Foreign adoption rules place lives on hold

Guatemala illegal adoptions
A picture of Angie McDonald kissing child Jada Thao. McDonald has been trying to make her adoption of Jada official, but it's been on hold because of a bureaucratic delay.
CBS News

As millions of families gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, many of them still feel incomplete -- the family they thought they had on hold. As CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports, rules meant to protect foreign adoptions have also put the lives of children and their prospective parents in long-term limbo.

Angie McDonald remembers the joy when she was told she could adopt a baby girl.

"She's a dress girl," said McDonald as she showed the closet in Jada's room.

The girl was named Jada Thao. Authorities in Vietnam had approved the adoption, and when Angie was allowed her first visit with child, she recalled the promise she made.

"I just said, 'I am your mommy and I will come back for you. I can't take you today but don't ever give up.'"

But that was more than three years ago. Since then, the adoption of Jada Thao has been on hold, due to a series of bureaucratic, diplomatic and heartbreaking delays.

"What's she like?" Andrews asked.

"She's a delight," said McDonald.

McDonald, who is a psychology professor in Florida, believes officials in Vietnam and at the U.S. State Department don't care enough to complete the final paperwork.

"I don't know how many crying sessions I've had in that rocker over there," she said, "just praying she would get home somehow."

The halt in Jada Thao's adoption is part of a larger trend. Foreign adoptions by Americans have dropped by more than half since 2005 -- from around 22,000 per year, to 9,300 last year. In 2008, a treaty to protect against the "sale and trafficking in children" tightened the rules.

Tough questions by the State Dept led to a virtual halt in adoptions from Vietnam, Ethiopia and Guatemala -- a slowdown that surprised the parents in the middle of their adoption applications.

To the hundreds of American families waiting for pending legal adoptions, the crackdown on corrupt adoptions was the right decision, but the shutdown of whole countries to do that was wrong. They believe it slowed down legitimate cases and sentenced the children to indefinite stays in an orphanage.

Angie McDonald's case was stuck despite a full investigation. Officials in Vietnam and at the State Department call cases like hers their highest priority.

"I don't think they're doing everything they can," said McDonald."I think they kids would be home if that was the case."

At the State Department, Ambassador Susan Jacobs is the Special Adviser for Children's Issues and is responsible for adoption negotiations. She defends the crackdown on questionable adoptions and says she tries to speed up legal adoptions every day.

"Why has it been three years?" Andrews asked Jacobs.

"It has been three years because sometimes these cases don't move quickly," said Jacobs. "Not because we don't have the sense of urgency, but the other country doesn't."

Jada Thao is now almost four years old. "She should be starting pre-school right now," said McDonald.

Jada's room is still ready and she still waits, as the laws designed to protect her have locked her in place.

  • Wyatt Andrews
    Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.