WASHINGTON — It was a simple error, a mix-up over the letters L and R in French.
But it aroused suspicion among investigators at the U.S. Embassy in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): Official paperwork from a Sammamish couple who had adopted two orphaned Congolese brothers listed an address for a maternal grandmother, their sole relative, that appeared phony.
It took the couple, Jennefer and Jason Boyer, only a Google search to prove them wrong. But that glitch — revealed to the Boyers last July after they’d arrived in Kinshasa to fetch their new sons — delayed the boys’ visas for eight months.
By then, it was too late. The DRC last September inexplicably stopped issuing any exit letters for adopted children, the final stamp required to leave the Central African country.
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That decision has left as many as 900 American adoptive families in a suspended state of heartache. They have been matched with Congolese children but do not know when or if they will be allowed to bring them home.
Some 350 of those families, like the Boyers, have finalized the adoptions and are financially supporting the children in the DRC, formerly called Zaire.
At least 11 affected families live in Washington, including Seattle, Des Moines, Kennewick and Camas, Clark County.
Last week, five dozen families from around the nation descended on Washington, D.C. They visited the offices of 99 lawmakers in the House and the Senate to tell stories of their anguish and to press for intervention with the DRC government. They held a candlelight vigil for their separated sons and daughters, as well as at least three adoptees who have died during the wait, including one last Monday of malaria.
Jennefer Boyer brought a blown-up photo poster of her sons, Andre, now 5, and Luke, 2. It’s been nearly a year since she and her husband saw the boys in person, and 18 months since Congolese courts named them legal parents.
For Luke, his Congolese foster parent is the only mom he’s known.
“They’ve been growing up without us,” Jennefer said during an interview in a Washington, D.C., hotel where she was sharing a room with two other adoptive mothers.
The DRC has said it would resume issuing exit letters after it rewrites the country’s adoption laws, a process of unknown duration. The government has given no detailed reason for the abrupt suspension of adoptions.
But Kelly Dempsey, counsel and director of outreach for Both Ends Burning, an international adoption-advocacy group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., blamed diplomatic bungling by the U.S. State Department.
Dempsey contends the United States was overzealous in guarding against the possibility of corruption over orphan status or human trafficking. That prompted a retreat by the DRC, where international adoptions have taken off sharply since 2010.
Both Ends Burning, the parents and others are blanketing Congress for appeals for help. They have persuaded at least 170 members to support a letter seeking personal intervention by DRC President Joseph Kabila Kabange.
Among the signatories are the Boyers’ congresswoman, Rep. Suzan DelBene of Medina, who met with Jennefer last week. Sen. Patty Murray has posed for a photo with Jennefer, and Sen. Maria Cantwell and Reps. Jim McDermott of Seattle and Adam Smith of Bellevue also have signed the letter.
On Thursday, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs passed a resolution urging the DRC to unite the families.
Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry brought up the adoption issue with the Congolese president during a visit to the African nation.
“We want (Congress) to do an end run around the State Department,” Dempsey said.
International adoptions, Dempsey said, sometimes can get caught in geopolitical crossfires.
In December 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a ban on adoptions by Americans in a tit-for-tat after Congress rebuked Russia for human-rights violations. And Vietnam has forbidden American adoptions since 2008 after allegations of baby selling, sometimes without birthparents’ consent.
The unusual thing about the DRC, Dempsey said, is that the government has continued to process new applications for adoptions, creating a growing bottleneck of would-be parents.
Jennefer and Jason Boyer are already parents to two biological daughters, Gabrielle “Gabby,” 5, and Claire, 3. But even before they began their family, they had longed to adopt from Africa.
Jennefer spent part of her early 20s on the continent, working for the World Health Organization in Zimbabwe and the nonprofit Humanitarian Aid Relief Team in Ghana. Jason, an orthopedic surgeon in Kirkland, once lived in rural Thailand.
Together, the couple have done medical and public-health work in Kenya.
Jennefer believes the seeds of her desire to adopt were planted during her time as a volunteer at a Zimbabwean orphanage. She cared for infants and toddlers packed four to a crib. She never forgot the rows and rows of tiny graves in the orphanage’s cemetery.
At 34, Jennefer has the youthful air of a college coed and a face that defaults to a smile. She works to keep despair and heartbreak at bay. Andre and Luke are in the care of good foster parents, to whom the Boyers pay $600 a month.
Andre is perceptive, obedient and tidy, “the best big brother and helper,” Jennefer said. Luke is a bundle of determination and a voracious eater who hums as he chews.
The boys’ birth mother is dead, and they’ve never known their father. Their widowed grandmother relinquished them at the orphanage.
Jennefer has made a coloring book for Andre, explaining that he and Luke will fly on a plane to join their family in America. Jennefer, who speaks French, sometimes talks to Andre on the phone. The family also keeps in touch through letters, email and small gifts.
The Boyers’ daughters attend the French Immersion School of Washington in Bellevue. The girls keep asking when the boys will be home.
The Boyer family waits, and hopes. Andre and Luke have outgrown clothes they never wore. They’re growing attached to the foster parents, and Jennefer dreads the prospect of their separation.
Meanwhile, Andre’s and Luke’s visas will expire in July. The Boyers will have to go through a new process to get them renewed.
Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KyungMSong