'The best Christmas present'

Date: 2001-12-24

News-Times, The (Danbury, CT)
Author: Joe Gould

John and Eileen Merrill sometimes closed the door to their empty nursery.

Its cheery yellow walls, its untouched stuffed animals, and its barren crib were too agonizing to look at.

"Some nights, I'd just come up here and wonder if she would ever be here," John Merrill said.

But last week, the New Milford couple's international adoption nightmare finally ended.

After three trips to Vietnam, their dream, a 15-month-old Vietnamese toddler named Jayde, was standing in her crib, dancing, gurgling and smiling into the eyes of her new parents.

After nine months in a purgatory of red tape brought on by allegations that Jayde was a black-market baby, the Merrills won their case with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service this month, just in time for Christmas.

"This is the best Christmas present we could ever get," John said.

The Merrills' difficulties began in April. They had been to Vietnam to get that government's approval for the adoption, and they returned for final approval from the INS. But after a month of bonding with their baby in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel room, they were denied.

Though the INS did not suspect the Merrills of wrongdoing, Asian Orphans of Hope, a Vietnamese adoption facilitator working with the Merrills' stateside adoption agency, was accused of baby buying.

Under U.S. immigration law, purchased babies are barred from entering the country. Due to reports black-market baby, the INS has begun to thoroughly investigate Vietnamese adoption cases, a spokesman said.

In April, the Merrills vowed to fight the INS, found a nanny for Jayde, and left Vietnam heartbroken.

"When we were sitting on the plane, we just felt terrible," Eileen said.

At home, they enlisted U.S. senators Chris Dodd and Joseph Lieberman to pressure the INS. Supportive friends and relatives wrote the INS, too.

A Massachussetts attorney hired by the Merrills began the process of appealing the INS's denial to its Administrative Appeals Unit.

The long ordeal came with emotional twists and heart-wrenching turns.

A request to the INS for humanitarian parole, a kind of immigration trump card, was denied.

The deadline for a decision from the Administrative Appeals Unit passed without a decision.

Their debt was growing and their vacation time was shrinking.

At one point, they were told the INS had lost their paperwork.

"For me it was super frustrating," John said. "Every time we got our hopes up, something would happen. By the third time, I thought, 'Should I get my hopes up again?'Ÿ"

All the while, the nanny, who was taking English classes, was writing them letters about Jayde and sending photos.

Missing her first birthday was hard. The news that Jayde was walking hurt the most. "We never got to see it," Eileen said.

"When we got the letter, it was heartbreaking to know that she had passed that milestone without us," John said.

Meanwhile, they received e-mails and calls of support from friends, family and people who learned of them in media reports.

"We had strangers call up and say, 'We're praying for you,'Ÿ" Eileen said.

Within the last few months, things began to look up. The couple's Freedom of Information request seemed to reveal a lack of damning evidence at the INS. Also, couples whose adoptions were delayed under the same circumstances as the Merrills were coming home with babies.

"We applied for a visa because we wanted to be ready for anything," Eileen said.

On Nov. 29, Eileen got the call from her attorney.

"My attorney called and said it was good news. I don't remember the rest of what he said. I just started to cry," Eileen said. "I went out to my husband who was out at his truck, and told him it was good news."

An appeals unit of the INS had determined that there was not enough evidence to support claims that Asian Orphans of Hope, the adoption facilitator in Vietnam, had purchased Jayde.

The Merrills left for Vietnam shortly thereafter.

When they picked Jayde up from the nanny, all of them stayed together for four or five hours, mostly playing with Jayde. After the nanny left, Jayde was inconsolable.

"She would get her hat and shoes to go out as if to go home with her foster mom," Eileen said.

She eventually bonded again with her adoptive parents.

"When we got off the plane at JFK, she saw my father and she just grabbed on to him and looked at him, like 'How are you doing,'Ÿ" John said. "It was great. My father was taking pictures. We just wanted to tell him all the cute stuff she did."

Though it took a few days for her to adjust, the Merrills said Jayde perked up. "It was just like we got home from a vacation," John said.

Jayde is an animated girl. She likes to move fast through a room, smiling, dancing or calling out in a toddler sing-song.

She has a hearty appetite - "Anything you give her, she'll eat right up," John said - and a healthy temper. "When she doesn't get what she wants, she has a set of lungs."

"We just want to do things like take her to the park or take her to the zoo," he said.

Their main concern is making Jayde feel that they won't leave her again.

"One time Eileen left the room and she screamed her head off," John said. "Lately, it's not been as bad. She looks at her when she walks away, but I just hold her."

Christmas this year is at John and Eileen's. They didn't have time to shop for a tree, but they will be showing off baby Jayde.

"We're going to have everyone here, everyone who wants to come," Eileen said. "We think people will just be coming by for a little while, a few at a time."

Though their story had a happy ending, the Merrills still feel that the INS treated them unjustly. Because there was no case against Asian Orphans of Hope, they say their ordeal was unnecessary.

During one trip to Vietnam, the Merrills had visited the baby's mother, a teen-age girl whose baby was born out of wedlock. Based on the evident squalor she and her family lived in, the Merrills are sure she never received any money from Asian Orphans of Hope.

"She had a chronic cough, that they didn't have money to buy medicine for. Their rent was four months past due," Eileen said. "If they'd received money, you'd have seen a change."

Yet the government has to be thorough, to respond to numerous baby-buying reports, said INS spokeswoman Eyleen Schmidt.

"We now give parents seeking to adopt babies in Vietnam a statement that adoptions can take longer, due to problems in that country," she said.

Last week, the INS announced it would review the adoption process in Vietnam.

Of people who have had adoptions delayed, like the Merrills, Schmidt said, "It's a sad situation."

"We do not intend to hurt families," Schmidt said, "but we have to determine that each child is truly an orphan to avoid the possibility of any exploitation, and to ensure that the child has not been kidnapped or sold."

Conceding that the INS's motives are pure, John still believes the agency could treat adoptive parents better.

"The INS needs to look at what it's doing," he said. "Even if the story about Asian Orphans of Hope was true, we would have had to have paid the price."

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


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