As their long-anticipated trip to China to complete an adoption approached, Beth and Jason Chandler started hearing about the coronavirus outbreak. They didn’t think it would impact their plans.
A week before the scheduled departure Jan. 30, they found out the trip might be in jeopardy. On Jan. 27, the couple from Lowell, Indiana – about 40 minutes south of Chicago – learned they would not meet their new daughter as planned.
Three days later, the U.S. Department of State raised its travel advisory for China to level 4, meaning do not travel, because of the fast-spreading virus.
“It was crushing,” Beth Chandler said. “I’m still living out of my suitcase, because I haven’t even unpacked, and I really don’t want to. It’s just so sad.”
That’s a feeling shared by dozens of families who spent the better part of a year making arrangements to adopt a child from China.
The State Department didn’t provide an estimate for how many families had to delay trips to complete the process, saying adoptions have not been put on hold because of the outbreak, but U.S. citizens are advised not to travel to China.
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There have been more than 45,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 1,000 deaths in mainland China, the majority in Hubei province, especially the city of Wuhan.
The Chandlers said they got the bad news from their adoption agency. Since then, Beth Chandler has been in touch with other prospective parents in a similar situation through a Facebook group. Some of them participate in a prayer chain for the would-be adopted children, who add up to 25.
Anxiety about the wait, concern about the children’s health and uncertainty about when they’ll be able to join the families are common themes of discussion among the expectant parents. Their numbers are likely to increase until the outbreak is contained.
“Usually, we have anywhere from one to four families travel every month, so we know this is going to start snowballing until some more of this gets under control,” said Anna Graham, COO of America World Adoption in McLean, Virginia, which the Chandlers are using for a second time. “We’re trying to calm our anxious families who have fallen in love with children they hope to make a part of their family, and they’re waiting to see what we can do to get them to China once it’s safe.”
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U.S. adoptions from China dwindled in recent years as the world’s most populous nation rescinded its one-child policy in 2015, imposed more restrictions on international adoptions and becaome more open to domestic ones. The majority of Chinese children eligible for adoption have special needs, and few are younger than 2 years.
Still, China remains a popular option for Americans seeking to add to their families.
According to a State Department report on inter-country adoptions in 2018 – the report for 2019 is due out in March – Americans adopted more children from China than from anywhere else, by far. China was the nation of origin in 1,475 out of 4,059 total adoptions. The next closest was India with 302.
Graham pointed out that children in irregular living arrangements such as orphanages are especially vulnerable to medical crises, so it’s critical that finalization of adoptions gets restarted as soon as possible. As it is, a large number of the children in those circumstances require extra care.
Jodi Miyama, vice president of adoption services for All God’s Children International in Vancouver, Washington, said her agency places 25 to nearly 50 Chinese kids with U.S. families every year. All of them have special needs.
“The children who are eligible for adoption now in China definitely often have a combination of more complex needs and are typically older than in the past,” Miyama said. China is processing the initial paperwork required for adoptions but not the finalizing steps, she said.
The added challenges that special-needs kids present have not been an obstacle for many American families. In 2018, the Chandlers adopted a 3-year-old girl from Beijing whom they named Cora. She had developmental delays but is doing fine.
The sister she eagerly awaits to meet, who will be named Sophie, is 3 years old and has Down syndrome.
“She may not be what the world considers perfect, but to us, she is. To us, she’s already our daughter,” said Beth Chandler, the mother of three biological sons. “We want to give her a beautiful life and every possible opportunity.”
Exactly when they’ll get a chance to do so remains undetermined. Adoption agency leaders said the State Department has been responsive to their concerns and kept them informed, but there are no immediate answers to some of their questions.
One thing the State Department advisory did was take an extremely difficult decision out of the hands of families, who faced a dilemma: They could go and risk contracting the virus and exposing their new child to illness, or they could wait and hope their new family member did not get sick in their absence, when they could do little to help. Some wondered what would happen if they got quarantined in China and couldn’t return home for weeks.
Such were the predicaments running through the minds of Toni and Dayton Puckett, a couple from Farmville, Virginia. They were scheduled to fly to China on Jan. 30 to adopt a little girl they plan to name Vera Riese.
“It feels like such an understatement to say that weighing the sides of that decision was a completely agonizing experience. It felt like either decision could have dire consequences affecting someone we loved,” Toni Puckett said via e-mail. “We have felt peace about the delay, but we have also been very sad about it, especially during the past week and a half while we were supposed to be in China.”
The Pucketts, who have three biological children and planned to take their 15-year-old daughter on the trip, pondered what those days would have been like. They were supposed to meet their daughter Feb. 3 and return on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, which is the 22nd anniversary of the day they got engaged.
Instead, they try not to get consumed with worry about how the 3-year-old girl is doing. They were heartened when they heard from the orphanage Monday that all the kids there are healthy.
“I could lose my mind worrying about her, but instead, I choose to believe that God loves her even more than I do and that China is taking every precaution possible to keep the children healthy,” Toni Puckett said. “I just have to have faith that she will be OK until we can get to her.”
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