Sunday, August 24, 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.


Kristin said...

Please post the rest of the story. I am in complete shock as to all you and your travel mates have been through. I don't know anything about the Vietnamese system so am completely taken aback by all you've experienced.

I do know though that I adore seeing Emma with you! She is the cutest little thing. So the horror you had to experience was worth it. That's likely the wrong way to phrase it but I hope you understand my meaning.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe how small Emma was back then! She certainly grew a lot once you got her!

The US government's treatment of Brooke was just shameful. Brooke was so wonderful to us while we were in Vietnam and I can't believe anyone, especially those representing our own country, would treat her in such an awful manner...

Anonymous said...

We were in the group before you and man oh man I HATED the embassy folks...we all know what they did! uggh.


Mary said...


I believe we met in Hanoi at a Highlands Cafe. My 5-year-old was very, very bored and overjoyed to have a few playdates with your Jenna. I had no idea you were experiencing the same things we were all that time. We were all so afraid to speak! I wish we could have shared more then; the company would have been nice.

Denise said...


We did meet! I remember you well. I was also afraid to talk to you or anyone else as I address in Part Four. Paranoia was rampant.