Adoption was not our Modus Operandi. We liked our daily routines and we pretty much knew what each day would bring. Smooth sailing. For some time, though, I felt our family was called to adopt. My wife, however, did not. Our son Benjamin was the most vocal about wanting to. Every year the main thing he asked for his birthday and for Christmas was a sibling. I decided that the best approach was prayer and that if it truly was God's will for us to adopt then all of us would be on board. Then, in late April 2012, she told me that she, too, felt our family was called to adopt a child. With that, the process began.
Through much research and prayer, we decided to adopt from Ukraine. Of course, one of the big advantages of adopting from Ukraine is that it takes less than a year. In fact, it was 7 months from the time we started the process that we got our invitation from the SDA in Kiev to come over.
The door to the SDA office is a nondescript door on a wall with no windows. If it weren't for our facilitator taking us there, I'm not sure we would have found it the first time (Even though it is directly in front of St. Andrews).
It's hard to believe this unremarkable door is the doorway to an office where so many lives are changed forever. But then again, the wardrobe to Narnia was probably unremarkable looking too!
During warmer weather, people often wait in a line outside the door until their name is called. Since we went in winter, we waited at the bottom of the stairs inside. When your name is called, you go upstairs to a small office where you have one hour to look at files of children and choose one. We were shown 9 files (3 girls and 6 boys). If you don't pick a child, then you have to wait 10 days to get another appointment with the SDA. You can only get 3 appointments. If you don't choose a child by the third appointment, then you do not get another appointment and are returned your dossier. And we know people who have returned home empty-handed and broken-hearted.
As a side note, if you plan to do a "blind" adoption in Ukraine, it's best not to go in December of during the summer when many of the available children are out of the country due to hosting programs.
We picked Cava and had to come back the next day, between 4-5 pm for the referral letter (though we didn't actually get the letter until more like 7 pm). This letter is what we took when we went to the town where the boarding school Cava was in. His boarding school was a 4 hour drive from Kiev to the Odessa region to the district of Mykolayivsky and the town of Mykolayivka. Once there, we went immediately to the local SDA office to pick up the social worker to go with us to the boarding school to watch our initial meeting and interaction with Cava.
From there, we drove 2 miles outside the town to the boarding school itself.
The two buildings (above) are the ones the kids lived in. The one on the right is the building we stayed in while we were there and the one on the left was Cava's building where he lived on the second floor. Here's another photo of it:
There were long patches of ice that the kids liked to see who could slide the furthest on. They also enjoyed kicking around a deflated ball.
Once at the boarding school, we were shown to the lawyer's office. She offered us green tea and told us Cava's story, which our translator told us in English. After we had been there around 30 minutes, Cava was brought in. He was very quiet and polite. While he played with Benjamin, we asked questions of both the lawyer and, also of Cava. Then Danelle and I got down on the floor and played with the boys. It was only an hour before we were asked if we wanted to adopt Cava. I must admit, I was taken aback that the question came that soon, as I was expecting to spend more time with Cava before I decided. Instead, I asked if we could step outside the office and discuss it as a family. As I've written in my blog, the first thing Danelle said was, "We can't leave that boy behind," and the first thing Benjamin said was, "He's my brother." So when our translator came out and asked us if we'd made our decision, I replied, "We want to adopt Cava."
We then spent a few days in the boarding school. Since we were staying on a floor with kids 10 - 13 years of age, they were very curious about us. At first, they would just walk past our room and say, "Hello." It was only after they say me drawing Spongebob for Cava that their timidity disappeared and they all wanted me to draw pictures for them. I spent 3 hours the first night drawing whatever they asked me to draw. Most kids asked me to draw a superhero or boxers, but one boy asked me to draw him in a family like ours.
It did not take long for me to fall in love with these beautiful kids.
They absolutely loved posing for photographs and in many of them they wanted to hold up pillows. When I asked our translator about this, she informed me that the kids had sewn the pillows and were very proud of their work.
They also had a spot on the wall of things they were proud of that they had made:
I think one of the biggest shocks for Benjamin was that they didn't have any toys. On the kids beds were a few stuffed animals and that was it:
Some of them had small photo albums in which they kept what was of value to them: photos, candy wrappers, and stickers. One of the older girls, who was 14, came into our room while I was drawing for the group of kids that always surrounded me when I did and handed her photo album to my wife and told her, "Give this to him because I am grateful." She gave me one of her prized possessions because I simply drew her some pictures. When Danelle showed this to me later that night, I was overcome with emotion and will treasure this small album forever.
The kids days were very regimented: up at 7 am, chores, exercises, dressed and then breakfast before school. While Cava was in school, we would go into town to get papers signed or notarized. One thing you learn quickly in international adoptions is that there is a lot of waiting involved.
Other times, we waited in our room and played card games or read. Benjamin did homework. Then Cava would burst into our room with a big smile and a bigger, "Hello!" He didn't like other kids coming into our room and he would shut the door on them with, "Nyet! My family!" It was on our first full day with him that he began to call me "Papa" and my wife "Mama."
Later that week, we returned to Kiev to get all of our paperwork processed in the hopes of getting a court date before we returned to the United States. It broke our hearts to leave the kids, especially Cava.
Thanks to our translator, we were successful in getting a court date before the government shut down on December 26th for Christmas and the New Year.
Now we had heard a great deal about how difficult court could be and how personal the questions could be, so we were very nervous about going, but we were thrilled to be returning to the town and getting to see Cava before we flew back for the States. He was excited to not only see us again but to get his Mishka. He even asked our translator to ask us, "Do I really get to keep it?"
On the way to court, Cava kept asking, "Papa, telephone. Papa, telephone." At first I didn't understand what he was referring to since I didn't bring one, but then it dawned on me that he was wanting to see my iPod. When I let him see it, he took this photo of himself and Benjamin:
The court room was small and Benjamin was shocked to see a jail cell in the court room. We sat on a long wooden bench until the judge entered with two jurors. Along with them, there was the court stenographer, the lawyer from the boarding school, the social worker, a prosecuting attorney, and our translator. Each of us was called individually to approach the bench by standing at a podium. From there, we were each asked questions by the judge and, after him, by anyone else present. I went first, then Danelle, Benjamin, and, lastly, Cava (who was too short to stand behind the podium and so he had to go and stand directly in front of the judge). We were asked about our home, our jobs, our salaries, why we wanted to adopt, why we wanted to adopt from Ukraine, and a myriad of other questions. Something I was asked was, "Would I treat Cava the same as Benjamin?"
Cava was asked if he wanted to be adopted by us. If he had said, "No," as we have heard that there are kids who have done this, then it would have been over. But Cava told them he wanted us to adopt him, that he wanted us to be his family, and that he wanted to go to America. In fact, earlier that morning, when the lawyer asked him, "Cava, do you know where you are going today?" He replied, "To America." She had to correct him and let him know, "No, today you are going to court so that they can become your family."
After Cava was done, the judge and jurors left the courtroom to deliberate. A short time later, they returned and the judge made it official that we were to be Cava's family. Every one present congratulated us and our translator gave us hugs. It was all I could do not to cry for joy right then and there.
We were saddened that we had to leave Cava again and return to the U.S., but Ukraine requires a 10 day waiting period after the court decree to publish in local papers about the adoption to see if anyone would come forward to contest the adoption taking place.
Before we left, Cava had to show all of the kids his Masha and the Bear book and his Mishka. It was only then that we saw the only toys we'd seen the kids playing with: two broken preschool toys.
We also got our translator to take our very first photo as an "official" family in front of the small chapel on the boarding school's grounds:
It broke my heart to leave not only him, but the 12 year old girl I'd gotten attached to. Many have asked and, yes, I inquired about adopting her. I was told that to do so, we would have to start the whole adoption process over again and, by that time, she may or may not even be available. For now I will keep an eye to see if she shows up in a hosting program. Not a day has passed since that I have not prayed for her or those kids we have met.
One thing we found out was that just because a child is in an orphanage does not mean they are available for adoption. Some kids are placed in orphanages for a brief period of time because their parents can't afford to keep them. It's legal there to write a letter stating this and the child or children can stay for 6 months. After that, the parents have to write another letter.
In rural, agricultural areas, poor farming families often put their kids in orphanages during the winter months because they can't afford to keep them and they know they will get better care from the state. Then, when the warmer months return and they need the kids to work the farms, they take them out of the orphanages.
Other kids have siblings and in Ukraine, they won't break up sibling groups (Even when the children don't even know they have brothers or sisters). Two of the girls we met had 7 other siblings.
After the 10 day waiting period, Danelle returned to Kiev. She was picked up at the airport by the translator and driver and driven immediately to the boarding school where she spent the night. Early the next morning, they left to head to to the nearby town of Mykolayivka to get a copy of his birth certificate, then the district where Cava's (near the town he was born in ) to get his birth certificate changed to reflect that we were his new parents.
After getting the birth certificate, Danelle went back to the orphanage to get Cava so they could apply for his passport in Odessa the next day. Before they left, Danelle took a photo of Cava with his friends. They and his caregiver were all saddened to see him go.
Once that task was accomplished, they drove to Odessa (birthplace of the poet Anna Akhmatova) to apply for Cava's passport.
The next day, they then drove 7 hours back to Kiev to wait for the passport. It was only after they received Cava's passport that they could then go to the American Embassy to apply for Cava's Visa. She and Cava stayed in Kiev for 7 days before they left on a Saturday to arrive in Charlotte on Sunday. Benjamin and I greeted them at the airport.
Once home, our real journey began!