A Family Apart

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Two days before Tony and Kelli Spooner were to leave for Africa to pick up their two adopted children, they received a phone call telling them not to come.

It was the news that adoptive parents know they could hear as they work their way through the adoption process, but the Spooners were still stunned. The adoption of their two children from the Democratic Republic of Congo — five-year-old Dimercia and Felly, who will turn four in March — was complete.

The adoption agency called to explain that the General Direction of Migration (DGM), a division of the Congolese government that oversees the final step of the adoption process, had decided to no longer issue exit permits to any adopted children.

The exit permits are the last step in a long list of requirements to adopt from the DRC and is the final piece of paperwork necessary to allow children to leave. Without the permits, the children must remain in the country, regardless of their adoptive status.

Kelli and Tony Spooner have traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo twice. Here they are with their adoptive children, Felly, left, and Dimercia, right, in July 2013. Although complete, the adoption has been stalled because of the Congolese government’s refusal to grant exit letters, a final piece of paperwork that allows the children to leave their country.

Kelli and Tony Spooner have traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo twice. Here they are with their adoptive children, Felly, left, and Dimercia, right, in July 2013. Although complete, the adoption has been stalled because of the Congolese government’s refusal to grant exit letters, a final piece of paperwork that allows the children to leave their country.

Which is where Dimercia and Felly have been since the decision was made by the Congolese government 15 months ago, even though the two are — in all other respects — officially the Spooners’ children.

“Our adoption is finalized,” Mrs. Spooner explained. “What they are doing is not legal. They are not supposed to be holding them …

… They are our kids.”

Despite the hardships that the Spooners have endured throughout the past two years, the couple has remained positive and has even been able to travel to the country twice to spend time with the children.

The first trip was in July 2013, shortly before the suspension. The Spooners traveled to the DRC to file paperwork in person in an effort to expedite the process. The details of their original adoption had just changed significantly: The Spooners were originally set to adopt a different boy, Paul, but his grandfather claimed his parental rights.

Felly was then referred to them almost immediately.

The Spooner’s second visit to the DRC came last spring, and both visits proved to be a bonding experience for the family.

“We spent a lot of time swimming with them, cooking for them, eating with them,” Mrs. Spooner said. “Just doing the typical things that I don’t think they get a lot of. We had so much fun going to the store with them, ordering pizza, just everyday things like a family.”

They aren’t planning another trip anytime soon but see and talk to their children via Skype weekly. Although the Spooners miss Dimercia and Felly terribly, their hearts are with all of the children impacted by the suspension.

“If they don’t ever come home, our lives are the same. We have our families, our traditions and our daily lives,” Mrs. Spooner said. “These kids have nothing. In all reality, the only people who have suffered are the children. Our daughter is learning our language. Our son is learning to color. And they don’t have anyone to celebrate that with.”

On hold, indefinitely

The DGM claims that the suspension of exit visas will be lifted once new adoption laws are written but give no indication when that might occur. According to the U.S. State Department, the DGM is convinced that no adoptions are free of fraud. This means that any families who were in the process of adopting from that country now must wait indefinitely for exit permits.

Mrs. Spooner is hopeful that the DGM’s intentions are indeed to help the children by enacting new adoption laws that will provide protection and help adoptive parents. But she is skeptical.

“The president’s term is up, but he is challenging the term limits,” she explained. “And the United States is not in support of that.”

Last year, the U.S. pledged millions of dollars in aid to help ensure credible elections in the 2016 primary after speculation mounted that DRC President Joseph Kabila looked to extend his presidency beyond constitutional limits by seeking a third term.

Dimercia and Felly stay in a foster home, and even though the home is managed by a foster family, it is regulated by the Congolese government. Although neither the adoption agency nor the government has requested more money from the Spooners, Kelli and Tony pay $1,000 a month for their children’s care, housing and education. Twenty other children whose adoptions are also stalled are housed in the same foster home.

Regardless of the motivation, the suspension has hurt the Congolese children. As late as last summer, the DGM refused to consider exit permits even for humanitarian consideration. This staunch stance against lifting the ban ultimately resulted in deaths.

“There have been at least 10 kids who have died, medically fragile kids that they have refused to let leave,” Mrs. Spooner said.

‘Our desire to fight has not changed’

The Spooners remain undeterred. They continue to renew the children’s visas every six months, in an effort to be prepared in case the suspension is lifted.

“Our lives have been on hold – and rightfully so – but now it’s time for us to live our lives. We’re waiting for them and praying for them,” Mrs. Spooner said. “Our desire to fight for them has not changed, but we have to let go of that little bit of hope that they will come home anytime soon.”

She explained that the worst thing that could happen would be for the Congolese government to close its doors and not permit the adopted children to ever leave, but Mrs. Spooner doesn’t see that happening. She said that the U.S. State Department provides support to her and other other adoptive families through updates and meetings with DRC leaders.

But mostly the Spooners have hope, hope that they have been provided by the St. Maries community through financial help and genuine concern.

“We don’t know how, but we are ok,” Mrs. Spooner said. “Even with all we’ve been through, we will never eliminate adoption as an option because of what we’ve experienced from this community.”

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