Waiting for baby's first visa

Date: 2001-12-29

The News & Observer
Author: Joanna Kakissis; Staff Writer

Cary -- Dean Stults is on the phone, pacing in his dining room with the deep green tablecloth and the Christmas decorations. He is talking -- again -- to the U.S. government, this time to a woman named Amanda in the State Department's Office of Children's Issues. He is asking a series of questions, all pieces of the big question that has loomed over him and his wife, Pam, for the last three months:

"When will we bring our daughter home?"

"We have been getting the runaround," Dean Stults said wearily Friday after he hung up with the State Department official.

The official had offered him no details and no hope that the 11-month-old girl he and Pam had adopted from Cambodia would be issued a U.S. visa anytime soon. Although the Stultses, who are both 37, think their adoption of the little girl they have named Molly is legal, officials at the American Embassy in Phnom Penh have not granted the child a visa.

Embassy officials said that some Cambodian orphanages may be involved in baby trafficking -- buying or stealing babies from birth mothers and offering the children for adoption -- and that the matter needs investigation. Meanwhile, the embassy said it would stop issuing visas to any children adopted from the country. On Dec. 21, the Immigration and Naturalization Service suspended the processing of adoption petitions for Cambodian children.

The only exceptions came Thursday, when the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Kent Wiedemann, gave 12 families conditional permission to take their adopted children to the United States. He said that if an investigation shows the children were taken from their birth parents illegally, they must be returned to Cambodia.

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Washington steps in

Those 12 families, some of whom had been in Cambodia for weeks waiting for the visas, told their stories to the national news media and brought in support from Washington. The Stultses say they will do the same for Molly. They have already sent letters to Sens. John Edwards and Jesse Helms, U.S. Rep. David Price, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell and even President Bush. And Pam, a homemaker, says she's ready to leave Cary for Phnom Penh if it will improve Molly's chances for a visa.

"We haven't held her, but she's no less ours because of that," said Dean, a facilities engineer, standing in the bright yellow room that he and his wife have decorated with stuffed animals, a toy chest with "Molly" painted on its cover, a bookshelf and a miniature Christmas tree with tiny balls and snowmen as ornaments.

Next to the tree is an unopened present with a white bow. A tiny card on it reads: "To Molly. From Mommy and Daddy."

Dean and Pam Stults first saw her photograph in August. The girl was named Yihub Rath, and she lived in an orphanage just outside Phnom Penh, apparently abandoned as a newborn. She had dark wispy hair, chubby cheeks and deep brown eyes that glittered with mischief.

She was, both say, perfect.

"I took one look at that picture and thought, 'Oh yes, I want that child,' '' Pam said.

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Journey to parenthood

The Stultses had always wanted to be parents. They wanted it when they were married at 32, a year after meeting at Pam's church in Greensboro, her hometown.

Almost four years later, after trying in-vitro fertilization and artificial insemination, they found out Pam was pregnant with twins. She and Dean had seen the tiny heartbeats on a monitor at her first doctor's visit, when the twins were 8 weeks old.

When they went back for their second checkup a couple of weeks later, on the Friday before Mother's Day, the doctor could no longer hear the two hearts beating.

The babies, both girls, were dead.

Then came two more miscarriages. The losses broke the Stultses' hearts. "I guess it wasn't meant to be this way," Pam said.

They wanted badly to become parents, so they decided to adopt. They looked into adoptions in China but saw that the process could take two years. Then they found out about Cambodia, where an adoption could take only two months. They contacted a reputable agency, Carolina Adoption Services in Greensboro, in February and said they wanted a baby from the Southeast Asian country.

By August, the adoption agency had some news: There was an 8-month-old girl at the state-run Cambodian-French-Hungarian Friendship orphanage just outside of Phnom Penh. An adoption facilitator in Cambodia, Don Phan, sent via e-mail a photograph to Susan Wycoff, the Stultses' contact at the Greensboro adoption agency.

"We've got your little girl!" Pam remembers Wycoff saying.

"I'm so happy!" Pam said to Dean. Their daughter's name, they decided, would be Molly Rath Stults. Molly, a variation of Mary, means "wished-for child."

On Sept. 20, the Stultses got Molly's adoption certificate from Cambodia. They planned to travel there Oct. 19 but had to cancel after the embassy told them they needed to clear out older adoptions first. They tried to travel again a week later but canceled again after the embassy told them they couldn't find their documents. (The embassy officials later found the Stultses' paperwork.)

That week, the embassy also told them the INS could take up to two months to investigate the baby-trafficking allegations. The officials told the Stultses not to come to Cambodia unless they had received clearance for Molly's visa. Since Nov. 8, they have waited for news, hearing nothing from the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, even after intervention from Edwards' office. The adoption cases have now been moved to the U.S. embassy in Bangkok.

The allegations of baby trafficking became news in September, when Cambodian police took 13 children, including 10 infants, from an organization called the Asian Orphans Association. The police and human rights groups claimed people affiliated with the organization may have taken the children from their parents illegally. In October, a Cambodian court ordered the children returned to the agency, although the charges are still being investigated.

Last year, the Cambodian foreign ministry had limited adoptions after claims that poor villagers had been forced to give up their children, who were then sold to European couples. The country reopened adoptions this year, saying the problem had been fixed.

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Separating rumor from truth

Dean and Pam Stults believe the Cambodians. They also believe Molly was truly abandoned in a tiny village in Kandal province, in the country's south. The orphanage is state-run and does not appear to profit from having the children. And, Pam wonders, how could Molly's adoption have gone through so many departments in the Cambodian government if she really was a stolen child?

"According to the Cambodian government, this baby is ours," Dean said. "It's our government that's keeping us from her."

It was a hard fact to take this Christmas, when the Stultses thought Molly would be home at last. They were so sure they had even printed cards with her name on them.

They and their family had also gotten her presents, like the one still sitting on the little table in her bright yellow bedroom. Inside is an Asian baby doll, Molly's first toy from her parents. It took them a long time to find one, but they wanted Molly to feel good, like the perfect girl they believe she is.

"Everything is here," said Dean, smiling crookedly to suppress a broken sigh. "There's just one thing missing. The baby. Molly."

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