Copyright 2002

[ April 22nd 2002 ]

Howard Kirk returned to Texas from Cambodia last week without the little boy he and his wife hope to adopt. Kirk had spent nearly a week with little Sara taking in the sights and talking with the American Embassy. But he and his wife were unable to get the U.S. visa they needed to take the youngster home to Gainesville, Texas.

The Kirks are in the same fix as 400 to 500 other American families, including Hollywood stars Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie. In late December, the Immigration and Naturalization Service stopped granting visas for adoptive children from Cambodia because of baby-selling allegations. A U.S.-Cambodian task force is investigating, going from orphanage to orphanage.

In the past few weeks, the INS started granting visas to the 120 families like the Kirks who had been issued adoption decrees in Cambodia before the ban. The agency said it hopes to clear those cases by the end of April. But the INS has yet to decide what to do with the hundreds of other cases. "I'm glad they're finally moving, but this has been unconscionably long," said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. He added: "For a newborn and for parents, every day is a new challenge, a new milestone in a child's life."

Joann Cleland, a kindergarten teacher from Manahawkin, N.J., is worried about the 22-month-old she calls Patrick, who was hospitalized this month in Cambodia after contracting dengue fever. Cleland does not have an adoption decree and has been lobbying for a medical waiver. "He's going to be susceptible to so many other illnesses in the orphanage. We need to get him home to get him to an American doctor," Cleland said.

In fiscal year 2001, Americans adopted 19,237 foreign children, 407 of them from Cambodia, the 10th-ranked source country. China and Russia topped the list with more than 4,681 and 4,279 adoptions, respectively. Until the suspension, Cambodia was a growing source of adoptive children. Parents could adopt infants and young children and the process - at three to six months - was relatively short. But the per capita income in Cambodia is $240 per year, leading some women to sell their children for less than $100 each, according to INS spokesman Bill Strassberger. "What happens when you close a country or close a system down, what you're doing is punishing innocent families for maybe the work of a handful," complained Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who co-chairs the Congressional Coalition on Adoption. "This has not been the INS's finest hour."

Jolie filmed Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia, and she and her husband later adopted a boy from a Cambodian orphanage. But they cannot bring the baby to the United States. Kirk and his wife, Kris, received approval from Cambodia seven months ago for Sara's adoption but do not have a visa because of a discrepancy: They said they have been told that the task force thinks that Sara - based on his teeth - is older than the 6 years his records indicate.

Eileen and Jef Christian of suburban Philadelphia also have an adoption decree but were told their daughter's adoption was advertised in Cambodia for only two months instead of the required three. "If ever we thought that we were participating in child trafficking, I would be horrified," said Eileen Christian, a lawyer who has been in Phnom Penh, staying at a hotel with 8-month-old Kelly since April 12.

Her husband, a laid-off computer programmer, planned to fly to Phnom Penh this week. He or his wife will stay with Kelly until they can bring her home. The $75-a-night hotel bill is on top of the $12,750 agency fee, $2,500 airline tickets and thousands in incidental costs. "We're going because she's 8 months old," he said, "and we think it's a critical time for the attachment process."

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