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 American 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 US, Mr. 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," Ms. 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. Mr. 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 US 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 Ms. Carroll said the families wished the US Embassy staff would press harder to get the cases moving.
"The ambassador said they didn't want to ruffle any feathers," Ms. 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, Kentucky, agency founded by Danielle Anderson, a former consular staffer at the US 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.
Anderson said it's difficult to pinpoint why authorities there suspended adoptions.
"It's financial, it's political, it's because of severe homophobia," she said. "But in the end, kids are getting stuck and families are not being united."
In the past two years, Africa Adoption Services has helped dozens of families complete adoptions from Congo, generally for a cost of about $27,000, excluding travel.
Among the successful couples were Emily and Mike Mauntel of Atlanta, whose 2-year-old son, Moses, came home in October. The couple also have a 4-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter.
"My heart is breaking for these five families stuck in the Congo and for the many more families waiting to bring their children home," Emily Mauntel wrote in an email. "I was in the Congo for almost four months trying to bring our son home and it was by far the most difficult time in my life."
Among the US agencies active in Congo is MLJ Adoptions, founded by Indianapolis attorney Michele Jackson, who has two sons adopted from the Congo.
Even before the suspension, Jackson said, the international adoption process in Congo could be slow, with US authorities often taking six months or more to verify that children were not part of any trafficking or baby-selling scheme. In at least recent three cases, Jackson said, children died of disease during the vetting process.
Ms. Carroll said one of her two new sons, Canaan, was sickly and introverted when her husband began caring for him, and is now thriving. But the long separation has taken an emotional toll.
"It was like a dream come true and now it's like nightmare I can't wake up from," she said.