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US parents stuck in Congo with adopted children

Thursday - 1/9/2014, 5:38pm  ET

This Dec. 7, 2013 photo provided by the family shows Mantuel family siblings, from left, Madeline, 6; Moses, 2, and Micah, 4, in Holly Springs, Ga. The Mauntels adopted Moses from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and were able to bring him home to Atlanta in October 2013. Until a suspension was announced in September 2013, the Congo had been viewed by adoption advocates in the U.S. as a promising option at a time when the overall number of international adoptions has been plummeting. (AP Photo/Mike Mantuel)

DAVID CRARY
AP National Writer

Justin Carroll is the proud dad of a 6-week-old daughter in Tennessee, but thus far he's done his doting via Facetime video phone calls from Africa. Since mid-November, Carroll has been living in Congo, unwilling to leave until he gets exit papers allowing two newly adopted sons to travel with him.

Carroll and his wife, Alana, are among scores of U.S. couples caught up in wrenching uncertainty, as a suspension of all foreign adoptions imposed by Congolese authorities has temporarily derailed their efforts to adopt.

While most of the families are awaiting a resolution from their homes in the U.S., Justin Carroll and a few other parents whose adoptions had been approved have actually taken custody of their adopted children in Kinshasa, Congo's capital. However, they say that promised exit papers for the children are now being withheld pending further case-by-case reviews, and the parents don't want to leave Kinshasa without them.

"Justin is not going to leave the boys," Alana Carroll said from the family's home in Jefferson City, Tenn., where she's been caring for biological daughter Carson since her birth on Nov. 25. Justin Carroll was not present for Carson's birth; he left for Africa almost a week earlier.

"In a dire situation, we would just move there," said Alana, referring to Congo. "Leaving our sons there is not an option."

According to UNICEF estimates, Congo -- long plagued by poverty and conflict -- is home to more than 800,000 children who've lost both parents, in many cases because of AIDS.

Until the suspension was announced in September, Congo had been viewed by adoption advocates in the U.S. as a promising option at a time when the overall number of international adoptions has been plummeting. Congo accounted for the sixth highest number of adoptions by Americans in 2012 -- 240 children, up from 41 in 2010 and 133 in 2011.

There are varied explanations for the suspension -- explanations which reflect how international adoption has become a highly divisive topic.

The U.S. State Department, in its latest Congo advisory, says all applications for exit permits for adopted children are facing increased scrutiny because of concerns over suspected falsification of documents. Congolese authorities earlier attributed the suspension to concerns that some children had been abused or abandoned by their adoptive parents or have been "sold to homosexuals."

"The government wants to get a handle on this matter, because there is a lot of criminality around it," Interior Minister Richard Muyej Mangez told The Associated Press last month.

The State Department has said it is trying to get accurate information with the hope of enabling some of the families -- such as the Carrolls -- to take home children whose adoptions had been approved prior to the Sept. 25 suspension. However, it has warned waiting parents that there could be significant delays.

American diplomats in Kinshasa have met with the waiting families and with Congolese officials to discuss the suspension, but Alana Carroll said the families wished the U.S. Embassy staff would press harder to get the cases moving.

"The ambassador said they didn't want to ruffle any feathers," Carroll said.

The Carrolls and four other families have dubbed themselves the "Stuck In Congo Five" and created a Facebook page to draw attention to their plight. Alana and two of the other mothers also have been communicating through their blogs.

One of them, Erin Wallace of Annapolis, Md., has been in Congo since October, awaiting exit papers that would enable her to bring newly adopted daughter Lainey home to her husband and their two other children.

She has urged readers of her blog to contact their congressional delegations on behalf of the five families.

"We are desperate to return home with our children," she wrote. "We have been stuck for too long."

Katie Harshman, another of the bloggers, also has been in Kinshasa since October. Her husband, Eric, a groundskeeper with the University of Kentucky athletics department, joined her for the first seven weeks before returning to work.

"There is no reason why we should still be here," Katie Harshman wrote in a recent post. "We have gotten caught in the middle of some kind of craziness."

The Harshmans, Wallaces and Carrolls have been working with Africa Adoption Services, a Louisville, Ky., agency founded by Danielle Anderson, a former consular staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa.

The spouses who are waiting in Kinshasa, along with their adopted children, are staying together in a guest house. Anderson has advised the Americans to be cautious about venturing out with the children, saying many Congolese people are suspicious about international adoptions.

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