An adoption disaster

Date: 2001-04-08
INS bars a local couple from bringing their infant daughter from Vietnam into the U.S.

By Joe Gould THE NEWS-TIMES

Caught in a baby-selling scheme, Eileen and John Merrill have two choices: leave their infant daughter Jayde in Vietnam, or live 9,000 miles from everything they have ever known.

The Merrills’ desire to start a family led the New Milford couple to Vietnam. But allegations that a Vietnamese adoption agency bought the baby for them prompted U.S. officials to bar the baby’s immigration, and now the Merrills say they are living a nightmare.

“We thought we were doing something nice, thought we’d be doing the right thing by bringing a child from another country to a better life,” said John Merrill. “It turned into absolute hell.”

“This is supposed to be a very happy experience,” said Eileen Merrill. “We had two sets of grandparents who were going to meet us at the airport to meet a granddaughter they love with all their hearts.”

The Merrills’ story begins in 1998 when they married and bought a home together near Candlewood Lake. Eileen, 36, is a nurse’s aide in Danbury and John, 37, assembles medical testing machinery in Ridgefield. They tried to have children, but when the doctors told them they couldn’t, it seemed their dream had died.

They decided they could love an adopted baby as their own, and thought a foreign adoption would be easier. All they wanted was a healthy baby.

They found A Child Among Us, an international nonprofit adoption agency in South Glastonbury recommended by the state Department of Children and Families. Their first choice was a Cambodian adoption, but the country’s moratorium on adoptions stretched into intolerable months.

Vietnam was Eileen and John’s second choice. The Vietnamese adoption process involves a 40-day waiting period after an adoption is finished. The prospect of leaving their baby after bonding with her seemed as if it would be emotionally wrenching. It was.

“They give you the baby for three to five days and you fall madly in love with them, and then you have to leave,” Merrill said. “It’s really, really hard.”

In Vietnam, A Child Among Us dealt with a local adoption facilitator, as is common in international adoptions. However, the relationship between the agencies is unclear. A Child Among Us folded in March because of financial problems apparently unrelated to the allegations of fraudulent adoptions in Vietnam.

A representative of the defunct agency could not be reached for comment.

The couple went to Ho Chi Mihn City in February for several days. They met the birth mother, an innocent-looking 16-year-old who spoke no English. They went to a courthouse with their 5-month-old baby for a “Giving and Receiving Ceremony,” which simply involved signing Vietnamese adoption papers. Afterward, they took a taxi to a park to take photos.

“She was beautiful,” Elaine said of their new daughter, whom they named Jayde. “She was a happy, smiley baby, like a little angel. We were surprised to see that she was so big. .Ÿ.Ÿ. Just a healthy, chunky baby.”

Jayde stayed in the hotel with her new parents; she had trouble sleeping through the first night. But over time, her crankiness turned to clinginess and her natural sparkle returned, said her adoptive father.

“She had this huge smile, like ‘I’m the happiest kid in the world,’Ÿ” Merrill said.

Then came the day they had dreaded: They gave the baby to a foster mother and flew home. The Merrills spent the next forty days waiting and thinking how unfair it was that they had to part with their daughter.

When they returned March 16, they were met by the foster mother at the airport. She abruptly gave them the baby and left. Jayde cried inconsolably for hours.

The couple waited weeks in a Ho Chi Mihn City hotel for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s response to their application for an I-600, a vital immigration document that would classify Jayde as an immediate relative. When they received a “notice of intent to deny,” they were shocked by what it said.

The three-page letter from the local INS office said Vietnamese police discovered that the Asian Orphans of Hope, the local adoption facilitator, was offering money to birth mothers for their babies, which they were procuring for Americans.

The chief agent of AOH, who was not identified, gave local authorities a blanket confession. Every baby they dealt with was purchased from its mother, the letter states. He “approached women at their homes, in the market place and at hospitals in poor neighborhoods with offers of cash for their babies. He added that higher prices were offered for more attractive babies.”

Though the birth mother contradicted herself several times in interviews with police, INS investigators said, she told them that the Merrills approached her in September or October of 2000 and asked if she wanted to sell her baby, to give it a better life in the United States.

The INS concluded that the mother’s testimony was not credible; the Merills’ visa indicates that they did not visit Vietnam until February.

While the INS letter neither cites any evidence showing the Merrills bought their baby nor makes such an accusation, it holds that the application must be denied because Asian Orphans of Hope was working for A Child Among Us, which was employed by the Merrills.

As the Merrills see it, denying their application is punishing them for something they didn’t do.

“They’re not looking at us as people,” said John Merrill. “They’re looking at us like statistics. Rules were made by imperfect people, and there are always exceptions to the rules. They shouldn’t do it as a blanket thing.”

äŸ

The Merrills may be part of a growing number of couples turning to Asia for children. In 1995, the INS issued two immigrant visas to Vietnamese orphans adopted abroad. Last year, it was 609. The Merrills said that the week they arrived several other American couples also left Vietnam to fight similar denials.

A senior INS official who declined to be quoted said the INS does not keep statistics on how often black-market babies are sold or denied entry to the United States. He did say that the practice of selling babies for adoption by Americans is not uncommon in Vietnam, countries in crisis or developing nations.

“Several instances of payment to birth mothers to induce them to give up a child have been documented. This is clearly prohibited under U.S. immigration law,” the INS Web site states, advising potential parents to use diligence when researching adoption agencies.

The INS regulations are part of an effort to protect birth mothers and children from exploitation.

The Merrills are long on hope and short on options. They have exercised their right to rebut the INS letter, and they are waiting for a reply. They plan to request humanitarian parole, a rarely-used emergency measure to permit an otherwise inadmissible alien into the U.S.

But they are running out of time and money. Their visas expire April 18.

They have contacted state and federal legislators in an effort to pressure the INS to allow baby Jayde into the United States or to help them in their application for humanitarian parole. And they are asking the public to contact the INS office in Washington, D.C.

“It shouldn’t have to be like this,” said Eileen Merrill. “It’s actually cruel to punish innocent families and children like this. There’s no other way to put it.”

The couple has spent thousands of dollars on adoption fees, air fares and attorneys on both sides of the globe. Their hotel and international phone bills alone total about $6,000.

Eileen may have to quit her job. John’s bosses have been reasonable, but he suspects they are getting antsy. He will probably return to work, support his family and pay their legal bills while his wife stays in Ho Chi Mihn City to care for the baby.

“We’ll probably take out a second mortgage to finance all the legal fees,” said an exasperated Eileen Merrill.

Even if their efforts fail, under no circumstances will they leave the baby, the couple said. They are planning to rotate leaves from work to return to Vietnam and care for Jayde, one parent at a time.

“We don’t want her to go through that again,” Eileen Merrill said of the prospect of leaving her daughter. “Most babies only have one home with one set of parents. She needs to be able to trust people that she’ll be loved and they won’t abandon her. No one knows what sort of effect all this will have on an infant.”

äŸ

The Merrills ask that letters of support be sent to Kevin D. Rooney, Acting Commissioner, Immigration and Naturalization Service, 425 I Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20536.

Contact Joe Gould at jgould@newstimes.com or at (860) 354-2275.

0

Pound Pup Legacy