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The war in Ukraine has derailed one American family's adoption plan

Tracy and Nat Bell in their home in Leeds, Maine.
Rebecca Conley of Maine Public
Tracy and Nat Bell in their home in Leeds, Maine.

Tracy Bell has waited two years to adopt two Ukrainian boys but due to a bureaucratic and legal system upended by the war, she may have to wait much longer.

Tracy first met the boys, Vanya and Serogzha, now 17 and 14, in New York during a sponsored trip to the U.S. The youngest was sick to his stomach, unable to keep anything down on the long car ride to her farm in Maine.

"And his older brother was wiping his face for him and trying to help him feel better," Tracy said. "And when I saw that love and compassion and connection between those two boys, I think that's when I adopted them in my heart."

Since then, the boys have twice traveled back and forth from their orphanage to Maine for extended visits with Tracy, her husband Nat, and their two biological sons about the same age.

Last year, the couple began the process of adopting the boys. And in late January, as Russian troops gathered n the border, they made the difficult decision to travel to Ukraine for a required appointment with the State Department of Adoption.

Tracy sat her two biological sons down in the living room and tearfully told them she and their dad had to make the risky trip or they might lose their chance to adopt the boys and bring them home.

She said her sons said, "It's okay, we knew you and dad would go."

The Bells visited Vanya and Serogzha in their rural orphanage and filled out legal paperwork. Then they returned home. Their adoption was not complete by the time Russia invaded Ukraine.

Holding out hope

The Bells held their breath as the orphanage director worked out an evacuation plan for the boys and nearly 60 other kids.

The group is now in Poland and while Nat is relieved, he said the boys are now stuck in a legal system under immense strain due to the war.

"Currently they're safe but they're not eligible for a tourist visa because they're in the adoption process," Nat said. "And we can't get them without a (Ukrainian) judge granting us custody."

He said the only option is for the federal government to allow the boys to come to the U.S.

Daniel Stevens, the executive director of Family Connections Inc, an agency involved with international adoptions, said it's an equally tenuous situation for other Ukrainian orphans. There may be host families willing to take them in, but no way to facilitate the process. Stevens said there should be a safe, organized, trackable way to get kids into placements.

"Maybe it's for the next 60 days, maybe it's 90 days, maybe it's longer," Stevens said.

The Bell family is currently working with members of Maine's congressional delegation on possible solutions. The family is grateful for the outpouring of support they've received.

Tracy's thoughts are also with the orphanage director who was unable to cross the border because he's a man in his 50s who may be needed to fight in the Ukrainian resistance.

"I'm just so thankful he took care of my boys for the years they were in his care," Tracy said. "And I hope he is okay."

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Deputy News Director Susan Sharon is a reporter and editor whose on-air career in public radio began as a student at the University of Montana. Early on, she also worked in commercial television doing a variety of jobs. Susan first came to Maine Public Radio as a State House reporter whose reporting focused on politics, labor and the environment. More recently she's been covering corrections, social justice and human interest stories. Her work, which has been recognized by SPJ, SEJ, PRNDI and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, has taken her all around the state — deep into the woods, to remote lakes and ponds, to farms and factories and to the Maine State Prison. Over the past two decades, she's contributed more than 100 stories to NPR.