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Adoptions From Congo At Two-Year Standstill

Van Hoesen Family
Courtesy of the Van Hoesen Family
Todd Van Hoesen, Erika Mazza, Maitrise and Kaya pose for a family photo in the DRC.

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Adoptions From Democratic Republic of the Congo At 2-Year Standstill

Adoptions From Congo At Two-Year Standstill

Courtesy of the Van Hoesen family

Todd Van Hoesen, Erika Mazza, Maitrise and Kaya pose for a family photo in the DRC.

On paper, Erika Mazza is Maitrise’s mom. But videos and pictures are the closest she’s come to bringing Maitrise home

“She’s a little girl who lights up a room as soon as you see her,” Mazza said. “I can’t explain on paper seeing this photo and then seeing this little girl run into your arms and say ‘mama’ and hug you and realize that she needs you so desperately.” 

Mazza’s 10-year-old biological daughter, Kaya Van Hoesen, met Maitrise last summer on a trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

“I was really excited to actually get to meet her,” Kaya said. “My mom explained that I was her sister. And she was kind of confused for a second. And then she realized that it was actually me and gave me a huge hug.”

“We want her here more than anything else,” Mazza said. “I mean, I promised Kaya a sister. She has one, but I’m losing hope. A lot of parents are losing hope. And that’s just not fair because that’s all a lot of these kids have is hope.”

Sept. 25 marks two years since the DRC halted all intercountry adoptions. Some 400 U.S. families whose adoptions have been approved by the DRC anxiously await exit permits. 

Maitrise lived on the streets of the DRC as a toddler before an orphanage took her in. Mazza said she’s had malaria four times, not to mention several bouts of intestinal illness. Less than half the population has access to clean drinking water. 

The child mortality rate is staggering. One in seven children dies before his fifth birthday. There are more than four million orphans, according to UNICEF statistics.

The DRC only recently allowed intercountry adoptions, and then two years ago put an abrupt stop to the process. 

The DRC was concerned their laws didn’t protect children enough, said Susan Jacobs, special advisor for children’s issues at the U.S. State Department.

“I think they should have strong protections for children,” Jacobs said. “They should have accreditation criteria for adoption service providers. But at the same time when you have so many children who are in need of homes who have completed legal adoptions. Those children should be allowed to join their families, while you work on the law.”

Courtesy of the Van Hoesen family

Maitrise and at least 1,300 other children from the DRC have been adopted by families from the U.S. and Europe. But they cannot leave the country without an exit permit.

The central African country has been mired in civil war and corruption for decades. The one man who can lift the suspension, President Joseph Kabila, has ruled the DRC for 14 years — and critics say he’s trying to orchestrate another term.

International adoptions as a whole have dropped to their lowest level in three decades. The State Department said 6,441 children were adopted from abroad in 2014, down from 23,000 in 2004. And each country has its own reasons. 

China, for example, with its one-child policy was allowing too many girls to be adopted, so it has encouraged domestic adoptions. Russia banned all adoptions to the U.S. to retaliate against U.S. sanctions on Russia’s human rights violations.

The decline began in the early 1990s.

“The world started watching,” said Adam Pertman, author of "Adoption Nation " and president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency. “International adoption more or less occurred for decades without a whole lot of monitoring, without a whole lot of oversight. “

In 1993, the Hague Convention established standards and practices for intercountry adoptions. Still, a small number of child trafficking cases have many countries scaling back. 

So Pertman and Jacobs said international adoptions now more closely resemble domestic adoptions — that is overwhelmingly special needs, sibling groups or older children.

But some estimate there are as many as 200 million orphaned children in the world. Erika Mazza said she and her husband just want to help one.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been modified to reflect the nature of how international adoptions more closely resemble domestic adoptions.

Updated 9/25/2015 at 9:28 a.m.

Laurel Morales was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2011 to 2020.