‘He’s our little boy and we can’t get to him’: Pandemic delays international adoptions for B.C. families

BOWEN ISLAND (NEWS 1130) – When Michelle Harrison found out she and her husband had finally been matched with a child, she imagined what it would be like to bring him home: the family would travel together to the boy’s home country in Africa, work on bonding with the four-year-old, see the orphanage he has grown up in, and spend time with the people who have been caring for him.

But in March, a month before they were supposed to meet their son for the first time, borders and offices began shutting down as COVID-19 spread around the world.

“It’s hard because he’s our little boy and we can’t get to him, we can’t take care of him,” Harrison tells NEWS 1130.

The Bowen Island family is one of at least a dozen families in B.C. who, after years of waiting, are seeing the most important step of their international adoption delayed.

They are keeping the boy’s name and country of origin private to protect his privacy.

“It’s been difficult, it’s been hard because, you know, you wake up in the morning, you see his little bed, you see his clothes,” says Harrison. “He had a birthday a few weeks ago which we celebrated without him at home and these moments and these events just keep passing by that are part of your family that you’re not able to share with your entire family so it’s been, it’s been really difficult.”

Harrison and her husband, who have a 13-year-old son together, always knew they wanted to adopt. The couple started the adoption process about three and a half years ago, and after going through all the steps and waiting to get matched, they finally were.

“We got this call over Christmas, and it was this amazing gift because we were with my family at that time,” Harrison recalls.

The couple spent the next few months planning their trip and finalizing the adoption, with a goal of bringing him home in the Spring.

“We’re so ready and we’re so excited and so in your mind you have this date. The date is around April or May: our family is going to travel, we’re going to get our son, we’re going to have this amazing trip where we meet him and spend time with him in his country and so you just sort of have this date, this looming date, where you know, trying to get things ready to go, trying to get these boxes checked, and then of course in March everything sort of shuts down.”

Initially, Harrison thought there would be a way for at least her or her husband to go alone, but so far the family has been unable to find a way to bring their boy home.

“Every month that passes, we say, ‘Oh, maybe in the next few weeks one of us can go,’ and then something changes and we’re not able to or more lockdowns are happening or flights are not happening so I think that’s the most difficult part, the unknown and wondering if we’ll celebrate his next birthday with him or if one of us will get stuck in Africa with him and not be able to get home or … there’s just so many layers and elements to it.”

Harrison says they don’t know when they’ll be able to bring their son — who doesn’t even know he’s been adopted — home, leaving the family in a painful limbo.

“He doesn’t know about us, which makes me happy for him because he’s not in this period of waiting, but I also think, ‘He doesn’t know about us, he doesn’t know that we’re all here waiting for him, and celebrating him, and wanting to be with him!'” she adds.

“You get these pictures of him from the orphanage and you see him growing up without you. We just want our little boy home.”

Delia Jane Ramsbotham, Managing Director of Sunrise Family Services Society in North Vancouver — one of only two licenced adoption agencies in the province — says they have over a dozen files where families have been matched with children overseas and the process has been delayed because of COVID-19.

“It takes a long time to get a match and so you wait and then you receive a match and the hope is people will travel within a few months to pick their child up and come home,” she tells NEWS 1130.

“I think it’s really challenging for families. Once they have a match they desperately want to go and meet the child and bring the child home and knowing that there’s delays in the normal course is one thing, but the uncertainty of when they’re going to be able to travel is really frustrating.”

There are also at least two B.C. families she knows of who are stuck overseas because when they left Canada to pick up their child international travel wasn’t affected, but then the pandemic worsened.

Locally, Ramsbotham says adoptions have generally been unaffected.

“[The pandemic] has posed challenges but I think thanks to technology and people’s willingness to make things work we’ve been finding solutions.”

She adds the pandemic has not affected interest in adoptions, either.

“We’ve been happily surprised that our numbers of families who’ve been applying to adopt haven’t dropped off,” she says. “I think for some people, being at home and perhaps having more time to turn their attention to and focus on adoption has given the opportunity and space to start home studies.”

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