Visa glitch leaves US family stuck in Guangzhou with adopted babies

Nortons and their adopted Chinese children are stuck due to State Department computer glitch

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 July, 2014, 4:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 July, 2014, 5:51pm

After a long, bureaucratic 18 months, Mike Norton had little reason to doubt that by this weekend he would finally welcome Joseph and Marianna, his new Chinese son and daughter, to their home in Laurel in the US state of Maryland.

Instead, Norton, 37, a senior director in information technology, his wife, Annie, and their now five children have been living in a hotel room in Guangzhou. They are unable to leave because their adopted babies, both 20 months old, can't get their travel visas.

A worldwide computer glitch in the US State Department's visa and passport record-keeping database has dramatically slowed the processing at consulates everywhere.

The Nortons were forced to cancel their Friday morning flight home and extend their hotel stay. They were simply told that the problem is being worked on as quickly as possible. And so they wait. "Every day they string us along and say: 'Sorry we don't know more'," Norton said.

The State Department's Consular Consolidated Database (CCD), which keeps all the background-check records on individuals seeking US visas, started having outage issues on July 19, creating a backlog.

The system went back online last Wednesday, but is operating at "significantly reduced capacity", according to the department, which could not say when it would be fully operational.

The cause of the outage is unknown, but State Department officials have ruled out foul play. Its impact is global, but officials would not provide an exact number of people held up.

In the last fiscal year, more than 7,092 children were adopted from abroad and 2,306 from China, according to State Department statistics.

In the Marriott hotel where Norton and his family are staying, he estimates about 30 American families are also waiting. Despite their anxiety about going home there is a certain comfort in having others share the same situation - bonding with their new children in a hotel rather than in the comfort of their homes. Norton and his wife have 11- and eight-year-old sons, both adopted from Guatemala, and a three-year-old daughter adopted in the United States.

They started their latest adoption through the Chinese Childrens Adoption International (CCAI), a process that began 18 months ago. In February, they learned that two babies had been found for them.

They travelled to Hunan province more than two weeks ago to meet their children, then to the nearest US consulate on Wednesday to take an oath and fill out paperwork. They were supposed to return within 24 hours to pick up their babies' visas. But with the system down, the visas could not be printed.

Judy Winger, director of adoptions for CCAI, said her team had been in constant contact with the families, but they also did not have much information to share.

"Obviously it adds several layers of financial and emotional difficulties," Winger said.

Tanna Smith, 35, a nurse in Sharon Springs, Kansas, is also in the hotel with the Nortons, staying with her 61-year-old mother and her new eight-year-old son, Jay. Smith's husband and two other children stayed in the US.

Jay has spina bifida and is in a wheelchair, which was challenging, Smith said, because China did not have the same accessibility laws for the disabled as the United States.

She and her husband planned to adopt from Russia, and even travelled there in October 2012 to meet a baby girl. But 21 days before their court date to complete the process, adoptions from Russia were banned.

"This delay is very hard on us financially, but I have my son in my arms," Smith said. "He is legally mine, visa or no visa. Ultimately that is all that matters."

Norton said he felt the same. His wife even wrote a blog post titled "Worth it".

"Living for 2+ weeks in a hotel is not easy. But you know what's harder? Not having kids," she wrote. "And those long months of waiting and praying for them? Priceless."