For months, Jeff and Karen Fleming had been dreaming about the little girl in a Cambodian orphanage who they planned to adopt as their own. They went to Cambodia in early October to pick her up, and they thought they'd be home in Altoona, Pa. within a week.
"We fell in love with her right away," said Jeff of the 2-year-old whom they had seen in a photo from the adoption agency, "this little girl with her big brown eyes."
With all the necessary paperwork completed, they had just one more stop to make before flying home: a meeting with the U.S. Embassy to get Isabel's visa, a mere formality, they thought. But when they arrived at the embassy, handed authorities the application and money, they were shocked. "'Are you aware that your adoption is fraudulent?'" Karen said an embassy official asked.
Now, 2 1/2 months later, they are still in a Phnom Penh hotel room with Isabel, waiting for her to be issued a visa. A case of red tape has prevented the Flemings and 11 other families from returning home with their newly adopted children. The U.S. government has denied the children visas, claiming there are problems with their documentation indicating they may not be orphans. The families are frustrated not only that they came to Cambodia with no warning of any complications, but they also claim the investigation being carried out by the Immigration and Naturalization Services has been inadequate.
Allegations of Fraud
Years of war, genocide and political violence have contributed to a surplus of infant orphans in Cambodia, making it a popular place for Americans to adopt babies. Also appealing to American couples is that the paperwork to complete an adoption can be done in as little as three months, a shorter time frame than other international adoptions.
None of the families had any indication of problems before they arrived in Cambodia. They had hired reputable adoption agencies in the United States, and used a recommended Cambodian orphanage and facilitator, going through a process that cost, on average, $15,000.
The U.S. embassy told them only that allegations had surfaced that some orphanages were possibly involved in coercing, buying or even stealing babies from birth mothers to be put up for adoption. It's called baby trafficking, and it's a serious charge, if true. But was it? And were their own babies involved? If the embassy knew, it wasn't telling, only adding to the pain for the newly adoptive parents.
Making the situation even worse, Karen said, "The behavior on the part of the consular officials was just so abusive and so threatening. There just didn't seem to be any rational explanation for anything they told us. They just couldn't even make sense of their statements."
Bewildered, yet determined, the families hunkered down with their babies in hotel rooms to wait for an investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Services to be completed. They say one embassy official told them quietly that it would take only a week or 10 days.
"They told us there was a problem with the paperwork," said Kim Woulfe, who had come to Cambodia with her husband to adopt a baby girl they named Chloe. "That there were some allegations of baby trafficking, and that they couldn't give us any information because it was confidential."
A Waiting Game