Russian Invasion of Ukraine Halts International Adoptions, Leaving Adoptive Parents Desperate to Know Kids Are Safe

Hundreds of U.S. families are currently in the process of trying to adopt children from Ukraine, but the Russian-launched war has stalled their efforts and put kids' lives at risk.

Deidra Soileau Guillory and her kids swimming
Deirdra Soleau Guillory and her kids shared Louisiana summers with two boys the family is planning to adopt from the Ukraine. Photo: Deidra Soileau Guillory

For the past three summers and Christmas holidays, Deidra Soileau Guillory's family has been hosting two boys from Ukraine, now ages 14 and 11, at the Guillory home in Louisiana. They originally connected when Soileau Guillory saw a Facebook request from an organization called International Host Connection. They were looking for summer host families for orphaned children. But what was initially a chance for two cultures to come together grew into an instant bond. After a few visits, the boys were no longer just guests, they became part of the family. And over this past Christmas, 2021—with agreement from the boys and Soileau Guillory's other four children—the family made the decision to adopt them permanently.

The Guillory family knew the international adoption process was going to be an uphill climb—there's a home study to complete and endless paperwork, plus at least two trips to Ukraine to meet with the children and go through a court hearing. But they never expected that on February 24, just two months after starting the adoption process, the Russian invasion of Ukraine would stall their efforts completely.

Because of concerns for the boys' safety and privacy, Soileau Guillory can't share their current location. But she has spent every day since the invasion began hoping and praying for the boys' safety. She's had some contact with them through phone calls and text messages. The adoption agency they're working with has also been sending the family limited updates. "I'm absolutely terrified for the kids," she says. "I'm not their mother yet, but as a mom, as soon as you know them, you fall in love with them. And you have this motherly instinct, and for any mother, if your child is scared and alone, it's one of the worst feelings in the world. It's absolutely devastating."

Hundreds of Adoptions Are Halted As Parents Watch and Wait

The Guillory family is just one of the hundreds of American families currently in the process of trying to adopt a child from Ukraine. Some initially connect through organizations that offer families the chance to host them for the summers and winter breaks, like Soileau Guillory did, then move over to an adoption agency to complete the process. Others start working directly with international adoption agencies.

Jenna and Scott Breckenridge, who live in Iowa, adopted three boys, 17-year-old twins Ilya and Bogdan and 11-year-old, Kolya, from Ukraine in October 2021. While spending time in Ukraine to complete the adoption, they connected with another boy, 15-year-old Artem, and planned to adopt him, too. But since the war began, the Breckendridges were told by their adoption agency to stop all adoption paperwork.

Now it's been a week since Jenna Breckenridge has had any contact with Artem, who resides in an orphanage. Their desperation to get him out of the country safely is growing. "It's been so scary," she tells Parents. "We get alerts from his city about their alarms going off, shootings and bombings. Just in the short time between the last adoption and this one, I feel like I could write a book."

Ukrainian adoptions to the United States are unique because to be eligible for adoption, children must be 6 years or older. (Some younger children with special needs are exempt.) And although thousands of children in Ukraine live in orphanages or boarding schools, they may still have living parents who are unable to care for them but haven't terminated their parental rights. Children aren't eligible for adoption from Ukraine unless they meet all the following criteria: Their parents are both deceased or they decide to terminate their parental rights, the kids have no other family to live with, and they can't be adopted domestically to another family in Ukraine.

Sarah Harmon is the Waiting Child Program manager at CCAI Adoption Services, which has been working in Ukraine since 2014. They currently have 45 families in the United States in the process of adoption from the country. "Our primary concern right now is the children's safety," Harmon says. "We are working with many non-governmental organizations, government ministry officials, and Ukrainian citizens to move children away from heavily-affected areas or to neighboring countries. In the meantime, CCAI is trying its best to support prospective adoptive families in various stages of the adoption process. The Ukraine crisis is having a particularly devastating impact on almost 100,000 vulnerable orphans there."

Getting Kids Out Safely Is Critical

More than 1.5 million Ukrainians have already left the country since the war began, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports. Orphanages in regions with heavy fighting are starting to be evacuated, too.

Bonnie Hilton is the Ukraine program director at Hand in Hand Adoptions, an international adoption agency that works with Ukraine. She says that the Ministry of Social Policy in Ukraine is the government department that oversees and has jurisdiction over the immigration of children, as well as adoptions. Without their permission, it would be impossible to evacuate a child from the country. However, Hilton says some children in orphanages, especially those with connections to or sponsored by other countries, or those that are part of religious organizations, had already begun evacuating last week to Poland, Germany, and other nearby countries.

The Guillory family at the family farm in Louisiana.
Deirdra Soleau Guillory and her kids on the family's Louisiana farm with the two boys they're planning to adopt from Ukraine. Courtesy of Deidra Soileau Guillory

For families in the United States in the process of adopting, there's no way to expedite adoptions or even guarantee the children they plan to adopt can get out of the country safely. The State Department has issued a Level 4 Travel Advisory, telling American citizens to avoid travel to Ukraine and urging any citizens in the country to depart immediately if they can do so safely. The U.S. embassy in Kyiv has also suspended operations.

Amongst a time of a lot of uncertainty, some good news: Hilton says the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Poland, has been given jurisdiction over adoptions of children from Ukraine that are in the final stages. That means families currently in the final stages of adopting a child from Ukraine can continue to move forward with some of the necessary paperwork. However, how the process for families who want to move forward could work is unclear. The U.S. State Department issued a statement saying that prospective adoptive families should continue to work with their adoption agencies on how to move forward. Prospective adoptive families should also monitor the State Department website for any updates. But for waiting families, that offers little comfort. "The uncertainty is heartbreaking," says adoptive mom Breckenridge.

Overall, international adoptions to the United States have dwindled in the past decade. Ukraine was the top county that American families adopted from in 2020 (despite the pandemic and travel restrictions). An adoption from Ukraine to the U.S. can be completed in 12 to 15 months, which is considered relatively fast for an international adoption. A total of 211 families in the U.S. adopted from Ukraine in 2020, down from 298 in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of State.

How to Help

In times of conflict, it's natural that some families want to help or find out more about adopting a child orphaned from Ukraine. However, Hilton says, that isn't possible unless you go through the entire international adoption process, which can take years to complete.

Ryan Hanlon, acting president of the National Council for Adoption, issued a statement saying: "This is not the appropriate time or context to be considering adoption by U.S. citizens. Why? Adoption is only a possibility for children for whom parental rights have been terminated or for whom there is clear evidence that they are orphaned. It is paramount that the identities of these children and their families be clearly established, and their social, legal, and familial status is fully verified by governmental authorities. For most of these children, we cannot do that at this time."

As for the Guillory family, Soileau Guillory says the best-case scenario, for now, would be to get the boys out safely, then allow her family to host them temporarily at her home in Louisiana until the conflict in Ukraine is resolved, or at least until the adoption can be completed safely. "We're hoping for the appropriate pieces to fall into place to allow them to be cared for by families that already know them and are already committed to their well-being, both emotionally and psychologically," she says. "We're hoping that the Ukrainian government hears and speaks up for these kids who've already been traumatized."

Breckenridge shared an update on Facebook that it's been a week since they heard from Artem. "I'm consumed by what every moment must feel like for Artem and all of Ukraine's people," she wrote. "Please keep praying for our son and for all of Ukraine."

CCAI adoption is launching fundraising efforts to help children sheltering in place or in the process of adopting. If you are interested in donating, click here.

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