By CASSIE MCKEE, Four Points News
A local mom says she can no longer remain silent about the struggle she and her husband have faced to bring their adoptive son home from Africa.
Steiner Ranch residents Andy and Sherri Smetana are taking their frustrations to the United States government, calling congressmen and senators one by one and urging them to put pressure on the Republic of Congo government, which is refusing to issue an exit letter for their son Henry, who they legally adopted. They have joined forces with hundreds of families across the United States urging Congress to take action.
“We are done being quiet,” said Sherri Smetana. “We are ready to get our kids home.”
Becoming a family
In November 2012, Andy and Sherri, who are also parents to 4-year-old twin girls, knew they wanted to adopt and began looking into the adoption process.
“I knew Africa was on my heart,” Sherri said. “I knew I wanted to adopt from Africa.”
A friend of hers had just adopted a child from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a war-torn country in central Africa. The Smetanas started the process and completed their paperwork in December 2012. On April 5, 2013, they received a photo of the little 5-day-old boy with whom they had been matched. The newborn baby had been found abandoned by a river. They named him Henry.
“When you’re in a corrupt place like that, when you’re in a third world country, you’re fighting for your own survival,” Sherri said.
The couple began the legal court process in the DRC and waited through a 30-day waiting period that allows any unknown relatives to come forward to claim the child, but nobody did. So on July 2, baby Henry became Andy and Sherri’s legal son. Sherri traveled to the DRC to meet Henry for the first time on his six-month birthday.
Once the adoption was finalized in the DRC, the couple had to begin the process with the U.S. government in order to bring Henry home. After completing paperwork with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the case is referred to the U.S. Embassy, which conducts an investigation that can last anywhere from four to six months.
“That takes a full five months so that the U.S. can determine that he is an orphan as defined by the United States,” Sherri said.
Once the investigation was complete, Henry was finally issued his United States Visa on Jan. 21, 2014. The only final remaining step was for the government of the DRC to issue an exit letter for Henry. The problem was that in September 2013, the DRC government closed its adoption office and stopped issuing all exit letters for adoptive children, saying it needed to look into its adoption process to ensure the safety of its children.
“They refuse to issue any exit letters and they refuse to tell us the reasons,” Sherri said. “They’re telling us that they want to improve their process, make sure it’s not unethical and make sure their kids are not trafficked.”
The DRC’s abrupt decision to stop issuing any exit letters has impacted 420 families in the United States alone who were somewhere in the adoption process, Sherri said. More than 120 of those families, including the Smetanas, already had Visas for their adopted children.
The families have joined forces with a non-profit called Both Ends Burning, which sent out a petition to gather signatures to urge members of Congress to take action. In four days, the petition received more than 100,000 signatures, including 10,000 signatures from Texas.
In addition, Sen. Landrieu from Louisiana authored a letter that is being sent to the President of the DRC. The letter was signed by 200 members of Congress, including Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and many Central Texas congressmen including Roger Williams, Lamar Smith, Michael McCaul and Lloyd Doggett.
Landrieu has also introduced legislation called Children in Families First (CHIFF) that already has 64 co-sponsors in the House and Senate. The bill would create an office within the Department of State to deal with international adoption issues such as this so that Congress doesn’t have to intervene each time.
“Right now, our focus is not on the Congo government,” Sherri said. “We don’t want to upset them, we don’t want to push them. Our focus is on our own government who has been a complete disservice to us.”
A DRC delegation is coming to the United States this week for a three week stay. One of their goals is to meet some American families who have adopted DRC children, Sherri said.
“We want the Department of State to meet with them, we want our congressmen to meet with them, we want our representatives to meet with them and say, ‘How can we work to make this better?’” she said.
Not Giving Up
While the family has been able to visit Henry twice in the last year, they recently celebrated his one-year birthday in Austin without him. They held a small celebration in his honor in their backyard. Sherri said during their last visit in March, Henry was healthy and doing well. She receives monthly photos from his foster mom.
“It’s not the same,” she said. “He should be here. There’s no reason why he’s not here. There’s no reason why we celebrated his birthday without him and there’s no reason the U.S. is not pushing this.”
While it is expensive to visit, costing an average of $3,500 for the couple to fly round-trip to DRC, she said they will continue to visit Henry every six months until he’s able to be brought home. The family has a website where people can donate toward their adoption expenses at www.youcaring.com/adoption-fundraiser/baby-boy-smetana-s-virtual-baby-shower/100465.
Sherri said they are thankful for the outpouring of support they have received.
“We have a lot of friends and family that have been extremely supportive to us, both financially and in prayer,” she said.
She feels hopeful that through the media attention they have been receiving, they can get the message out to Congressional leaders to take action.
“While God may be orchestrating this, we’re a piece of it,” she said. “We really feel like this is a huge story that we can tell our son, that not only were we fighting to bring him home but we helped bring many kids home in the future.”
“I could sit here all day and tell you how scared I am that somebody’s going to sell him or he’s going to get hurt or sick,” she added. “But there’s nothing I can do about that. He should be here already. He should be safe here. I can only focus on what I can do. And right now I’m thankful that I have something I can do. I can call my senators and representatives.”
To sign the petition urging your member of Congress to support the CHIFF legislation, visit http://www.petition2congress.com/15065/all-children-everywhere-need-families-help-right-wrong/