Last summer, Vicki and Jed Taufer excitedly traveled from their home in Illinois to Nepal to adopt a baby girl. "We'll be back in September," Vicki wrote Aug. 4 in a new blog named after their daughter-to-be.
That hopeful timetable didn't hold.
Only this Sunday, after six challenging months in Nepal, is Vicki finally due home with 19-month-old Purnima. For most of that stretch the couple was divided, with Jed back at his job in the U.S. trying to minimize the huge financial hit resulting from the delay.
The very day of the Taufers' arrival in Katmandu — Aug. 6 — the U.S. government suspended adoptions of abandoned children from Nepal due to concerns about unreliable and fabricated documents such as birth certificates. As an example of the problems, U.S. officials cited a case where a child put up for adoption to America was being searched for by her Nepalese birth parents.
Pending adoptions by the Taufers and about 80 other U.S. families were put on hold and subjected to lengthy new investigations requiring the families to provide solid evidence that the children were indeed legitimate orphans. Many felt compelled to hire private investigators to make their case.
Some families abandoned their quest but more than 60 persevered. As of mid-January, 13 of them, including the Taufers, had received U.S. visas for their children, but most are still in limbo after months of uncertainty, separations and financial stress.
Many of the families have formed close bonds, sharing skepticism over the U.S. government's decisions and unwavering commitment to seeing their planned adoptions through to completion.
"The other moms — they've been my family for the past six months," Vicki Taufer said via Skype from Katmandu. "They are the only ones who understand what we went through."
The Taufers first met Purnima Jade, their new daughter, on Aug. 7 at the orphanage she'd entered as a newborn.
"She spent this afternoon eating my watch," Vicki Taufer wrote in a euphoric entry on her blog, nimajade.com. "I am going to have to get her some toys to chew on."
Taufer at one point gave a hug to one of the other babies at the orphanage.
"Nima got jealous and crawled right up onto my lap!" she wrote. "It was the best feeling in the world."
Within days, the couple began to realize that their hoped-for timetable had been thwarted by the suspension. They completed the adoption under Nepalese law and moved Purnima into their Katmandu apartment. By early September, Jed Taufer, 36, was headed back to work in Illinois, not to return to Nepal until a brief Christmas visit.
"The hardest part of the whole thing was not knowing what was going to happen and when it was going to happen," he said by phone.
He said his employers at a printing lab have been supportive, but the photography business that he and his wife started jointly 10 years ago in Morton, Ill., suffered greatly in the absence of Vicki, a 35-year-old professional photographer. One of the employees has been laid off, and they missed out on the peak pre-Christmas season.
"Right out of pocket, this adoption has cost about $100,000, when it should have been $30,000," Jed said. "You add the revenue we lost out on, and the total hit is maybe $250,000 or $300,000... We've been pushed to the limit, emotionally and financially as well."
Vicki Taufer said she and her husband had sold one of their cars and a mountain bike to raise funds. Eventually, they overcame potential embarrassment and solicited donations via PayPal on their blog. "Staying here with Nima is a decision that makes sense only in our hearts, but makes no sense financially," Vicki wrote in a note accompanying the appeal.
She declined to specify how much they raised, but credited gifts with helping Jed afford his Christmas visit.
"Even from total strangers, there's been unbelievable support," Vicki said.
One of her toughest moments came in late September, when she flew back to the U.S. for a three-week stint to shore up the photography business, feeling guilty as she left Purnima behind in the care of her visiting American grandparents.
"I feel so utterly and completely incomplete now that she is in Nepal and I am on my way back to the U.S.," Taufer blogged from the airport in New Delhi.
By Oct. 20, she was back in Katmandu, living through many more weeks of ups and downs. Purnima attended Sunday School, created minor chaos at a few restaurants, had her first jumps on a trampoline, and accompanied her mother on myriad visits to parks and shopping malls and local tourist attractions.
They bonded intensely with several other waiting families and coped with hardships unavoidable in one of the world's poorest nations. At one point, Vicki rushed to a clinic to check out an injury to Purnima's arm, only to find that the X-ray machine was knocked out by a power failure.
Vicki also collaborated with a private investigator who gradually was able to piece together the background to Purnima's abandonment. One benefit, Vicki noted, was obtaining a photo of her daughter as an eyes-closed, angelic-looking newborn.
On Jan. 12 — shortly after Jed Taufer had returned again to the U.S. — the phone rang in Katmandu, with word that Purnima's visa had been approved.
"MY FAVORITE FOUR LETTER WORD: V-I-S-A," Vicki blogged. "I am ecstatic, scared, hesitant, happy, nervous, excited, anxious, joyful."
U.S. officials insist that the suspension and the rigorous reviews of the pending adoption cases were justified by numerous earlier instances where Nepalese children's birth certificates were falsified.
Because of unreliable documents and "the general situation of noncooperation with and even active hindrance of investigations," U.S. authorities said they could no longer accurately determine whether a child qualifies as an orphan.
Susan Jacobs, the State Department's special adviser on children's issues, expressed empathy with the affected families even as she defended the suspension.
"I can only imagine their frustration," she said. "But we cannot be in the business of closing our eyes to what we see as significant problems."
Other countries — including Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Italy and Britain — preceded the U.S. in suspending adoptions from Nepal based on similar concerns.
Acknowledging some flaws, the Nepalese government has recently taken several steps to improve its adoption system — banning the adoption of street children, requiring better verification that a given child is an orphan, and tightening the oversight of organizations dealing with orphans. But there's no timeframe yet for when these and other possible reforms might prompt the U.S. and other countries to reauthorize adoptions.
In explaining its action, the State Department has cited one case in which a U.S. couple discovered that the Nepalese girl they were about to adopt from an orphanage was in fact being sought by her birth parents. It turned out that the girl and her brother had been placed at the orphanage by their father for temporary safekeeping and were not supposed to be put up for adoption.
"The whole experience was a nightmare," said Kyla Romanach, who, like her husband, Carlos, is an attorney in Baton Rouge, La. "When we realized there were parents looking for her, we knew we could never bring her back to the United States."
Several prominent adoption advocates have criticized the U.S. government's approach, including Chuck Johnson, CEO of the National Council for Adoption. He agrees that Nepal's record-keeping in regard to abandoned children is imperfect, but says the U.S. could have campaigned for better safeguards while keeping the adoption process on track.
"When you close down a country like that, you prevent even legitimate orphans from having families," he said. "The majority of these orphans who won't find families are going to enter into a world where they will be abused and exploited."
To bolster their case, the waiting families circulated a petition to Congress, wrote to President Barack Obama and circulated an open letter from Rob Buckley, an expert on human trafficking in Nepal, saying there was no link between the rampant trafficking problem and the orphanage/adoption system.
Irene Steffas, a Marietta, Ga.-based adoption lawyer working with 22 of the families affected by the suspension, says no instances of fraud have been turned up in the reviews of their cases. She contends that U.S. officials overreacted, rather than dealing pragmatically with adoption procedures in a country where poverty and a long-running insurgency fueled widespread child abandonment, impaired record-keeping, and hampered official investigative capabilities.
"Understanding the difference between Western regulations, customs and practices from those in Nepal is key," she wrote in a memo. "A fatal error is made when one tries to apply U.S. procedures to Nepalese cases."
Among the still-waiting couples are Celia and Chad Bergman, both 45, who say they've decided to sell their condominium in Chicago to help defray the unexpectedly high costs of persisting with efforts to adopt a 3-year-old daughter, Karina.
Like many of the other families, they invested thousands of extra dollars to hire a private investigator and an adoption attorney to handle the new requirements.
"We don't have any regrets about coming over to adopt her and start our life together," said Celia Bergman from Katmandu, where she and her husband have shared an apartment with Karina since November.
"It's hard," she said. "But we'll keep jumping through the hoops we have to jump through."
Her husband has just returned to Chicago to resume his job as a professor of theater and deal with the family's financial turmoil.
"My heart is pretty ripped right now," he said on the eve of his departure from Katmandu.
Even at the peak of international adoptions from Nepal a few years ago, no more than a few hundred children annually were adopted by foreigners — a drop in the bucket in a nation where, according to UNICEF estimates, nearly 1 million children under 18 are orphans out of a total population of about 29 million.
Some live on the street, but life can be harsh even for those in orphanages, according to Sharon Vause, one of the American mothers who settled in Katmandu while waiting for her own adoption to be approved.
During her five-month wait, Vause said she visited several orphanages — depicting them as chilly concrete buildings which, like much of the rest of the capital, had power only half the day during the winter and posed health risks for the children.
"It's a grim situation and one no parent would ever want for their child," said Vause. She sympathized with parents who had no choice but to leave their prospective sons and daughters in orphanages while questions about adoptions were resolved.
Vause and her husband, Joe, arrived in Katmandu on Aug. 17 to adopt a 3-year-old boy, Shekhar. Joe returned home to San Mateo, Calif., in early September to go back to work and care for their 6-year-old daughter; Sharon stayed behind with Shekhar and finally got word a few days ago that his visa had been approved.
"While I am grateful that we finally are able to travel home, I am worried about the families still awaiting visas — especially the ones where the children remain in the orphanages," she wrote by e-mail.
"They struggle to provide the basics such as food and warm clothes," she wrote. "And each of these children is as precious and wonderful as our son."
Similar thoughts crossed Vicki Taufer's mind as she made one of her last blog entries before heading back to the U.S. with Purnima.
"There are many beautiful things about Nepal," she wrote, "but I wanted to capture the reality of what many of the people's lives are like here in the overcrowded and polluted city of Katmandu.
"The hardest thing for me when I visit some of these places is to think about how it is very possible Nima could be one of these children. I am haunted by the faces I have seen. Children with runny noses in freezing cold orphanages, a toddler crying on a street corner because they are cold and hungry, a family huddled around a fire of burning garbage just to stay warm."
Preparing for the long flight home, Taufer tried to describe her mixed emotions — joy at the imminent homecoming, frustration that many of the other waiting families remained in limbo, anxiety over what lies ahead.
"This experience has created an incredible bond between me and my daughter," she wrote in an e-mail. "But now the realities and fears of returning home to pick up the pieces of everything that has been suffering because of our absence is starting to set in."
State Department info on Nepal adoptions: http://adoption.state.gov/news/nepalalerts.html
Blog created by the waiting families: http://theywaitnepal.blogspot.com/