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Thaddaeus Scheel‘s documentary Stuck is frustrating. Frustrating not in the sense that it’s bad, but in the subject it covers – international adoptions. Having never known anyone who has adopted internationally, I never would have guessed the incredible hoops one has to go through in order to adopt. On one hand, I certainly understand why there are safeguards in place – to keep children from being trafficked, making sure parents know what they are doing prior to the adoption, making sure the birth parents understand what’s going on should they still be alive, etc. But to keep children out of healthy homes for YEARS and in orphanages because of hard-headed bureaucracy makes no sense and is detrimental to life of the child and society at large.

Narrated by Mariska Hargitay, Stuck tells the story of 4 children, Nate from Vietnam, Tihun from Ethiopia,  and Erickson and Therline from Haiti and the journeys of the families hoping to adopt them. The film opens in Haiti following a young orphan named Roberson. This kid is amazing – he is super sharp and wants to study math when he gets older. But since he lives in the orphanage, chances of him getting an education are even slimmer than others in Haiti. He and the rest of the kids in the orphanage are left to their own devices every day without any structure or even school. This is one of the many problems that the film points out as systemic with the institutions orphans are put into.

Nick, Nate and Lori LeRoy finally at home together.

Nick and Lori LeRoy, from Indianapolis, Indiana, are the parents who have been trying to adopt Nate from Vietnam. At the beginning of the film, they muse about how excited they are about Nate coming home, starting the adoption process when he was just 5 months old. Little did they know the extreme bureaucracy they were in for nor the exceedingly long wait to bring Nate home. Multiple trips to Vietnam and countless time spent on the phone with legislators and government officials, both here and in the Vietnam, bear little fruit. At one point, after 2 years of enduring this process, Vietnam voided the adoption and they were informed by the US Department of State that the decision was final. They weren’t about to quit. With the help of lawyer Kelly Ensslin and a group of other adoptive parents, they petitioned a group of US Senators to speak on their behalf to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Senator Richard Lugar stepped up and put pressure on the State Department, ending the gridlock with their adoption. So, after 3 years, 5 months and 14 days, the LeRoys finally were able to take Nate home.

Stacey Chapman and daughter Tihun meet with Senator Mary Landrieu.

As a single mother, Stacey Chapman had a harder time getting an adoptive child. However, she was persistent. Even though something as small as a report not being present the day she met with a judge to finalize the adoption kept her again from taking Tihun home, Stacey persevered. After three trips to Ethiopia, Tihun is finally able to come home.

Lisa and Duke Scoppa with their children Erickson and Therline.

Duke and Lisa Scoppa began their adoption process with Erickson and Therline before the titanic earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010. With the help of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu from Louisiana who made an appeal to the State Department, the Scoppas were able to get their children, along with 3,000 others awaiting adoption, out of Haiti. Their situation, which could easily have gone like the Leroys and Ms. Chapman’s, turned out well for them and most importantly the children. The most shocking part of their story is when they take both kids to the doctor and are shown charts of their children’s physical development from their first appointment to a year and a half later. Both were at developmental levels that listed them as “failures to thrive.” This is testament to the power of this process. With Therline being 9 pounds at 5 months old, who knows if she would have even survived the normal wait time for the adoption had the earthquake not occurred.

Director Scheel intersperses small testimonials from kids (some with their parents) who were adopted out of other countries and raised here in the US. This is very clever as it shows that this system of adoption works – it works for the families who raise these children and the children clearly benefit from having a loving, nurturing environment. These are some of the most touching parts of the film.

The film footage of the conditions of Romania orphanages is about the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen. Showing how severely damaged children end up by living life, especially their early years, in orphanages, The Bucharest Early Intervention Project points out that these kids have profound attachment issues, a very high prevalence in mental health problems, most markedly they show dramatic reductions in brain activity and their brains are smaller. And that is why this film and this subject are so important. This telling statistic is shown at the end of the film:

There are more than 10 million children worldwide living in institutions. International adoptions in the US have declined over 50% in the last 5 years.

Orphans at the Bac Lieu orphanage in Vietnam.

If these children have any hope, something has to be done. There are willing, loving families that would love to include these children among them, but the insane bureaucratic hoops that need to be jumped through need to be simplified. Plain as that. The orphaned children of the world depend on it.

It has taken me a couple of weeks to wrap my head around the breadth of this film. The intricacies of it still baffle me. Here is a primer on the Hague Convention for International Adoptions that has been more of a barrier in expediting this process.

This film won the Audience Choice award for the Documentary category at Heartland (it tied with Rising from the Ashes) and deservedly so. This was the most important film that I saw at the fest and the one that tugged most at my heartstrings. ALL children deserve the opportunity to be loved and have a chance to take their best shot at what the world offers. It’s so sad that for so many, they don’t get that chance from day one of their lives. That such extreme impediments exist keeping them from this opportunity is even sadder.

Check out this interview with Craig Juntunen, the producer of Stuck, himself a father of three children adopted from Haiti: