Head coach Joanne Boyle led the University of Virginia women’s basketball team to the NCAA tournament last week, a feat the Cavaliers had not accomplished since 2010. Then, she stunned everyone by announcing her retirement at age 54, citing only a “family matter.”
The real story spilled out to her team in the locker room: She has to take her 6-year-old daughter Ngoty back to Senegal — 4,000 miles away — to finalize her adoption, and the U.S. government won’t say when they can come back.
It could be months. Or years.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Boyle, who coached for 25 years, including seven at Virginia, said in a telephone interview from Charlottesville, where she shares a gray-and-yellow Colonial with Ngoty. “I didn’t fathom that would be a part of this journey.”
The coach’s personal turmoil is unfolding as international adoptions are plunging to their lowest levels since 1973, from more than 22,980 in 2004 to 4,714 adoptions in 2017, according to the National Council for Adoption, an Alexandria-based nonprofit that analyzed federal statistics released last week.
Federal officials attribute part of the decline to tighter worldwide controls on adoptions to prevent fraud and human trafficking, and fewer available children from nations such as Russia, China and others that have slowed or curtailed adoptions.
But advocates say thousands of children still need homes and the U.S. government is creating additional delays by imposing hefty fees.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) urged U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services last week to approve the paperwork Boyle needs to bring Ngoty back to the United States quickly.
“This is her home now,” Kaine said in an interview. “The question is, how long will they have to be in Senegal until they can come back to their home?”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it could not discuss Boyle’s case because of privacy laws, but officials said the agency aims to process cases efficiently and “considers the welfare of the child to be paramount.”
“We are committed to acting in the best interests of the children and families while upholding the integrity of our country’s immigration system,” spokeswoman Joanne Ferreira said in an email.
Boyle’s lawyer Irene Steffas said they want the federal agency to grant preliminary approval of Boyle’s case, which would get it into the consulate’s pipeline. Then Boyle and Ngoty would head to Senegal for the final checks at the American consulate and return home in months. Otherwise, Boyle risks having to file additional paperwork that could take years, forcing them to live far from their family and Ngoty’s school.
Steffas said federal officials have declined because Ngoty already is in the United States. Boyle brought the child here in 2014 on a tourist visa, which she overstayed because the child was ill, she said.
Ryan Hanlon, a vice president of the National Council for Adoption, who is not familiar with Boyle’s case, said bringing orphans into the United States on a tourist visa is “extraordinarily rare” and could raise red flags for federal officials who investigate adoptions. Typically the children remain in their home country and arrive on a travel document that leads to citizenship.
Boyle said she obtained legal guardianship of Ngoty in 2014, two years after the child was born and abandoned at an orphanage in Tambacounda, a dry cotton-farming region in Senegal on Africa’s west coast. As the adoption dragged on, Boyle said Ngoty was severely underweight, with fever, mouth sores and a fungal rash on her scalp. The orphanage cared for the children, but it had spotty electricity and running water, and offered one meal a day, typically rice.
Boyle said she kept Ngoty in Virginia because she feared for her daughter’s health. She said the consulate knew she was adopting Ngoty when it granted her the visa. She always planned to return for the final checks.
“The kid’s sick,” Boyle said. “It’s not like you keep taking a sick kid back.”
The State Department said it does not comment on visa cases because they are confidential.
In Virginia, Ngoty attends kindergarten at the Charlottesville Day School, dances ballet and hip-hop, and plays the violin. She was a fixture at Boyle’s basketball games and speaks English now.
Adoption wait times vary by country, but typically cases take from one to three years and cost roughly $30,000 in fees, according to the National Council for Adoption.
Boyle’s case has taken longer than that, and she said she has spent more than $100,000 in fees, airplane tickets and other costs.
After the Senegal court completed the adoption in 2016, Boyle said she hoped the United States would follow. But as the NCAA Division I tournament approached, she realized that might not happen soon.
After her team was knocked out in the tournament’s second round, Boyle resigned from her $700,000-a-year coaching job. She had amassed a 333-191 record, including 129-98 at U-Va.
In the United States, Boyle can lean on her 82-year-old mother, four brothers and sisters, and a supportive community at Virginia.
But in Senegal, it would be just her and Ngoty.
“She’s six,” she said. “Putting her on a plane by herself is not an option. Me stepping down from my job was the only option. It’s disruptive, but I’m going to do what I need to do.”