to adopt from Vietnam." No one questioned this and it was accepted.

In May my agency had a group of families in Vietnam in the province of Phu Tho. The families had gone without a firm G&R date (G&R: Giving and Receiving Ceremony. This is the official adoption) and now seemed to be stuck there because they would get a day and time and then an hour or two before it would be cancelled. This was also happening with other agencies there. Rumors on the internet were swirling around that the province was being investigated. No one knew what was going on. Somehow some of the families got their babies before their G&R due to medical needs. Then one preadoptive parent of twins suddenly announced that his adoption was unethical. He returned the babies and left Vietnam. The chaos grew. Within a few days the families had their G&R's and were home after the first of June.

But what happened with prospective parent of twins? Although he claimed unethical behavior, there was nothing to back his claim in fact no specifics at all. I just wanted some facts, some accusations, something to know whether this was just a crazy lunatic who was tired of waiting of his G&R so he threw in the towel citing unethical behavior just so he wouldn't look bad or was there really unethical behavior? When I asked or suggested on some email list groups that we needed more information before we assumed something was going on I was told to mind my own business and even worse, called every name in the book. The Vietnam adoption world is not for the faint of heart.

From my agency email list I knew who my likely travel partners would be and we were in close contact about what was going on. I seriously considered switching agencies because my dossier hadn't been sent to my agency yet but after many discussions the three of us decided there was no proof of trouble. In fact, the other traveling families claimed to not know what the prospective parent was talking about. They said they saw nothing troubling. My dossier was almost done and once it was sent I would be second in line for a referral with my agency, although I was ready to get in line somewhere else if there was really a problem.

I decided to stay the course.

My dossier was logged in the first week of June. My friend Mindy was before mine and my friend Brooke was right after me. We were told that we would most likely be a travel group. We just had to wait for referrals. The first week of July we were told that there were a group of babies that would be available for referral but not until they turned 2 months old which was towards the end of July. No more information could be given.

We were finally told toward the end of August that we had referrals. I was given the referral of a very petite baby that appeared to be severely anemic. We were told to expect travel the end of September.

My baby was born June 19, 2007. We planned to name her Ella Joy. Ella for Darrell and Joy because she was bringing joy back into our lives. We actually came up with the name early in our adoption process. However her blood tests were concerning. She was very tiny and very anemic. The question the international adoption doctor asked was she anemic because she was malnourished or was she anemic due to something else. Her blood tests were done when she was only one and half months old so it was hard to know. I was told that she might have some developmental issues due to her malnourishment and her anemia that could follow her for life. I will never forget leaving the pediatrician's office and going to Burlington Coat Factory and calling Mindy, a midwife with NICU experience, and discussing my options sitting in a rocking chair next to the baby department. But there were no options really. I knew she was mine so the only option was to continue on. And trust in God. I knew it was His plan and I just had to trust in Him. I admit that I was scared to death but I followed Him.

By mid September not only were we waiting on our travel plans but I was also waiting for updates on Ella Joy. She was getting weaker and weaker. She was too weak to take her bottles and she spent most of her time sleeping. I had another consult with the international adoption doctor who said it could be malnourishment or it could thalassemia. He needed more blood work. Soon after that my agency called me and told me that they thought I should refuse my referral because my baby was too sick. I asked how I could even do such a thing? I had already signed my paper for the DIA stating that I accepted her for my referral. They didn't know the exact details but would find out what to do. I told them not to bother. Just get me there as soon as possible so that I could take care of her. I told them to arrange for her to go to the hospital and I would pay for it if necessary. We left the conversation on that Wednesday afternoon with the woman from my agency calling the facilitator in Hanoi to arrange to have Ella taken to the hospital.

I had the email address for our facilitator in Hanoi, we had emailed previously about Ella's condition. On Thursday I emailed her and asked if the baby had been taken to the hospital. She wrote back that the orphanage director had had meetings and no one had time to take the baby the 2 1/1 hour drive to Hanoi. They would take her the next day.

I emailed again on Friday. No reply.

Saturday morning I got a call from my agency. She told me that Ella's birth mother had heard she was doing poorly and that she came back to claim the baby. My Ella was gone. But in the next breath she told me that she had a new referral for me. A baby born on July 10 and she was emailing me her photo right then along with her medical report.

We were devastated. Our baby who we had been praying for for over a month, the baby whose pictures were plastered all over. OUR baby was gone. And I knew she hadn't gone with a birth mother. I knew in my heart she was dead.

But in the depth of our tears, mourning for a child that was never really ours, was born a new child -- a child we felt nothing for. I felt so badly for that fat faced baby looking off into space in her photo. She deserved to be celebrated not be a substitute that her siblings weren't even interested in looking at. But this new baby was our baby, not our Ella Joy. What would we name her?

Ella Joy was out of the question for all the children. The other baby was Ella Joy and always would be. I said perhaps the name Ella Joy would have been too large a burden for a child to live up to. Perhaps it was best that Ella Joy was with her name sake in heaven. A baby for Darrell and a baby for us.

But when would I get our new baby? I was encouraged to wait until November to travel with another group or I was given the option of traveling with my original group and staying an extra week or two. I was also told that if I went in September I might have to go back with the other group in November. My travel mates were devastated to learn that I might not travel with them. But that couldn't be a reason to go. No, I felt that God was telling me to go. I called my dear friend Tammi and she said she had a message she felt she was supposed to give me. This woman is one of the most Godly women I have ever met and when she told me she thought even though it was crazy for me to go, she too felt that I was supposed to go.

A week later I boarded a plane with my 4 year old daughter Jenna and my friend Brooke for a flight from JFK to Bangkok, Thailand and then onto Hanoi.

My world would never be the same.
This was originally posted at There's Always Room for One More on August, 23 2008

Vietnam Adoption Part Three: On the Edge of the Abyss

About halfway into my 17 hour flight to Bangkok I started to feel a bit panicky. What was I doing??? I was dragging my 4 year old daughter to the other side of the world and I had no idea when I would get my baby. But I felt a sense of peace come over me that I was doing what God wanted.

We arrived in Hanoi on Saturday night on September 22. On Sunday we got to visit babies. I was excited but not feeling for this baby what I had felt for Ella. In fact, this new baby didn't even have an American name yet. I had no idea what to name her. Our babies were in Phu Tho in the Viet Tri orphanage. Technically, mine was not. She was in a smaller orphanage that the larger orphanage sent babies when they had too many. I got to see my baby first.

Walking up to the rural orphanage felt very surreal. There was a garden in the back and chickens running around. We walked up to the entrance and the orphanage director of the large orphanage was there. We were introduced and I shook her hand and thanked her for letting see my baby. We then went in and after my facilitator told the nannies who I was there to see I was presented with a tiny baby.

The orphanage where Emma was staying when I first met her in September.

She was beautiful and she was very alert. She gazed into my eyes and pretty much held my gaze for the next 45 minutes. After my loss of Ella I needed to hold this baby to feel that she was real. She was mine. The way she looked at me was incredible. This baby was only 2 1/2 months old but she continued to look at me. Occasionally she would look away and then it was back to me. I felt an instant connection to her.

Jenna and I holding our new baby.

We soon left and went to the large orphanage to see Brooke* and Mindy's babies. (* Brooke's name has been changed to respect her privacy.) Since I was baby-less there I was assigned the role of photographer. We got to see several baby rooms and then it was up to the room where their babies were. While my baby's orphanage was very small and only had 7 babies, the larger orphanage had several large rooms. Brooke and Mindy's babies were in a large room with 3 nannies and about 15 babies. There were babies on bamboo mat beds and babies laying on bamboo mats on the ceramic tile floor. They got to hold their babies for about an hour and then we went back to Hanoi.

Photo taken at the Viet Tri large orphanage from inside the courtyard.

Two days later we were on our way back. Brooke and Mindy were having their G&R. But I received a tremendous gift. While they were having their G&R's I was allowed to see my baby, alone without our facilitator. I was a bit intimidated to be there alone with Jenna when I knew that no one would understand us but I wanted to see my baby. We were there for a long time, about 2 1/2 hours. It was quite an experience, all good, but the time I spent with my baby told me that she was mine. She had firmly wormed her way into my heart. And she now had a name-- Emma.

Little Jenna used my large camera and took pictures since my arms were pleasantly full. Note: it was raining and in the low 80's but Emma was in an outfit, sweater, wrapped in 2 towels and had a knit hat on.

I believe that this was all in God's plan. I needed to feel that strong attachment to her to get through the weeks ahead.

I'll tell you now, I was away from home 7 weeks exactly, in Hanoi 6 weeks and 5 days. There are many stories to tell but there just isn't room for here. Maybe some day I will write a book about my experience and the experience of the families I would meet. God was really working in my life and in my heart through it all but I feel that most of this post isn't necessarily about my story but also the story of those around me.

Brooke and Mindy got their first visa interviews a week after their G&R's. In Vietnam you have 2 visa interviews. You give them the baby's paperwork on the first interview and answer a few questions and then you have a second interview where you swear what you said was true and promise to vaccinate your child. The day after your second interview you receive your baby's visa.

When they came back from the interviews Brooke was a bit upset over how her interview went. She was interviewed by a woman (I know her name but will not use it) who interrogated her. What color was the orphanage? Yellow? Are you sure? How many babies were there? Really? Brooke felt like she had been grilled by a police detective who thought she had committed a crime. But when Brooke asked if there would be a problem she was told "no, everything should be fine."

Little did we know.

The second interview usually came a few days after the first, and Brooke was even told to expect the call in 2 days but soon a week had gone by and there was no word. We started seeing other adoptive families around and everyone was saying the same thing. Everyone was waiting for second interviews. There seemed to be a lot of families there and we knew that Vietnam adoptions had greatly increased so everyone presumed they were just backed up with so many families.

In the meantime, I was still baby-less. I could get no answers as to when I would have a G&R but when I asked if I should go home I was told no, it would happen soon. But I also realized that I didn't even have an "official" referral. I had not signed a document for the new baby. Finally, about 2 weeks after arriving in Vietnam, I signed my official document accepting Baby Linh as mine. We hoped for G&R the next week.

On the morning of Monday, October 15 Brooke received word that her great grandfather had died. The same day Mindy was told to come in for her second interview. Brooke decided to go to the Embassy to see if she could have hers also so that she could make it home in time to attend the funeral.

When Brooke arrived at the Embassy she told the receptionist her problem and was allowed to speak to the original officer who conducted her first interview. The officer told Brooke that her case was being reviewed and that there was a problem. When asked what the problem was, she was told they could not share that information with her. They did tell her that her paperwork was being sent to Ho Chi Minh City for her case to be reviewed. She was told there was a strong likelihood of a NOID, Notice of Intent to Deny.

While we waited for more information we researched previous NOIDs. We found out that they were very rare and only given in extreme circumstances.

The next day Brooke was told to come for an appointment at the Embassy with a different officer. We were very worried about the outcome of the meeting so I accompanied Brooke, her baby and our facilitator to the Embassy. When she was called back she took her baby with her, as required. I told her to ask if I could come for support. This was not allowed. Soon Brooke was back and handed us her baby and told us "Its bad. Its bad." She then went back into the room.

While we waited we noticed other families in the waiting room and we soon realized they were facing the same situation.

Brooke was told that her baby's story was completely fabricated. She asked for specific details as to what the issue was and was denied. He told her that she should, that very afternoon, take the baby back to the province and have a reverse G&R. He highly suggested this action stating that she could "fight Vietnamese corruption." Keep in mind that he was not presenting her with a NOID. No decision had been reached yet. But he told her she could wait for the NOID and fight it but that there was no point to it; there was no way she would win. Before she left the meeting she asked for a case number or documentation and was denied. She had no idea what the problem even was. Brooke noticed that the officer did not seem very genuine in his empathy.

We soon realized that what the officer told Brooke was untrue. For one thing, she did not have a NOID yet. This still hadn't come from Immigration in Ho Chi Minh City so she did have a chance at bringing her baby home. First she and our facilitator had to prove that the DOS (Department of State) was wrong. The next day they drove to Phu Tho to find the woman who found Brooke's baby, a nurse in a clinic. The woman was afraid to talk to them but finally she did. She told them that 2 women had arrived-- one Caucasian and the other Vietnamese. The Vietnamese woman spoke a dialect that she found very difficult to understand. They did not introduce themselves nor tell her what they were there for, in fact she found the Caucasian woman very intimidating. They only asked 2 questions. The first was how many "lost" babies had been there. The second was when did the lost babies get there. She was unsure how to answer the questions because no babies had been lost there but there had been babies abandoned there. There were no questions about the night she found the baby nor anything specifically about Brooke's baby. The women tried to get the nurse to sign a document that they had hand written. The nurse refused. She said the Causcasian woman was very angry about this and they left. Recommendation for denial to Immigration for that? The next day our facilitator got the nurse's statement about how she found Brooke's baby (which restated her original statement) and the DOS interview hand written and signed. She also took a photo of the clinic's log book of the entry when the baby was found.

In the meantime, my own G&R was put on hold. The DIA (the Vietnamese Department of International Adoption) was not sure having my G&R was a good idea in light of the current problems. It turned out that Brooke's case was not the only one. We had already learned that there were other families that were also being recommended for denial. We quickly got together with some of the other families and heard similar stories. Claims by the DOS, but when investigated by their facilitator's explanations were found or the case was found to be blatantly untrue. They were also encouraged to return their children before they even received their official NOID. We all determined that we needed to contact our senators and representatives to get outside help. {A very interesting note is that a couple of the families who were warned of receiving a NOID and told to return their child to the province actually received a visa and not a NOID.}

Getting outside help turned out to be easier said than done. No one believed that the DOS would do this. No one wanted to get involved. I wrote an email to my Tennessee senators briefly stating what was occurring but also expressing concern that I would get unfair treatment by the DOS if they found out I was complaining. I asked for outside supervision into their field investigation. This, of course, was denied. Later I realized what I was asking was almost impossible. Who had the authority to monitor the Department of State/Homeland Security?

Brooke had the evidence in hand that the DOS investigation was bogus. But what to do with it? It was determined that she and our facilitator would fly to Ho Chi Minh City and present this information to the Immigration officer there before she made her decision. Brooke tried multiple times to make an appointment but could not get through because the phone lines were down. On Friday October 19, three days after her second interview, they decided to fly to Ho Chi Minh City anyway. They arrived at the Immigration Office and waited to speak to an officer.

The officer saw Brooke in the waiting room after she had finished her meeting with another family. When she saw Brooke, without even being introduced, she started screaming for her to leave. She shouted that she didn't know why she was there and that she would not see her. This was done in a waiting room full of families. Everyone's attention was on both of them and Brooke simply said "OK" and left.

Brooke hadn't flown all that way to just give up. She decided to go to the American consulate to seek help.

When you see movies of Americans seeking refuge in their consulate or Embassy you think that that it would be a safe haven. You would be wrong. Brooke showed up at the US consulate and men with machine guns told her to leave. She showed them her American passport and said she needed help. They refused to let her in.

She was getting desperate by now. She decided to go back to Immigration and try again. She sat quietly in the waiting room. The officer saw Brooke come in through the glass window in her office and stopped the meeting she was in to come out and start yelling again. Brooke told her that she only wanted her to see the new evidence. The officer told her absolutely not. Brooke then left.

Brooke is an American citizen who LEGALLY adopted a child. This child was her responsibility. Even if the US government had an actual, legitimate case to issue a NOID Brooke deserved respect, compassion and guidance. She did NOT deserve intimidation and humiliation. No one deserves this type of behavior and I will go a leap forward and suggest that this type of behavior is unprofessional. But I would also like to know WHY they refused to see her information. I personally know a family who was threatened with a NOID in March, 2007 and was given time to get information to clarify their case, before a NOID was issued. Why the sudden change on procedure?

While Brooke was trying to get Immigration to listen to her, I got word that my G&R was scheduled for Monday afternoon. I was terrified. The rational part of me told myself to get on the first flight out of there. I had other children at home. I had a 10 year old daughter writing me pathetic emails begging me to come home. My high schooler was literally starting to get ill with worry. What was I doing?

As with everything else I did to get to this point, I prayed and asked for others to pray. Ultimately, I felt very strongly that God was telling me to stay and adopt this baby.

Monday morning Brooke got word that her decision had come in. Her appointment was at 2:30. My G&R was at 3:00. Both of our lives would be forever altered at almost the same time. It was surreal.

When we drove to Brooke and Mindy's G&R we were a happy, excited bunch. My preparation and journey was solemn. Mindy had left the week before. Brooke could hardly hold her baby with the fear of losing her. I had no idea what was going to happen after my G&R.

The ride to Emma's orphanage was long and bumpy. At moments I began to worry but I was amazed at the lack of panic overall. I could almost feel Darrell with me telling me it would be OK, to go get our baby. Thankfully, 4 year old Jenna was oblivious to it all. She was FINALLY getting her baby sister.

When we were in route to the orphanage we found out that Emma was no longer at the small orphanage, she had been moved to the larger orphanage. When we arrived I had a very short time to give the nannies their gifts (small purses with candy and a $5 bill inside) and to get Emma changed into her new outfit. In retrospect, I wish I had just left her in her orphanage outfit. She had just woke up and was hungry so I fed her a bottle under the watchful eyes of the nannies. Of course, I didn't feed her correctly in their eyes. There was no time to change-- into the van we went.

It turned out that the orphanage director was riding with us to the provincial office. She had to be part of the ceremony. I started to change Emma in the van and realized that she had grown. Of course she had grown! I hadn't seen her for a month. So under the watchful eye of the orphanage director I was trying to dress my soon to be but not yet mine daughter in an outfit that was too small. I knew the power this woman had. And her reputation. I also realized that this was the woman who allowed my Ella to die because they were "too busy" to take her to the hospital. I was terrified I would make her think I was incompetent and deny my adoption. But somehow I got her dressed, in a different outfit, during the 3 block drive to the provincial office. No one had mentioned how close it was.

My G&R was combined with 2 other families who were from France. The G&R was translated into French. I took 3 years of French in high school but I didn't remember ever going over any adoption terminology in any of those 3 years so I told them I didn't understand enough to have mine in French. My facilitator translated in English for me.

When I heard the term Giving and Receiving Ceremony I thought of something beautiful and meaningful. Our G&R was more like a business meeting. But soon I had signed the appropriate places and Nguyen Thuy Linh was now Emma Linh Joelle.

Jenna took this picture of Emma and I outside the main Viet Tri orphanage after our G&R. There was no photo in front of the wall in the province office that most families get. We were in and out.


This was originally posted at There's Always Room for One More on August 24, 2008

Vietnam Adoption Part Four:On a Wing and Prayer

We learned that Brooke had officially received her NOID as we drove back to Hanoi. It was a quiet drive in the dark with a baby that was quickly realizing that she was not in her normal environment.

We got back to our hotel and found Brooke in a daze. No one could believe this was actually happening. But she had been in contact with an immigration attorney the week prior to the official NOID and she knew that she now had to go home and start her fight. This meant leaving her baby in foster care. Brooke is a single parent and is a co-owner in a business that needed her there to help run it. Financially neither she nor her company could afford for her to stay there indefinitely.

The night Brooke and Mindy adopted their baby's we had a celebratory dinner at a restaurant in Phu Tho province. The night of my G&R we ordered room service. Brooke and I were sharing a 2 bedroom apartment in the Somerset Grand Hotel so I was fully aware of what was going on. Emma was upset with her new surroundings but seemed to take comfort in my arms. I slept with her draped across my body most of the night. Whenever I put her down she would begin to panic.

On Tuesday, the day after my G&R and Brooke's NOID, Brooke was making plans to go home. It was decided that she would leave the next day. Our facilitator and her family would foster the baby in Brooke's absence. Brooke sent her baby with our facilitator that very afternoon. She could no longer bear to be with her. The pain was too deep, too intense. She had to make the break before her heart broke even more, if that was even possible. My heart ached for my friend yet there was nothing I could do and in fact I worried I caused her even more pain. Being in the same apartment was incredibly difficult. I had Emma and I knew that seeing Emma had to remind Brooke of her baby. But Brooke spent most of her time in her bedroom, on the computer and on the phone trying to figure out what to do next.

Emma cried a good part of Tuesday off and on and had massive spitting up and gas. I realized that I was giving her the formula the orphanage had given her full strength and could have kicked myself. The orphanages are notorious for diluting the formula and I had caused Emma's digestive tract great distress. I cut the formula to half strength and the next morning she seemed better.

But the next morning Brooke was packing and getting ready to go. I knew she needed to go and clear this mess up but I hated to see her leave. We had been together for almost 5 weeks now and had been through so much, both good and bad. I had no idea what the future held for Emma and I and I couldn't imagine going through it alone. But I never voiced my fears. Brooke needed me to be strong for her and I tried to keep Emma away from her as much as possible.

Late that afternoon our facilitator came to take her to the airport. We hugged goodbye and I couldn't believe that she was leaving. Without her baby. How could this happen? But soon she was gone and we were alone, Jenna, Emma and I. And I never felt so alone in my life.

I had found out that my first interview was the next week on Monday October 29 , a week after G&R so all I could do was wait. My facilitator was busy trying to find out what was going on and was trying to gather paperwork for the travel group behind me so we were alone most of the time. Luckily, the Somerset Grand, where we were staying, had many retail areas on the first floor. There was small grocery store, a cafe, a coffee shop and overly priced retail shops. It also had an outdoor pool, an outdoor playground and an indoor playground. The indoor playground was actually on our floor just a couple of doors away. Jenna liked to go there and it was a change of scenery for us. We even met a family that was being investigated and later received a NOID.

It was an interesting experience being there and meeting other families. A lot of adoptive families stayed there and often if a family found out you were being investigated they would avoid you like the plague, as though your investigation could contaminate them. For some, I think it just frightened them. Others found out and acted as though we wore a scarlet "K" as though you had just kidnapped a baby off the street. This, of course, all occurred while Brooke was there. Once Brooke left, I told very little about who I was, where Emma was from or how long we had been there. I admit that I had become quite paranoid. I was hearing all kinds of rumors and I had no idea what to believe or not believe.

Ultimately we escaped it all by venturing out as little as possible. Other than trips to the grocery store every couple of days, a once in a while trip to the coffee shop and occasional playroom trips, we pretty much holed up in our apartment. There were a few days we never left at all. We usually ordered room service at least once during the day and I cooked the other meals-- we were fortunate enough to have a stocked kitchen that also housed a washer/dryer. Jenna soon learned the lineup on Cartoon Network Asia during the day and I found some new favorite TV shows on StarWorld, an Asian network that showed western, mostly American, television shows. The television, my computer and the children were my entertainment.

Brooke left on Wednesday and my first interview was on the next Monday and I was worried. All weekend I went over every question they could possibly ask and practiced how I would answer for fear that if I hesitated or gave them reason to doubt me they would issue Emma a NOID. When I got Emma's translated paperwork I was terrified. Brooke's baby was left at a medical clinic and found by a nurse. My sweet little Emma was left by a drainage ditch and found at 4:30 in the morning by a security guard. While I did not doubt the story of Emma's abandonment, I worried that the Embassy would find it implausible. Which sounded more credible? A baby left in a clinic or by a drainage ditch? I thought we were doomed.

But I had other worries that weekend. On Saturday October 27 Emma began to run a fever and have a runny nose and a cough. When I received Emma, I noticed she has small holes on her hand, arm and ankle. They looked like needle marks. When I inquired what they might be, after some checking my facilitator told me that Emma had been hospitalized the week before and they were from that. WHAT???? I had no answers as to WHY she had been hospitalized but she did have a small cough when I got her. Now she was sick and running a fever and I wasted no time taking her to the western clinic.

The doctor told me that she had a virus but was very concerned over her weight. She was 3 1/2 months and weighed 9 pounds. She told me to feed her every 3 hours and get her formula to full strength as quickly as possible.

Monday arrived and my interview was in the afternoon. Up until about 2 hours beofre the interview I was working myself up into quite a state of anxiety but finally I prayed one more time and let it all go. I knew I had done all that I could do and it was completely up to God. The last hour I was amazingly calm and at peace.

The interview went better than I could hope for. We arrived at the Embassy and there were only a few families there. I was taken into a small room almost immediately where I talked to an officer behind a glass window. He asked me a couple of benign questions and said we were done. He said I would hear in a week and if I didn't then I could call and inquire about my status. I left the room amazed. How could it go that easy? I felt elated and then began to worry. What if they had already made up their mind so why bother investigating Emma's case?

Two days later we went to get Emma's visas photos taken. That morning when she woke up I noticed she was breathing heavily at times although her fever was gone and she did not seem in any distress. I was worried though because I had seen this before-- when my friend's baby had RSV she had breathed like that. I wanted to take her to the clinic.

We got the photos, which proved to be difficult because Emma couldn't even hold her head up let alone sit up. After multiple tries we got a photo.

A photo of Emma's visa photo. She looks so fat because there are about 4 hands inside her shirt holding her up!

The Western clinic was a block away from the photography studio and I told my facilitator that I wanted to take Emma to the clinic. She must have thought that I was a completely over reactive mother because Emma seemed just fine. She asked me if I wanted to wait until the next day when we already had an appointment for her visa physical but I insisted on going anyway. Emma was diagnosed with bronchiolitis and sent home (to the hotel) with an antibiotic. Little did I know what this meant.

This day happened to be Halloween. I was hoping that the hotel would have some type of festivities since it was full of Americans but it didn't. Instead poor Jenna had to settle for wearing her Halloween shirt that I had brought from home.

Jenna holding Emma on Halloween both wearing their shirts. Emma is not enjoying Halloween.

The next day we went back for the visa physical and the nurse seemed to have a hard time getting a pulse/ox reading on her. She said it was because her fingers and toes were so small but I noticed that it would be in the high 80's and they would press hard on her fingers/toes and then she would cry and it would go up to the 90's. When the doctor examined her, a very sweet French doctor, he was somewhat concerned after listening to her lungs and watching her breath. He sent us home with a nebulizer that I was to use twice a day. I was to bring her back on Monday, sooner if she got worse.

Emma showed us that she had a temper early. She did NOT like her breathing treatments.

We made it through the weekend without additional medical issues but I was facing other realities. On Monday I was hoping to know our fate. I knew that I had to have a plan in mind in case I had to leave Emma in Vietnam. I seriously considered staying with her if necessary but if nothing else, I had to go home and get my kids and bring them back. But was it fair to drag my children to Vietnam for 2 years?

You might read this and think "well if they found a problem wouldn't you want the baby to go to her birth parents?" I can assure you that I would. But the issue at hand was that in my eyes the Embassy had damaged their credibility. Even if they had a real case I wouldn't have believed them. I would have had her case investigated on my own first. And sending her back to the orphanage was NOT an option.

The travel group that was to come after me was indefinitely stalled. Worse, 2 of the babies were quite ill. One had been hospitalized but the effects of her illness had greatly affected her development. I heard that both babies were expected to die. Ella had already died there. I would live in Vietnam the rest of my life before I sent my precious baby back to that place.

When I got Emma I knew that a NOID was a very strong likelihood and I told myself not to get too attached. That was the most foolish thing to ask of myself. There was a hole in my heart that this baby filled. She was a perfect fit. She could never replace Darrell, an impossible task, but she proved that I could love again.

So on the morning of Monday, November 5 I held the Embassy business card in shaking hands for several moments before I could actually dial the number. My heart was in my throat when I told the woman who answered that I was checking on the status of our case. When I told her who I was she was aware of my case. My stomach dropped. That definitely couldn't be good.

"You've been approved." she said, "but we have so many families it might take a couple of days before you can come in for your second interview."

I literally could not believe what I was hearing so I asked her: "You're sure that I'm approved?"


I thanked her profusely and hung up in both disbelief and great excitement. We were going home!

But Emma was still sick and we had a doctor's appointment at the clinic that afternoon. The French doctor was quite concerned about her lungs. He did an xray but found no pneumonia. He wanted to try a European technique to get the mucus from her lungs. I was willing to try anything to make her better, especially when he told me that they used this type of treatment all the time in France. It involved a physical therapist and a lot of pounding and squeezing on her neck and chest. The French doctor was very worried about my reaction to this and even walked in halfway through the treatment to check on ME. I had tears in my eyes and had to look away at times but I wanted her better.

With all the free time on my hands I had goggled "bronchiolitis" multiple time and always came up with the the same thing: RSV. I was somewhat placated by the data that said it was usually a bad cold. But a small number of cases were quite serious and now a doctor was worried about her. I just wanted to get her home.

I had my second interview on Tuesday which meant we received the visa on Wednesday. We could leave Wednesday night. It was almost too good to be true. We were really going home. I went to the Embassy for the interview which was completely uneventful. But in the waiting room there was a group of families. I introduced myself and asked how their investigations were going. Not well. They were there to receive their official NOIDs. In a travel group of 5 families, 4 were receiving NOIDs. The astonishing part was that all 4 families babies were relinquished and the family that got a visa had a baby who was abandoned. I heard the same story I had heard before. The Embassy staff showed up and intimidated the birth mothers even going so far as to ask them how they could abandon their child.

I could see the officer who had conducted my second interview watching me talk the other families through the glass window. I felt a sense of panic. Could they now revoke Emma's visa because I was talking to these families? It seems to incredible to even think they could but the atmosphere was highly charged at that time. Anything seemed possible. I gave the families my condolences and Brooke's contact information.

The next day we were packed and ready to go. Our facilitator took us to the Embassy to get Emma's visa and then onto the airport. We were going home! I missed my older children so much that I was literally counting the hours until I got home.

But our adventure wasn't over yet.


Although I had planned on only posting 4 parts to the series I have decided to do one more about coming home and Emma's medical issues.


This was originally posted at There's Always Room for One More on August 25, 2008

Vietnam Adoption Part Five: Cleaning up the Aftermath

I was worried about a 17 hour flight alone with a 4 year old and a 3 month old but I was more worried about the connections to and from that flight. Thankfully things went fairly well and before I knew it I was back in Nashville and my 3 older children were waiting for me. I couldn't believe we were home.

Before I left for Vietnam we were preparing to move into a new house. We were supposed to move in around September 1 but it was a new construction, enough said. The closing was actually a week after I left so my two boys, ages 20 and 17 were in charge of the movers and the moving in. But when I got home I was confronted with mountains of boxes and a house in complete chaos. I got home on Thursday November 9, exactly 7 weeks from the day I left.

On Friday, I was still in the midst of jet lag but I did have the sense to make a doctor's appointment for Emma. Her breathing was much better, she had no fever but she still had a cough when she took her bottle. The doctor's appointment was on Tuesday.

In the meantime I was unpacking boxes,cleaning the house and making phone calls and writing letters on Brooke's behalf-- anything to get someone to help bring Brooke's baby home. The one thing I wasn't doing was sleeping and by the end of the weekend I felt like I was having an out of body experience. I finally crashed on Sunday afternoon.

I noticed Emma's coughing was starting to get worse on Tuesday morning and her breathing was more labored. The pediatrician was very concerned but when they checked her oxygen level it was in the upper 90's. He said he would love to admit her to the hospital but he had no reason to. But he heard a heart murmur and was concerned she might have a heart condition that was causing the breathing issue. He sent us to Vanderbilt Children's Hospital for a chest x-ray right then. The x-ray showed a slightly enlarged heart and no pneumonia. He told me to take her home and watch her and if she showed any difficulty breathing to take her directly to the Children's Hospital and then call him. A cardiac consult was in the works.

I had been in contact with a family that was supposed to be in the travel group after ours and she let me know that the entire group had lost their referrals. Phu Tho province had closed itself to the United States. I wondered if Emma was the last baby out of that province to come to the US.

I took Emma back to the doctor on Friday and he said she was the same, no better and no worse. Just continue to watch her.

I was having Emma sleep in a port a crib in my room because her coughing fits would sometimes interrupt her sleep. During the early morning of Monday November 19 she had a coughing fit and couldn't stop. The lights were dim because it was about 3:00 am but she seemed a bit gray colored. I decided that was it, we were going to Children's Hospital. I woke up the boys and told them what was going on and took off.

Of course, Emma was better by the time we got there but they decided to keep her in the ER and watch her for awhile. Every so often her pulse/ox would plummet to the low 80's and the nurses and residents would all come rushing in to suction her nose. They decided to admit her and watch her overnight. The next day she seemed worse. Her breathing was more rapid and although they would give her breathing treatments of Albuterol it didn't really seem to help. They did do an echo cardiogram of her heart and decided that she had a valve stenosis that she would outgrow. In fact, most of the nurses couldn't even hear her murmur.

On Wednesday the hospital was preparing for Thanksgiving the next day. The hospital closed the section that Emma was in and we moved upstairs to a new room. At that point our doctor wanted Emma to stay until Friday. I couldn't believe I was missing Thanksgiving dinner with my kids but convinced them to go to Kentucky to spend Thanksgiving with my brother and his family.

I was spending every possible moment with her, which included nights. Wednesday night/Thursday morning was her roughest night yet. She didn't want to even eat and she had always wanted to eat. I was really getting worried.

Thursday morning she had a coughing fit and couldn't stop, her oxygen dropped. Thankfully the respiratory therapist was there at her beside when all of a sudden she just went completely limp and started to turn blue. Her heart rate began to drop. The respiratory therapist suctioned her lungs out and removed a large mucus plug. But she was still struggling. Her bed was surrounded by about 8 nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists and there were at least 6 more outside her door and everyone seemed unsure what to do next. Finally they called the ICU staff.

The ICU staff came and evaluated her and decided to move her to their unit. They told me to wait in that room and they would call me in about 20 minutes to come up. I waited and waited and even went downstairs to the PICU area. Finally someone came out and told me she had crashed in the elevator on the way down and ultimately they had had to put her on a ventilator. So she was on the vent and was completely knocked out but was no longer struggling. I could go back to see her.

I was familiar with ICU's and ventilators. Darrell had been in the burn ICU the 5 weeks he was there and was also on a ventilator the entire time. But as I walked down that PICU hall way I had to stop and try to pull myself together. I couldn't believe I was reliving this again, less than 2 years after the first time.

Deep breath in, deep breath out. Stop, ok, walk, deep breath.

I got to her room, a room so unbelievably familiar that it made my heart stop. (Emma was in Vanderbilt's Children's Hospital. Darrell had been in Vanderbilt Hospital next door) But the sight of my precious baby nearly killed me. Emma was lying naked on a bed with only a diaper on. She had a tube in her mouth for the ventilator, a tube down her nose (feeding tube) and IV in one foot, an arterial line in one arm and the monitoring wires on her other foot. My little 10 pound baby was covered in wires and tubes and the ventilator wheezed in and out next to her.

I lost it.

How could we get this far, have gone through everything that we had made it through for me to lose her now?

The staff assured me she was OK. It looked bad but she would get better, she just needed time.

That afternoon was hell. I was exhausted. I relived Darrell's trauma all over again. I finally allowed myself the chance to decompress from the entire Vietnam ordeal. I couldn't bear the thought of losing Emma. I worried that the nursing staff would think I was going crazy so I told them about Darrell and how it reminded me of his time in the burn unit. That enough was explanation enough. No need to tell them the rest.

Emma was on the ventilator for 6 days. Amazingly enough, they took her off the vent in the morning and moved her to a regular room that afternoon. We left the next morning.

She had tested positive for RSV with very large amounts of the virus. The question was did she have the same virus in Vietnam or was this a new one? And what had she been hospitalized for before her adoption?

I thank God everyday that I listened and trusted Him to go to Vietnam even if it seemed like the crazy thing to do. There was not a "next" travel group. Not only would I not have my precious baby but I know in my heart she would be dead. There was no way the orphanage would have provided that degree of health care for an orphan. I'm not sure that they even have that degree of health care in Vietnam. Emma's hospital bills were over $50,000. I know that health care is cheaper in Vietnam but its obvious that her medical care would have exceeded the amount an adoption would bring in.

We came home, I found a comfortable chair and Emma and I pretty much stayed there for the next 3 weeks. I realized later that I was depressed. How could anyone go through all that and not be? But I was uncharacteristically lethargic. I had my baby and those weeks with the 2 of us in my comfy chair were what I needed to heal. I think she needed it to heal too.

What happened to Brooke? She finally brought her baby home months later.

I was sickened when I came home and started reading Vietnam adoption boards where some people had the nerve to blame the families for the NOIDs. But almost as bad was the total faith and trust so many people placed on the Embassy. I admit, 3 months earlier I probably would have been one of them.

Many people have claimed that the Department of State caved from the pressure of senator's and congressmen, but that would be inaccurate. First of all, getting any senator's or congressmen even interested was next to impossible. Brooke and several other families finally got Senator Barbara Boxer's office to help them to persuade Immigration and Department of State to look at the evidence. In fact, once Senator Boxer's office was finally persuaded to at least look at their cases she was astounded at the lack of evidence to back up the NOIDs.

No one wanted to do anything unethical but each and every family had hired a private investigator who confirmed that the finding stories and relinquishment paperwork were accurate. They only wanted them to review the true evidence and make a decision from that. Once they finally did, all of the families brought their children home.

But the cost was high. Some families were separated for months. Babies suffered undue trauma. The attorneys fees and fostering expenses added up. Most families spent tens of thousands of dollars. Why? For what? Who should be responsible for paying that? Every single NOID case that was fought was won and the children have come home. Shouldn't the Embassy be held responsible for causing this much damage to so many lives?

This was originally posted at There's Always Room for One More on August 26, 2008

I said at the end of Part Two that my world would never be the same. Some reasons are obvious: I brought a new child into our family; I went through tremendous trauma. But one is not-- my loss of innocence. The belief that my country was a justice and fair country was instilled in me at an early age. My belief system was now shattered. If I couldn't trust my own government, who could I trust?