War, red tape keep would-be family apart

In a spacious, waterfront house on Turkey Point Island south of Annapolis, a family is waiting for a child that they've never seen. They have signed him up for soccer, and he is expected this fall at the local elementary school.

But Baruch Chea, the 9-year-old recently adopted by Naomi and David Talbott, is trapped in Liberia. He is among about 30 children adopted by U.S. families but unable to emigrate because of delays in obtaining visas in the West African nation torn by civil war.


The American families and their supporters complain that the children face needless danger and near-starvation because of bureaucratic delays on the part of the U.S. Embassy in Liberia.

They have called on congressional representatives and the U.S. Department of State to intervene and speed up the process or make sure the children are moved to a safe place.


Baruch and hundreds of other orphans have lived in an abandoned government building in Monrovia since their orphanage was taken over by soldiers two weeks ago, according to the agency that runs the orphanage. They have been desperate for food and captive to the violence that has shaken the capital.

"When you find your child is in a refugee status, in a war zone, and it is within the State Department's ability to help them but they are deciding for some reason or other not to, that is a big disappointment for me and the other families," David Talbott said. "These are our kids."

State Department officials say they recognize the families' concerns but say their ability to speed up the process is limited because of the situation in Liberia and the need to assure that each adoption is legitimate.

"While we remain concerned [about these children], the ongoing violence and general security situation in Liberia makes conducting these investigations impossible," said Kelly Shannon, spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington, D.C.

There were 51 immigrant visas issued to Liberian orphans in 2001, out of more than 19,000 visas to orphans adopted from around the world, according to the State Department. International adoptions can be affected by international conflict and turmoil within those countries.

For the Talbotts and other waiting families, their children remain in one of the world's most dangerous countries, devastated by 14 years of civil war, where food and supplies became even more limited under this summer's upsurge in violence.

Many of the adopted children have been recognized by U.S. immigration officials as legal relatives of the American families. But Shannon said that, until they are naturalized, they are not afforded the same protection as American citizens.

The Talbotts decided to adopt a Liberian child last year after meeting a family that had adopted two children from Liberia and one from neighboring Sierra Leone. They thought, "If we are really going to adopt a child, where is the need most desperate?" David Talbott said.


The family was in a transition, they said. Naomi's daughters from a previous marriage are grown; one married last year, and the other went away to college. The Talbotts' only child together, Kelly, 11, was finishing her last year in elementary school.

The couple decided "to share all the blessing we have in our lives with someone who doesn't have the same advantages," Naomi Talbott said.

The family began the adoption process in July 2002 through the agency Plan Loving Adoptions Now Inc., in McMinnville, Ore. By January, they had chosen Baruch from a picture of him in baggy jeans, smiling shyly in front of a red curtain. The picture is now displayed on a shelf in their living room.

Since the adoption became official in Liberia in March, the Talbotts have talked to Baruch twice by cell phone and sent him a photo album with members of the family labeled.

They have also begun to think of him as their son.

The U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services approved Baruch's immigration to the United States in April, the Talbotts said. But the process was stymied by this summer's violence in Liberia and the U.S. Embassy's policy of full field investigations to make sure that an adopted child is indeed an orphan before issuing a visa.


Shannon, from the Bureau of Consular Affairs, said the embassy "cannot legally or in good faith" issue visas without those investigations. And while she could not discuss specific cases, she said the climate of violence in the country has held up the issuance of visas in general.

But the Talbotts and a nonprofit group, Ethica, which advocates for ethical adoptions, criticize the consulate's policy in Liberia. Trish Maskew, executive director of Ethica, said several of the adopted Liberian children have been in an orphanage for several years.

"These children are quite literally starving to death," said Maskew, who has been in Washington to meet with State Department officials and congressional staff this week. "In the meantime, we have 30 children that don't need to be there, and the only thing keeping them there is the Department of State."

Baruch lost both of his parents to the violence and despair in his country. His father was shot by rebels when Baruch was an infant, the Talbotts say. His mother disappeared soon after, while searching for food.

The U.S. Embassy completed its field investigation into Baruch's status and certified him as an orphan in July, just as rebel forces moved on the capital, the family says.

Then, on July 28, the David Hoover Children's Home in Dixville, Liberia, was raided by government militia, said Adam Tulay, who is office manager in the South Carolina headquarters of African Christian Fellowship International, which runs the orphanage and three others in Liberia.


Tulay said the soldiers evacuated the orphanage's staff and more than 500 children at gunpoint. They beat the director, ransacked the building of its food and other supplies and took it for their own.

The children were led by caretakers on foot for about 24 miles into Monrovia. Eventually, they took shelter in an abandoned government building, where Baruch and the others still were earlier this week. according to ACFI contacts.

Every day continues the struggle to find food and the threat of the surrounding violence, Tulay said. A smaller orphanage ran by ACFI in the northern part of Liberia was bombed a few months ago, and only about 75 of 125 children can be accounted for, Tulay said.

The Talbotts follow news from Liberia carefully and worry about the child whose bunk bed is waiting upstairs in their house. Each report of starving children in Liberia or youngsters pushed into service with the government or rebel militias makes them worry more.

"We have a lot of people we are praying for, Baruch and all the people of Liberia," said Naomi Talbott.