Ukrainian teenage orphans Vika and Oksana can’t wait to join their prospective parents, Steve and Jennifer Heinemann, at their home in Minnesota. The sisters helped design their shared bedroom, which is adorned with decorative pink roses, a sign that says “love” and a crystal beaded chandelier.
But their beds will remain empty for the time being.
Vika, 15, and Oksana, 13, were scheduled to visit the U.S. this summer while the Heinemanns finalized their adoption. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ground those plans to a halt.
“We had just finished painting and decorating their bedroom when the war broke out,” said Jennifer Heinemann, who did not want to share the girls’ last name out of concern that it could jeopardize their adoption process. Now she’s not sure what will happen.
According to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., there are currently 300 Ukrainian children (which includes Vika and Oksana) waiting to join their American adoptive families or host families. “It’s hard to imagine a ‘next step’ given the absolute chaos and destruction,” said Kelly Dempsey, an attorney in Charlotte, North Carolina, who currently represents 43 American families (including the Heinemanns) whose Ukrainian adoptions have been stalled. “All resources are appropriately focused on survival.”
Kristen Hamilton, director of communication for the National Council for Adoption, said that adoptions from Ukraine are unique: “What is especially difficult for many of these families adopting from Ukraine is that they have previously hosted the child they are adopting, meaning they have had this child in their home for weeks at a time. Bonds have been formed, there are deep emotional ties and yet they feel helpless to protect them from the trauma they have and are continuing to experience.”
Many of the 300 Ukrainian children awaiting adoption in the U.S. are stuck in emergency shelters without adequate supervision or resources, according to Dempsey. The parents Dempsey represents believe that quickly issuing temporary visas to children in the middle of the adoption process is “the best tool to prevent these children from being subject to child trafficking, abuse or exploitation.” They want the children to stay in the U.S. with their intended adoptive parents and then return to Ukraine to complete the adoption process as soon as it is safe to do so.
The Heinemann family keeps careful track of Vika and Oksana “throughout the day, every day” via phone and text. The girls had to flee their orphanage in Mariupol for another one in Lviv. Vika frequently asks when she can come to her new home in America, Jennifer Heinemann said.
Aside from Vika and Oksana, Jennifer and Steve have nine other children (four biological, four adopted from Ukraine and one adopted domestically.)
Putin looking to end war in Ukraine by May, according to reportApril 12, 202210:43
The Heinemanns met Ukrainian orphans and biological brothers Oleksandr, 14, Volodymyr, 13, and Vladyslav, 10, when they hosted them in their home through a foster program three years ago. Within two weeks, they decided to pursue adoption for the three boys, plus their younger sister, Yuliia, 8, who was still in an orphanage in Ukraine because she was too young to participate in the hosting program.
After those adoptions were finalized, the Heinemanns began a second adoption process in September 2021 for Vika and Oksana, siblings from a different Ukrainian family who were extremely close to Oleksandr and his brother and sister.
In February, after the invasion, one of the Heinemanns’ friends who is also founder of a non-profit organization that helps Ukrainian orphans who have aged out of the system, decided to travel to Poland to assist with evacuations. Steve Heinemann went along to help, and to hopefully see Vika and Oksana in Lviv, about 40 miles from Poland’s border.
When he was in Poland, the Heinemanns said they learned that the director of Vika and Oksana’s orphanage was not planning to process their paperwork; the girls would not be allowed to leave Ukraine just yet. The director, according to Steve Heinemann, did not give any reason.
“I struggled knowing that they were so very close, and I could not see them or comfort them,” Steve Heinemann recounted. As his return flight to America approached, he decided to make the dangerous four-hour drive from Krakow, Poland to Lviv to see Vika and Oksana.
Luckily, the drive into Ukraine went smoothly. Heinemann said he was able to bring non-perishables to the orphanage director and clothes, socks and underwear to Vika and Oksana. He was also able to spend several hours with them before returning to Poland.
Tasha Bradley, who founded an organization in 2018 that connects Ukrainian orphans with American host families, has visited Ukraine several times a year to provide support to orphanage directors. Like Steve Heinemann, she traveled to Poland shortly after the war began to help facilitate evacuations. The hardest thing to convey to prospective parents and orphanage directors, Bradley said, is that they must be prepared to wait longer for the adoptees to come home. “It's heart wrenching for them every single day,” she said.
Bradley and her husband Travis happen to be in the middle of their own Ukrainian adoption. The Bradleys hosted now 15-year-old Masha for the Christmas season four years ago. They felt an “immediate connection” with her, and she seemed to fit right in with the Bradleys’ three older biological sons. The Bradleys, who live in Prosper, Texas, said they were approved by Ukraine as prospective adoptive parents, and they received the stamp of approval to travel to Kyiv for their first appointment with the State Department of Adoptions. At that meeting, the Bradleys said they would have received the official greenlight to start the final adoption process for Masha.
The meeting, however, was scheduled to take place on March 16. Just three days prior, Masha and her orphanage were evacuated; She is now in Austria. One of the few possessions Masha brought with her was a family photo album that the Bradleys made for her.
At the end of March, Tasha and Travis Bradley traveled to Austria to spend time with Masha. They played card games with her friends, took walks and brought her shopping with her chaperone. Tasha Bradley said, “It was wonderful to see her and assure her that we will still come for her as soon as we can.”
Though the Bradleys desperately want Masha to join their family in Texas, they understand that the adoption has to be put on hold while efforts to evacuate orphans are still ongoing. “I’ve personally resigned in my heart that it could be two years before we get [Masha] home," said Bradley.
Back in the U.S., Dempsey said that the families she represents are working hard to obtain the approval of the U.S. and Ukraine governments for a temporary solution that will allow Ukrainian kids awaiting adoption to travel to the U.S. until they can safely be returned to Ukraine and the adoption process can resume.
Children who are in the middle of the adoption process, like Vika, Oksana and Masha, cannot be removed from the care of their orphanages, even if they are evacuated to neighboring countries.
The Heinemanns are understandably terrified for the girls that they already consider to be their daughters, but they remain hopeful. “At this point, it is not about adopting our girls anymore; they can be adopted later when Ukraine is ready,” said Jennifer Heinemann. “The focus now needs to be getting [all of the] orphans to safety.”