Monday, May 17, 2010

When will Ethan come home?

A blue and red backpack is stuffed. Among its contents: a sticker activity book, an Etch-A-Sketch and the popular children's book, “Gallop!”

But the book's spine isn't cracked, the Etch-A-Sketch doesn't have a scribble and the stickers are in place ready to be peeled.

The backpack belongs to Ethan, and it has been waiting for him for more than two years.

“We have everything he needs, but he's not here,” Stephanie Umberger said as she sifted through a pile of boys clothes — some still containing tags — at her La Quinta home.

Umberger and her husband, Jim, are among a group of hopeful parents dubbed “The Waiting 65.”

The American families are waiting to complete adoptions of about 65 orphans from Kyrgyzstan.
The adoptions have been on hold since late 2008, when the country — a former annexed territory of Russia west of China — placed a moratorium on intercountry adoptions because of reports of corruption and fraud.

The Umbergers have already adopted three children, a boy and a girl from Mississippi and another girl from Russia.

But their family won't be complete until Ethan arrives, they say.

The waiting hurts.

“When we go out to dinner, we feel like there's an empty seat,” Stephanie Umberger said. “Though it's hard to fathom the love you can feel for a child you've only met a few times, we do love him because he's our son.”

The Umbergers have been fighting to bring 4-year-old Ethan, whose birth name is Ruslen, to the United States since they met him for the first time on Feb. 14, 2008 — just months before the country decided to overhaul its adoption system.

According to the Umbergers, Ethan's mother died when he was a baby and there is no record of his father.

“Emotionally, it would be easier to just quit,” Stephanie Umberger said. “But we've thought about it 1,000 times and just can't do it. For this little boy, we're his hope for a better future.”

Stunted growth

The Umbergers said they were inspired to try for another intercountry adoption after watching their Russian-born child, Ariana, transform upon her arrival in the United States.
They learned firsthand how orphans in that region are stunted mentally and physically.
According to the Bucharest Early Intervention Study conducted on institutionalized children, children outside of family care lose one month of growth for every three months living in an institution.

The study has shown that institutionalized children generally lose one IQ point per month, diminishing intellectual performance to the point of borderline mental retardation, according to the Joint Council on International Children's Services. It is an advocacy group that lobbies for children's rights that conducted the study.

“We watched (Ariana) come to our home and transform before our eyes,” and wanted to be able to help another child the same way, Stephanie Umberger said.

“That experience made us realize that these kids are in institutions throughout the world and they don't have hope to have a normal life,” she said.

Jim Umberger said it was particularly important for them to adopt a child that was at least 3 years old. That's because they learned, during the adoption process with Ariana, “that once children reach the age of 3, they virtually have no chance of ever getting adopted because all the people adopting kids are always looking for babies.”

Then on Jan. 5, 2008, the couple received word that Ethan was available for adoption. Within a month, they were in Kyrgyzstan.

Broken ‘promise'

The Umbergers said they will never forget their first meeting.

In the midst of the “chaos” — children jumping and screaming, “Ruslen, your mama and papa from America!” — there was an adorable little boy that just looked like he fit in the family.
“Physically, we marveled at how much he looked like Alex and me,” Jim Umberger said of Ethan's resemblance to their oldest son.

But most striking, he said, was his tender and pensive demeanor.

“He seemed very compassionate and caring,” Jim Umberger said. “And when he played with his Lincoln Logs and Legos, he was really focused. You could tell he is a smart boy.”

After spending a week bonding with Ethan, “to leave him was so incredibly hard,” Stephanie Umberger said.

“We told him he would have a brother, a sister, a dog, and that we have a room for him, and that we love him and we want to be his parents,” she said, fighting back tears. “Now it's been over two years and we haven't been able to fulfill that promise. It's out of our control, but we broke a promise.”

Jim Umberger said the last photo he took that first visit with Ethan waving goodbye from a window before they left the country has haunted him every day. “We just kind of feel we've let him down,” he said.

“I just think about him sitting there wondering: ‘Are they coming back for me? Did I do something wrong? Do they not want me?'” Stephanie Umberger said. “To Ethan, the minute we walked through the door we were the parents he had been waiting for. Our heart breaks that he continues to wait and we cannot get back to get him.”

In November 2008, Jim Umberger visited Kyrgyzstan alone to meet the Minister of Education and U.S. Embassy officials hoping for action, but he did not return with his son.
“All I kept telling him was that ‘Mommy and Daddy are going to come back to get you,'” Jim Umberger said.

That was the last time he saw Ethan.

Though still in Kyrgyzstan, Ethan has changed the La Quinta family members' lives immensely.
Alex, now 9 years old, often asks his mother when his little brother will be home to play.
Ariana, 4, prays: “God, he's my brother. Bring him home.”

And while Isla, at 9 months old, doesn't truly comprehend she has a brother in waiting, she sleeps in the crib that was once a daybed assembled for Ethan.

The mission to bring Ethan home has become a family passion.

“For us, we won't quit,” Stephanie Umberger said. “Even though this adoption journey has been horrible, we want him to have a chance at a better life.”