By Tom Barnard, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP
Fifteen years ago, in August of 2004, my wife Rene and I hired an attorney and became clients. We were in Nairobi, Kenya. A few weeks earlier, we, along with our oldest daughter Anna (rising eighth-grader), had spent the day in an orphanage in the western Kenya town of Kisumu. While there, Anna had fallen in love with the most beautiful 3-month-old baby girl we had ever seen, and by the end of the day proclaimed that “this is my sister.” We were in Kisumu to bring back several babies to the larger New Life Home orphanage in Nairobi, and one of the babies to travel with us was Eva — the very same baby Anna was holding. We flew Eva back to New Life Home and made the life-changing decision to bring Eva into our family.
My wife and I are both attorneys; we can read and understand laws and regulations, and we were certain we could navigate the Kenyan adoption process. The first hurdle we uncovered was a requirement that no application for adoption could be filed until the adoptive family had lived with the child in Kenya for a continuous three months. This was going to be a problem. We had three children and our foster son back in Indianapolis, and I had a busy litigation practice. We decided to hire an attorney to find a solution.
Mrs. M was a highly respected and experienced attorney in Nairobi, served on the board of New Life Home and also held various positions within the Kenyan government. She was warm and welcoming, and she was sure she could help us as long as we posted an appropriate retainer. We developed what we thought was a reasonable plan. We would ask a Kenyan court to appoint us as Eva’s legal guardians, ask for permission to raise her in our home in the United States, then after a few years, pursue the “paperwork” from abroad that would constitute a permanent adoption. Rene and I returned to Indianapolis, leaving our baby in the hands of the caretakers at New Life Home with a plan for us to return for a court proceeding in October.
By September, we sensed trouble. Mrs. M was difficult to reach and when we did speak with her, she became less and less certain that our approach would work. After numerous international calls, it became clear that we needed to return to Nairobi to get things straightened out. That is no simple task: Nairobi is 7,985 nautical miles as the crow flies and closer to 12,000 miles when you fly through Detroit and Amsterdam. We made an appointment with Mrs. M and booked a flight for October. We arrived at Mrs. M’s office tired, worried and anxious. She had met with Kenyan officials and social service employees. An international guardianship was just not realistic. No judge, she said, would allow us to leave Kenya with Eva.
We were distraught. How could this be? So many babies in so many orphanages needed loving parents and families. How could we move to Kenya? How could we not adopt Eva having already fallen in love with her? We couldn’t decide that “this is too hard.” Within that fateful week, we made hard decisions. Rene would move to Nairobi. We’d find an apartment where she and her cousin (who had also decided to adopt two babies from New Life Home) could live together with the children. My mother-in-law would move into our Indianapolis home to help with our four kids so I could attend to my litigation practice. We decided that we could manage this for the few months it would take to bring Eva home. As it turned out, it was not a few months. It was going to be seven months.
Here is where our experience as clients became particularly difficult. Mrs. M did not use email. International calls were frightfully challenging. More often than not, when we called we were told, in a very British accent, that Mrs. M is “in court” or “with clients” or “on holiday.” When we did reach her, we hung on every word, followed later in the day with our close analysis of what she did or did not tell us about the process. Also, we often did not like what she told us, such as “be patient,” or “we don’t know how soon your in-home study can take place.” We wanted answers because, from October through April, our family was divided by an ocean, we were uncertain that our adoption would actually go through and our other kids desperately wanted their mom back.
Being a client also meant dealing with the Kenyan court and child services systems. Appointments would be made (requiring both mom and dad’s presence for interviews — meaning I had to return to Nairobi), then be abruptly canceled or rescheduled. Usually, this happened after we bought the plane tickets. One time, I left Indianapolis on a Saturday night, traveled for 36 hours for a hearing Monday morning in the Nairobi courtroom, waited for two hours holding Eva on our lap outside the courtroom, only to be told that the judge was “upcountry” that day (British for not coming to court). We were devastated. I had a hearing in Elkhart County on Wednesday afternoon, so I dropped Rene off and took a cab straight to the airport to return to Indiana. Two weeks later I had to fly back to Nairobi for the rescheduled hearing.
Space limitations for this column will not allow further details of our adventure in adopting Eva and in being clients of a Kenyan lawyer, but the entire experience helped me better understand how our clients feel when they are battling serious problems and engage us for guidance and resolution. I have a new appreciation for the angst we cause when tell our clients to “be patient,” or that we cannot answer their timeline questions. Even when we cannot change the facts, or cannot predict the future, we need to show empathy and be as helpful as possible. And for these enlightenments, I ultimately thank our 15-year-old daughter, Eva Amani Barnard.