After a long, bureaucratic year and a half, Mike Norton had little reason to doubt that by this weekend he’d finally welcome Joseph and Marianna, his new Chinese son and daughter, to his family’s Laurel, Md., home where a Fisher-Price playset and a large yard with a rope swing, zip line and hammock wait.
Instead, Norton, a 37-old-old senior director in information technology, his wife, Annie, and their now five children are living in a hotel room in Guangzhou, China, unable to leave because their adopted babies, both 20-months-old, cannot get their travel visas.
A worldwide computer glitch in the U.S. State Department’s visa and passport record-keeping database has dramatically slowed processing at consulates everywhere.
The Nortons were forced to cancel their Friday morning flight home and tack on extra hotel stay. No one can tell them whether they’ll be there another few days or longer. They are simply told that the problem is being worked on as quickly as possible.
And so they wait.
“We’re well past 48 hours, and there has been nothing of an update we can do anything with,” Norton said in a phone interview. “Every day they string us along and say, ‘Sorry we don’t know more.’ ”
The State Department’s Consular Consolidated Database (CCD), which keeps all the background-check records on individuals seeking U.S. visas, started having outage issues on July 19, creating a massive backlog.
The system went back online Wednesday but is operating at a “significantly reduced capacity,” according to the State Department, which could not say when it would be fully operational.
The cause of the outage is unknown, but State Department officials have ruled out foul play. Its impact is global, but officials would not provide an exact number of people held up.
In the 2013 fiscal year, more than 7,092 children were adopted from abroad and 2,306 from China, according to State Department statistics.
In Norton’s Marriott hotel in one Chinese city, he estimates about 30 American families are there waiting. Despite their anxiety about going home, he says there is a certain comfort in having others share the same situation — having to bond with their new children in a hotel rather than in the comfort of their homes.
A friend back in the United States even had Papa Johns pizzas delivered to the hotel, so the family could have a little taste of home.
Norton and his wife have 11- and 8-year-old sons, both adopted from Guatemala and a 3-year-old daughter adopted domestically.
They started their latest adoption through the Chinese Children Adoption International (CCAI), a process that began 18 months ago. In February, they learned two babies were found for them.
They traveled to China’s Henan province two weeks ago to meet their children, then to the nearest U.S. consulate Wednesday to take an oath and fill out paperwork. Within 24 hours they were supposed to return to pick up their babies’ visas.
But with the system down, the visa cannot even be printed.
Judy Winger, director of adoptions for CCAI, said her team has been in constant contact with the families, but they don’t have much information to share either.
“Obviously it adds several layers of financial and emotional difficulties,” Winger said.
Tanna Smith, 35, a nurse in Sharon Springs, Kan., is also in the hotel with the Nortons, staying with her 61-year-old mother and her new 8-year-old son, Jay. Smith’s husband and two other children stayed behind.
Jay has spina bifida and is in a wheelchair, which is challenging, Smith said, because China does not have the same disability accessibility laws as the United States.
Smith’s wait has been especially emotionally trying. She and her husband planned to adopt a baby from Russia, and even traveled there in October 2012 to meet their daughter. But 21 days before their court date to complete the adoption, Russia banned U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children.
“This delay is very hard on us financially, but I have my son in my arms,” Smith said. “He is legally mine, visa or no visa. Ultimately that is all that matters.”
Norton feels the same. His wife even wrote a blog post titled, “Worth it.”
“Living for 2+ weeks in a hotel is not easy. But you know what’s harder? Not having kids,” she wrote. “And those long months of waiting and praying for them? Priceless.”
Norton is also glad his other children are there with them to bond with their new siblings.
“We’re just looking forward to continuing it in our home,” he said.