INDIANAPOLIS — Lori LeRoy lives her life 12 hours ahead. When she wakes up in the morning, she thinks of a 3-year-old boy and says, “Goodnight, Nate. Sleep tight.” When she goes to bed, she tells Nate to be good and have a safe day.
Nate is among a small group of children growing up in a prison-turned-orphanage on a dirt road in Bac Lieu, a rural province in Vietnam.
A recent visitor said the children in Bac Lieu subsist on about a cup of rice a day. Their teeth are rotting. They have no toys, no books. The lucky ones sleep in cribs without mattresses, the rest on the cold floor.
Every day, LeRoy and two other Central Indiana families long for the moment when they are allowed to adopt these children.
Every day . . . for three long years.
Since 2008, when the paperwork was being processed and the eager families thought their children would be home by Christmas, the Bac Lieu adoptions have been trapped in a bureaucratic tangle between Vietnam and the United States.
The days, months and years have been punctuated with trips abroad, pleas to Washington, letter-writing, anything the prospective parents could do to break the diplomatic deadlock that halted their adoptions.
But still they wait.
“Obviously it’s not a good feeling,” said Nick LeRoy, Lori’s husband. “You’re lost in a bureaucracy, yet you keep shouting and yelling and trying to make yourself heard.”
How it unfolded
The journeys of the LeRoy, Laystrom and Cowley families all started the same way. They initiated their international adoption paperwork between 2006 and early 2007. In the summer of 2008, they received official referrals from the Vietnamese government that matched each family with a little boy born in Vietnam earlier that year.
“So we thought, slam dunk, we’re almost done. We’re going to be united soon,” said Marla Laystrom, recalling the day she and her husband, Chris, received their referral.
But it wasn’t that easy. Since then, the families have been snarled in bureaucratic red tape from both Vietnam and United States.
The main holdup is that Vietnam is not fully compliant with the Hague Convention, an international agreement that sets standards for international adoptions. The agreement’s purpose is to safeguard children, as well as to offer more protection for families during the adoption process.
Vietnam signed the Hague Convention in December.
Previously Vietnam and the United States operated under a bilateral agreement. Under that deal, Americans adopted 828 Vietnamese children in 2007. But when it expired in 2008, the United States suspended Vietnamese adoptions over concerns of fraud and documented cases of baby-selling. Before adoptions continue, Vietnam must implement the convention and the United States must verify that it meets Hague standards.
However, the U.S. State Department promised to continue processing the Bac Lieu adoptions, which had started before the suspension. By the summer of 2009, Citizenship and Immigration Services granted the families pre-approval of a key document that would allow the children to enter the United States.
But the children still are not in their new homes.
“What has happened in these cases is quite extraordinary,” said Keith Wallace, who has been involved in international adoptions for 15 years. Wallace is the director of Families Thru International Adoption, the agency based in Evansville that is handling the 16 Bac Lieu cases. Four of the cases involve Indiana families, including the three in Central Indiana.
After Vietnam changed its adoption laws to conform to the Hague Convention, it required the adoption paperwork for each Bac Lieu child be redone. That includes obtaining birth certificates, DNA from birth mothers and orphanage admission documents.
For several of the 16 families, their original paperwork listed an incorrect birth mother, Wallace said. The inaccuracies have since been corrected, he said.
It’s now up to Vietnam to process the paperwork. Although it’s not a difficult process, Kelly Ensslin, a lawyer who deals with international adoptions and represents the LaRoys, said it’s not a priority for the government in Bac Lieu.
In an effort to apply pressure, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., placed a hold on the nomination of the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam in protest from April 15 to May 17. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., picked it up after that.
The lawyer for the U.S. families of the Bac Lieu children is calling on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to contact the Vietnamese prime minister, she said.
“The fix is easy, and all it really takes is a phone call,” Ensslin said.
But the State Department doesn’t want to use a strong-arm tactic while Vietnam works to reform its adoption process, an official said.
“I would love to be able to tell other governments what to do, but we’re diplomats,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Such thinking frustrates the families.
“They are process over people,” Lori LeRoy said of the State Department. “That is the bottom line. And the thing is, we’ve gone through the process.”
Keith Luse, a senior staff member for Lugar on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the families have had trouble receiving consistent, timely information from the U.S. government.
“These are Hoosiers who are facing immense challenges with the bureaucracies of two governments,” he said.
‘Part of the family’
While the adoptions are a matter of diplomacy for the two countries, they’re about family for the Cowleys, Laystroms and LeRoys.
Even though she has never seen him, Courtney Cowley has named the Vietnamese boy she thinks of as her son. To her he is Lincoln.
“I sign every card, every letter, everything with his name because he’s part of the family and has been for three years,” Cowley said.
In her Plainfield home, Courtney and her husband, John Cowley, have a room awaiting the boy they already consider their son. Courtney Cowley said the room, decorated in blue with chocolate brown accents, is supposed to be filled with joy and laughter. Already, she and John have had to replace baby baubles with toddler toys, but they have kept the rocking chair waiting.
“All the stuff for a little boy,” Courtney Cowley said. “Just no little boy.”
Adding to the pain is the fact the families can no longer visit the children. Until January, the 16 families rotated going on welfare trips, taking food, milk and medicine and sending back updates to those who remained stateside. Vietnam banned the visits in January as part of adoption reform.
For Courtney Cowley, who has never been to the orphanage, photos of Lincoln, looking at the camera with big, dark eyes, are all she has.
Now that most of their contact has been cut off, the families are even more worried about the fragility of the children in the orphanage.
“They’re all malnourished,” Lori LeRoy said. “But there are some that are malnourished to the point that I am very scared for their well-being.”
Ensslin visited the orphanage at the beginning of May. She was horrified by the living conditions. Ensslin said she’s not confident that the children can wait much longer.
“Their teeth are rotting out of their head from malnutrition,” she said.
The State Department official said U.S. Embassy and consulate staff visited the orphanage June 20 to check on the children, and several nongovernmental organizations have been contacted to provide food assistance.
Still, the families fret.
“It’s not even purgatory,” LeRoy said. “You are in this limbo that you almost feel like your life can’t truly begin because what if you get the call?”
The Laystroms, LeRoys and Cowleys rely on each other to cope with the emotional tangle. While most of the families of the Bac Lieu 16 are scattered throughout the United States, the three Central Indiana women, plus another in Southern Indiana, live relatively close.
They’re in constant contact. “I love these girls,” Cowley said, surrounded by Laystrom and LeRoy. When they got together one Friday morning, the three women spread photos across the table and giggled about the charming personalities of their boys, and the endearing things they do as they’re growing up.
But they came prepared with Kleenex.
“I’m just an onion’s layer away from crying,” Cowley said.
Since the battle to get the children home began, the families have reached out to government officials. They’ve written letters. They’ve taken trips to Washington. They’ve circulated petitions, and they’ve recently started a Facebook group — “Bring Home the Bac Lieu 16” — that has grown to more than 1,000 members.
They say their greatest ally has been Lugar.
In Lugar’s office, Luse said staff members are in contact with the families at least once a week, if not more.
In the meantime, the Laystroms, the Cowleys and the LeRoys aren’t giving up hope. And they say they never will.
There are still unfulfilled promises from the United States and Vietnamese governments, as well as unfulfilled promises of camping trips, pool parties and holiday gatherings.
Nick LeRoy said watching Father’s Day pass was hard this year.
“I had hoped, as I had hoped for the last couple of years, that this would be the last year without my child.”