On a gorgeous spring afternoon, Aimee and Stephen Welch are playing with their five kids in their sun-drenched New Jersey backyard, taking a break from the grind of virtual schooling and working from home.
But their laughs on the swings and shrieks on the trampoline belie a deep sense of sadness – because one person is missing. It’s now been a year since they had their bags packed and hotels booked for a trip to China to adopt their sixth child, a 7-year-old named Penelope.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit.
A weekslong delay turned into months as, by early March 2020, China suspended the country’s foreign adoption program. One year later, they are still stuck in limbo.
“Every time I go into her room and just see her pink bed there, that no one has slept in and the drawers full of clothes that have probably been outgrown before they could ever be worn,” Aimee Welch told CNN’s Poppy Harlow, “it’s just a heartbreaking reality.”
According to the State Department, about 400 American families’ adoptions of children in China were put on hold because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘A new way of looking at the world’
Aimee and Stephen Welch are now also preparing to raise their daughters – and sons – as reports of acts anti-Asian hate spike in the United States.
Over the last year, Asian Americans have been the targets of verbal and physical assaults. Many Asian groups have blamed the climate of hate and fear on the rhetoric of former President Donald Trump, who referred to Covid-19 as the “China virus” or “kung flu.”
Between March and December 2020, 2,808 complaints were reported to Stop AAPI Hate. The nonprofit organization, which tracks racist encounters reported by Asian Americans, says some 9% of those incidents involved physical assaults and 71% included verbal harassment.
“We’re a transracial family,” Stephen Welch said. “And so figuring out what that looks like and how to help our daughters grow up in a society where right now there is antagonism and microaggressions and things that I might not have previously been aware of, the situation forces kind of a new way of looking at the world.”
“We really want this to be an ongoing effort because it’s not just that we are bringing children from China into our home, but we’re committed to being in a Chinese American family,” Aimee Welch said.
“We want to have that lens where we don’t just have a few Chinese decorations in their bedroom, but this is something that imbues our family. And we want to honor and celebrate where they come from, as well as where they’re going.”
Families face devastating consequences
For some families, the wait means devastating consequences.
That includes a family living in Massachusetts that was supposed to adopt a 3-year-old girl with severe medical issues from China in January 2020.
Their adopted daughter was born with a condition known as arthrogryposis, which in her case has led to clubfeet.
Now 5 years old, she’s not yet able to walk, and is in desperate need of the occupational and physical therapy she would receive in the United States, according to her would-be adoptive parents.
“We definitely have seen a decline over the last two years based on photos we’ve seen,” her adoptive mother tells CNN. “I don’t know if anyone is even moving her. I don’t know if anyone is standing her on her legs … We’ve really seen her plateau and even a regression.”
“In all these pictures recently, she just looks so sad,” she added.
Even for families without as dire medical issues, the wait is likely only compounding the trauma these adopted children are facing.
“I often think, (how does) a 6-year-old, now 7-year-old … process something like that?” Stephen Welch told Harlow.
“She knows we’re coming. She draws pictures of a house with mommy and daddy written on it. My heart aches to just think through how is she processing it, right? The parental instinct wants to comfort and reach out and assure (but) we’re worlds apart.”
The trauma extends to the children
The trauma and disappointment extends to their children stateside as well. Seventeen-year-old Zachary Welch should have enjoyed one last year at home with his new sister Penelope before leaving for college.
“Missing out on that time with her has been disappointing because I want to be able to be present in my siblings’ lives and it feels a little bit like that’s been taken away because we’ve lost that time together,” he said.
Penelope may not even come home before Zachary moves out.
Even little 4-year-old Grace, exuberant and energetic, understands some of what is happening to her future big sister. “She’s still in China! Some people are sick and we can’t go on the plane,” she told Harlow.
In a February 2021 letter to families, the Chinese government said foreign adoptions are suspended due to Covid-19, but did not provide any information on when they might resume.
“Before resuming adoption registration, we will actively cooperate with local civil affairs departments and child welfare agencies by the rehabilitation needs of adoptive families,” the letter said.
The US State Department told CNN they “have made clear” to China “the importance of resuming intercountry adoptions as a high priority and as soon as health conditions allow.” The department said it is committed to working with China to find a solution.
The Chinese government did not respond to CNN’s requests for additional comment.
‘We’re not blaming China’
Aimee and Stephen Welch have been advocating for their cause with other waiting families by writing letters to their congressman and senators.
“We’re not blaming China for wanting to be cautious,” Stephen Welch said. “But for these children that don’t have families, the benefits of moving forward outweigh the risks.”
Aimee Welch said this should be a win-win situation for the US and China.
“This is not a hard issue. This is an issue where everyone is on the same page that we want these children to land in families. It’s just a matter of getting it done,” she said.
In the meantime, the Welch family – separated by an ocean – are making the most of their time waiting. In China, Penelope is taking English lessons, while 10-year-old Caleb Welch is taking Mandarin online in New Jersey.
CNN’s Poppy Harlow contributed to this report.