Dozens of American families and their newly adopted children are trapped overseas during the pandemic, and they worry they won't be able to bring their kids home

Courtesy of Lyndsey VossLyndsey Voss at an orphanage in Uganda.
  • Because of the pandemic, dozens of American families that have completed the international adoption process are stranded overseas waiting for the US to issue visas.
  • In Uganda, a woman and her adopted son face threats of violence from locals who fear foreigners may be carrying COVID-19.
  • The life of a newly adopted, medically fragile boy in Ukraine hangs in the balance because a CDC regulation forced him to stay in the country after the last commercial flight out.
  • A Virginia mum can’t bring her children home from Venezuela after adopting them from a cousin who died.

  • The US government could issue emergency humanitarian visas to help these families, but the State Department and Homeland Security maintain they have no control over the situation.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Under normal circumstances, Americans adopt an average of 300 foreign children every month. But as the novel coronavirus spreads across the globe, American adoptive families have found themselves stranded overseas.

While it’s difficult to collect exact numbers, the National Council for Adoption (NCA) said members of dozens of families are marooned in places like China, India, Ukraine, South America, and various African countries, struggling to obtain paperwork or transportation to make it to the US safely.

“These are families that have completed their foreign adoptions and are waiting on the US Department of State to complete their visa process,” NCA vice president Ryan Hanlon told Insider. “Before the pandemic hit, processing visas was taking too long. Now with borders being shut down and threats of violence in foreign countries, these need to be more urgently prioritised.”

An Alabama woman is stranded in Uganda with her newly adopted son

Lyndsey VossCourtesy of Lyndsey VossJacob and Lyndsey Voss wanted to adopt from Uganda, but she and their son have been marooned in the country since it closed its borders due to the coronavirus.

Physical violence was the furthest thing from Jacob and Lyndsey Voss’ minds when the Alabama couple decided to adopt a child from Uganda.

The adoption of their 7-year-old son was completed in August 2019 but Lyndsey has been stuck in the country with her child, waiting for the US embassy to issue him a visa. Without one, the two couldn’t get on the last commercial flight out of Uganda before it closed its borders on March 22.

Then, on March 30, Uganda’s President Yoweri banned all private transportation for two weeks. Without the use of a vehicle, Lyndsey and her son must now walk for necessities, leaving them vulnerable to attacks.

“A family a few streets away from my wife and son were attacked because the locals thought they might be bringing coronavirus in,” Jacob said. “The locals only understand that foreigners carry it, which to them means Asians and white people are bringing it.”

People have already begun pointing at Lyndsey in the street and yelling “Coronavirus!” he added. “I’m worried it’s only a matter of time before something worse happens.”

Prior to the transportation shutdown, Human Rights Watch reported that police were pulling passengers from vehicles and caning them for violating the “three passengers or less” rule, Uganda’s first attempt at social distancing. Since then, cops shot and injured two people they accused of sharing a motorcycle in defiance of the ban, the Kenyan Daily Nation reported.

Despite the dangers, Lyndsey and her son have visited the embassy in Kampala several times to ask for an emergency visa. Back home, Jacob has also tried to get his family out on a clandestine flight, but to no avail.

The Vosses aren’t the only families in Africa facing possible violence: “I know of two families in Uganda and Cameroon who are no longer disclosing their locations because they don’t want to be tracked down and attacked,” Hanlon said.

A
child with
special needs
is trapped in Ukraine as medical services shut down

Vladislav, a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy adopted by an Indiana family, is still in Ukraine.Courtesy of Jamie RichardsonVladislav, a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy adopted by an Indiana family, is still in Ukraine.

When Indiana mum Jamie Richardson found Vladislav, a 16-year-old Ukrainian boy with cerebral palsy, he was severely malnourished – weighing only 30 pounds – and about to age out of the system.

“We didn’t believe he was going to survive,” Richardson told Insider. “He could barely open his eyes. You could hear the pneumonia gurgling in his lungs.”

A mother to 13 other adoptees, Richardson left a family photo taped to Vladislav’s bedrail. She didn’t expect him to see it, but she wanted the staff at the orphanage to know he belonged to someone.

With proper nutrition and antibiotics, Vladislav gained weight and became healthier. The Richardsons hoped to take him and another two Ukrainian children they adopted home with them in January.

Then Vladislav’s tuberculosis chest X-ray – required by the CDC for all immigrants over 14 – came back. It wasn’t clear.

“Everyone looking at the images said it was pneumonia scarring and not TB,” Richardson said. “But because of CDC and adoption regulations, Vladislav had to stay for eight weeks and then have a negative sputum test” before he could leave the country.

The Richardsons tried to get Vladislav into the best hospital in Kiev, but the director turned them away.Courtesy of Jamie RichardsonThe Richardsons tried to get Vladislav into the best hospital in Kiev, but the director turned them away.

In the meantime, a new condition in his feet threatened to send him into septic shock.

The Richardsons tried to get Vladislav into the best hospital in Kiev, but the director turned them away.

“I told her, ‘If he dies, his blood will be on your hands,'” Richardson said, shaking her head. “She told me she’d be sure to wash her hands before she ate dinner.”

While all children in Ukraine are guaranteed the right to be treated in a hospital, the law is less clear for the children of foreigners, which Vladislav immediately became upon his adoption.

A private donor helped the Richardsons secure a nanny and move their son to a palliative care hospital. But it has since been shut down due to the coronavirus.

Vladislav, his nanny, and two other children and their caregivers were allowed to stay, but that could change if the government decides to cut power to the facility.

“If COVID-19 gets to him, his lungs are so weak and the medical attention is so lacking in the Ukraine, I don’t know how he could survive,” Richardson said. “We need a visa issued to him, so we can bring him home now.”

A Virginia mum can’t bring her children home from Venezuela

Ydelisa Cervantes isn’t sure the government can help get her adopted son and daughter out of Venezuela anymore: US embassy personnel left Caracas in early March, leaving the teens little hope of getting visas any time soon.

“My children are with my mum, who is 78-years-old and high-risk,” Cervantes told Insider. “She doesn’t need to be there, but she’s helping me because I had to come home to my job.”

Ironically, Cervantes works for Homeland Security. But the agency has been of little assistance in bringing her children home.

She adopted Paola, 16, and Maiker, 14, in 2016. Because they are the children of a deceased distant cousin, Cervantes qualified to adopt them through an I-130 petition for a relative. The process requires prospective parents to live abroad with their children for two years before they can adopt them, then wait up to several years more to obtain visas.

Ydelisa Cervantes (centre) remains separated from her adopted children, who are still in Venezuela.Courtesy of Ydelisa CervantesYdelisa Cervantes (centre) remains separated from her adopted children, who are still in Venezuela.

While things were going well when Cervantes returned to Virginia, the coronavirus pandemic escalated the instability in Venezuela. There’s no gas, banks are closed, and food is difficult to find.

“There’s no way to get money to my mum unless I go there,” Cervantes said. “Normally I send food, but now the delivery company is closed.” She managed to send provisions last week through another service, she said, “but they don’t guarantee delivery.”

To make matters worse, Paola developed a serious kidney issue. She was scheduled for a sonogram but then all the clinics in Venezuela closed due to COVID-19. Medicine is running low and time is running out.

“I’m frightened,” Cervantes said tearfully. “I’ve been thinking and thinking how can I get there? But there are no flights from the US to Venezuela. I’m afraid I’d get stranded somewhere. Flights are getting cancelled all over, and I’d be somewhere worse.”

At the end of March, the State Department issued an alert that any Americans in Venezuela were at increased risk of harm from the colectivos, mercenaries sponsored by the government regime. According to a memo from the State Department, “the US government is exploring all options to assist US citizens to depart Venezuela.”

But that same memo also recommended that American citizens keep a low profile and not leave quarantine.

An extraordinary measure could reunite adoptive families during the pandemic

“There’s a solution for all these families,” Hanlon said. “If we can’t get them their immigrant visas, we can grant them humanitarian parole.” It’s a rarely used measure that allows someone otherwise inadmissible for immigration to come into the US because of “a compelling emergency.”

“They still have to follow all the normal steps, the requirements are the same,” said Karen Law of the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys. “But they’re not with their family waiting in Nigeria or Ghana or Cameroon.” Waiting in the US, she added, “is a safe scenario.”

Michelle Bernier-Toth, the Department of State’s special adviser for children’s issues, is tracking many of these adoption cases. But bringing the children home is a complex problem.

“The challenge is that many of the people in the embassies are working from home,” she said. “We have limited staffing within the buildings. In some places, because of local restrictions on movements, everyone might be working from home, which impedes our ability to process cases.”

Bernier-Toth emphasised that the DOS has no control over humanitarian parole, which is decided on a case-by-case basis.

“US citizens and others can apply directly to US Citizenship and Immigration Services for humanitarian parole. That’s what typically happens,” she said. “When and if that is approved by USCIS, then we are notified and we will finalise a processing of the travel documents.”

Filing an application through USCIS’s formal channels takes weeks but, Law said, “these families don’t have that kind of time.” If the recommendation came from the State Department, that timeframe could be cut down to a matter of days.

According to Law, the State Department Foreign Affairs Manual states that “in rare instances, the Department may request that USCIS authorise parole of an alien into the US for either urgent humanitarian or significant public benefit reasons.”

“If a pandemic and global shutdown isn’t an extenuating circumstance, it’s hard for me to think of what would be,” Hanlon added.

Tourists from the United States wait outside the closed Jorge Chavez International Airport for a member of the U.S. Embassy to escort them to a flight that will fly them back to the U.S., in Callao Peru, Friday, March 20, 2020, on the fifth day of a state of emergency decreed by the government to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.  (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)Associated PressAmericans outside the closed Jorge Chavez International Airport in Callao, Peru, waiting for a member of the US embassy to escort them to a flight back to the US.

There is a precedent for issuing blanket humanitarian parole for orphans: President Barack Obama signed the Help Haiti Act into law after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, allowing some 1,150 children into the US before their adoptions were finalised.

“While we understand from a technical point that the DOS can’t grant humanitarian parole, consular officers – who do work for DOS at the embassies – have the ability to recommend parole and put into an urgent request to USCIS to grant parole, as mentioned in the handbook,” Law said.

AAAA and NAFC have both requested that the State Department coordinate the urgent processing of humanitarian parole visas and are reaching out to acting Homeland Secretary Security Chad Wolf to grant blanket parole for all completed overseas adoptees stranded due to COVID-19, as former Secretary Janet Napitolano did during the earthquake.

In a statement to Insider, the USCIS said it can also provide special support for those affected by circumstances beyond their control. “We may also provide special consideration or expedited processing for those who may need it on a case-by-case basis,” it added.

In the meantime, Bernier-Toth’s advice for families and adoptees stranded overseas is to enroll in the DOS Smart Traveller Program. “That’s how we’re sending out messages daily, if not more frequently, on current restrictions, travel plans, any kinds of organised flights either by the US government or others,” she said. “That’s our best way of communicating on a day-to-day basis with people.”

Several families say consulate employees suggested they leave their adopted children behind and return in a few months when the worst of the pandemic has passed – something most countries would consider abandonment.

“None of us would say that about our biological children,” Hanlon said. “If your house is on fire, you go back for all your kids, not just your biological kids.”

Law called the idea of families abandoning their children absurd. “These are completed adoptions. These kids are waiting. Their lives are in jeopardy. Borders are closing. There are some countries with only one more flight out and then nothing after that.”

Separated families hope for a brighter future

Paola, right, has developed a serious kidney issue.Courtesy of Ydelisa CervantesYdelisa (centre) said she won’t rest until Maiker and Paola are safe in Virginia.

For now, Jacob Voss fantasizes about bringing his son, who loves swimming, home to Alabama and enrolling him in competitions.

He’s enlisted the help of five senators and three representatives, but all they have determined is that there seems to be miscommunication between the State Department and the embassy.

“We’re in the US’s hands right now,” Jacob said. “Treat this with urgency and bring them home … They’re putting American lives at risk.”

Ydelisa Cervantes doesn’t know what to do next, but she’s adamant she won’t give up until Paola and Maiker are safe in Virginia.

“The frustration for me is we’ve been working so long on this already and now I can’t even supply the little things they need,” she said. “There’s no food, no power, no medicine, no gas. Everything they need to live is gone, and it didn’t need to be like this.”

Back in Indiana, Jamie Richardson admits she has moments of panic.

“But overall I’ve got this strange peace about the whole thing that transcends understanding,” she said. “When Vladislav comes home, his name will be changed to Eliakim. It means ‘the Lord resurrected.’ It’s our prophetic name that he will survive.”

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.