Thalia Jeffres and Dave Krofssik were told it would take less than a year to adopt a child from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
That was in the spring of 2012. Because the Congolese government requires couples to be married for five years before adopting, Jeffres and Krofssik agreed it would be faster for Jeffres to file as a single parent.
The match came in October 2012 with a 2 1/2-year-old boy, Changa Changa.
Two and half years later, the couple is still engaged – and their child is still in Africa.
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“This has destroyed my life,” Jeffres said. “It has destroyed it.”
Jeffres, a Wichita State University math professor, chose to adopt a child specifically from the Congo because she has followed the nation’s political upheaval since the fall of President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. Since then, more than 30 armed groups have vied for power, killing and raping millions, according to Foreign Affairs magazine.
UNICEF estimates more than 4 million children in the Congo are orphans. Prior to 2013, many parents saw the Congo as a country with a quick turnaround adoption process, said Kelly Dempsey, director of Both Ends Burning, an advocacy group that helps families who face significant international adoption roadblocks.
That isn’t the case anymore.
In September 2013, the Congolese government issued a yearlong ban on exit permits to adopted Congolese children seeking to depart the country with their adoptive parents. The exit permits, along with U.S. visas, are required for children traveling to the United States from the Congo, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Dempsey said there are at least 450 U.S. families whose children qualify for exit permits that the Congolese government refuses to issue.
Benjamin Dillow, another orphan with a U.S. visa, died in 2014 in the Congo while waiting for his exit visa. Thirteen more orphans have died since then, said Julia Holtgrewe, Jeffres’ case manager at Wasatch Adoption Agency.
Jeffres said U.S. officials have repeatedly acknowledged they do not know why the Congolese government is doing this.
Dempsey has her own ideas.
“The reasons they’ve provided have shifted over the course of the suspension,” she said. “I believe it’s a political move to aid in (President Joseph) Kabila’s quest for a third term.”
In the winter of 2013, the U.S State Department began a routine investigation to prove Changa’s status as an orphan. Just before the couple expected to receive Changa’s visa, the State Department halted the investigation. It was too dangerous for officials to visit, Jeffres said.
Eventually, the department revised the policy. But the damage was done. Six months had been lost.
The U.S. government issued Changa’s visa on Sept. 24, 2013. The next day, the Congolese government announced the suspension.
A month later, the General Directorate of Migration – the Congo office that issues exit permits – clarified that the Congolese government would honor “grandfathered” cases, ones in which the paperwork passed prior to the Sept. 25 announcement. However, parents had to apply in person, and the process could take up to two weeks.
Jeffres, 52, and Krofssik, 59, do not remember much about the 30-hour flight to the Congo. They don’t remember the number of flight layovers they had or what food was served. What Jeffres does remember is holding Changa’s one-way return ticket in her hand.
“We got the green light from both governments,” she said. “We left the U.S. fully expecting to bring him home in two to three weeks.”
After assuming custody of Changa, the couple went to the migration department to obtain his exit permit.
Jeffres wasn’t worried when paperwork wasn’t accepted right away. She had previous experience dealing with low-level bureaucrats while living in Mexico for six years, so she assumed the process was just delayed.
They visited the migration office a few times unsuccessfully and spent the remainder of their time with Changa. Jeffres showed Changa photo books of what American vegetables look like, what his American home would look like, what his life would soon be like.
Krofssik joined her for the first week before returning to work at Envision. Jeffres stayed with Changa, teaching him French so the two could communicate with each other.
“We did well, considering it’s both our third language,” she said with a smile.
It wasn’t until several weeks had passed that Jeffres fully understood the situation: Despite the Congolese government’s promise to honor the grandfathered cases and the fact that Changa’s case had already been approved and paid for, the government refused to issue Changa’s exit permit.
Jeffres stayed as long as she could – three months – until she had used up all of her leave from work. Defeated and without any control, she left Africa – and her already adopted child – behind.
“He’d already been orphaned once,” Jeffres said. “I think of him now as a two-time orphan.”
In June 2014, the Congo agreed – again – to accept the grandfathered cases.
With renewed hope, Jeffres flew back to Kinshasa, the Congo’s capital, alone. Upon reuniting with Changa, she noticed what six months in the world’s seventh most impoverished country had done to her son. Shuttled from orphanage to orphanage, he had lost a significant amount of weight.
Officials at the U.S. Consulate told her they were “just waiting for the call (from the Congolese government).”
The call never came.
On May 29, 558 days after Jeffres and Krofssik attempted to hand over the necessary paperwork, the Congo accepted their file. But it was handed off to a different office, one that isn’t responsible for issuing exit permits yet balances 1,300 cases from around the world, Jeffres explained.
“I’ve heard from friends over there that it’s a circus,” she said. “They’ve got everything but the elephants.”
As of June 2, the U.S. Department of State placed an alert on its website’s Congo page: “The Department of State continues to ask all adoption agencies not to refer new Congolese adoption cases for U.S. prospective adoptive parents. The Department of State strongly recommends against initiating an adoption in the DRC at this time.”
As paperwork and politics continue to thwart the family’s reunion, Jeffres sends checks to Kinshasa so Changa can live in a foster home. She estimates she has spent at least $80,000 since 2012.
Krofssik and Jeffres are still engaged. Getting married now would only “muddy the paperwork,” Krofssik said.
The couple bought a car seat before the first flight, back when they expected to bring their toddler home. Changa, now 5, has since outgrown it.
Holtgrewe, who flies to the Congo multiple times a year for her job, said Jeffres writes a letter every day to a government official so she can “keep her son’s name in the forefront of their minds.”
No letters are needed to keep her in Changa’s mind.
“Every time I see him, he looks past me for her,” Holtgrewe said. “Then he asks, ‘Where’s Mama?’ ”
Reach Kelly Meyerhofer at 316-268-6357 or email@example.com