WASHINGTON — Hundreds of Ukrainian children already in the process of being adopted by American families are caught in limbo amid Russia's invasion of their home country, according to members of Congress who want the State Department to let those children travel to the United States before their adoptions are completed.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, 73 House and Senate lawmakers asked the top U.S. diplomat to let the roughly 300 Ukrainian children already in the adoption process stay with U.S. host families, "based on the shared belief that every child deserves a safe, stable, and loving place to call home."
"While we recognize that the adoption process should only be advanced where it is safe, ethical, and appropriate to do so, American families seeking to adopt or be host families for a Ukrainian child are eager to welcome these children into their home and provide the affection, stability, and safety all children deserve," the lawmakers wrote.
The State Department, however, said in a statement the Ukrainian government has jurisdiction over Ukrainian children and has "expressed concern about moving children out of Europe at this point."
"We understand that some U.S. citizens want to respond by offering to open their homes and adopt, foster, or host these children," the department said. "However, the Ukrainian government has confirmed that it is not approving children to participate in host programs at this time. Instead, the Ukrainian government is taking measures to ensure the safety of children in neighboring countries."
Some of those children are in Poland, where former Washington state Rep. Matt Shea has helped bring 62 Ukrainian kids from an orphanage in the besieged city of Mariupol. One of them is an 11-year-old boy who is in the process of being adopted by Melissa and Joe Nowicki, a couple in Rochester, N.Y.
Melissa Nowicki said her family, who already hosted Oleksii at their home for the month of December, is grateful for the support of the lawmakers, who include Washington Reps. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue; Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground; and Suzan DelBene, D-Medina.
"We're hopeful that both the U.S. government and the Ukrainian government would see the benefit in the kids coming and spending this time with the families that they have created bonds with," she said.
While she's glad Oleksii is safe in hotel-style housing in Poland, Melissa Nowicki said that setting is less than ideal for children who have gone through the trauma of escaping a war.
"Kids belong in families," she said. "And the families have gone through fairly extensive trainings already in order to adopt — trauma-based in a lot of cases — and I just think that it would be the best place for them to heal and grow and thrive."
In their letter to Blinken, the lawmakers endorsed the idea that families like the Nowickis could provide important support to the Ukrainian kids and called on the Biden administration to work with Ukraine's government to make an exception in cases like Oleksii's.
"Many of these children may be appropriately given refuge in neighboring countries," the lawmakers wrote. "However, we believe that in the unique circumstances where children already have established relationships with families in the United States, it is appropriate to prioritize allowing these children to stay with host families to ensure the child's safety and stability."
The State Department said overseeing international adoptions is one of its most important roles, especially during war and other events that cause mass displacement, which raises the risk of children who are not orphans being separated from their parents.
"It can be extremely difficult in circumstances like the current conflict in Ukraine to determine whether children who appear to be orphans truly are eligible for intercountry adoption and immigration under U.S. laws," the statement said. "Children may be temporarily separated from their parents or other family members during a conflict or natural disaster and their parents may be looking for them."
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, in a March 7 statement, warned that mass displacement also increases the risk of human trafficking. The National Council for Adoption, a group that represents U.S. adoption workers, said in a Feb. 28 statement that while the desire to provide homes to displaced Ukrainian children is admirable, "this is not the appropriate time or context to be considering adoption by U.S. citizens," with limited exceptions for cases where paperwork is already in place.
Melissa Nowicki said she understands the Ukrainian government's concerns and intends to work with them to reunite with Oleksii.
"What I'm hoping is that the government would allow visas for the kids so that they could come and stay here while the war is going on in Ukraine," she said. "We want to have the Ukrainian government know that we want to do this the way they want us to do it, so whatever rules they set, we intend to follow."
"We completely understand that although in our hearts and minds we love these kids as our own, we do not actually have the legal authority over them that the Ukrainian government does. So we really want to partner with them and we just really want to provide the best environment that we can for the children."