The bond with the children, then aged 12 and 11, was immediate, the Van Astens said.
“Four days after we met them, we were crying under the Christmas tree, having put them to bed,” Wendy, 42, said, in a telephone interview. “I just burst into tears and I’m like, ‘I love them. I want those kids. I want to be their mom.’”
The couple immediately began the adoption process, maintaining contact with M and M — whom they call by the initials of their first names out of affection and to protect their identities. The children visited four more times, for a total of 24 weeks. “Of course, there would have been more but covid prevented many trips for them,” Leo, 44, said.
Nearly five years later, the last 18 months scarred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is unclear if the Van Astens’ wish will ever be realized.
Adoption can be a slow, bureaucratic process even in the best of circumstances. But the Van Astens and dozens of American families also hoping to adopt Ukrainian children face a far bigger hurdle: Ukrainian officials have halted international adoptions until the end of the war.
And no one knows when the war will end.
As the invasion passes the year and a half mark and Kyiv’s counteroffensive claws back territory bit-by-bit, many Western officials and analysts warn of a potential impasse, in which no one wins or surrenders, nor is willing to sit at a negotiating table. The war, they say, could last years — a prospect that fills families like the Van Astens with desperation.
The situation is “urgent,” Wendy Van Asten said.
M and M are now teenagers, and at 18 will reach legal adulthood in Ukraine, making them ineligible for adoption. “They don’t have another chance to find a family if it’s not us, and we don’t have another chance for children if it’s not them,” Wendy said.
“M and M are who we consider our children, and if this doesn’t happen then that’s the end for us,” Wendy said. “It’s M and M or nothing at all.”
The Van Astens and other American families find themselves trapped in a quirk of the Ukrainian adoption system. In many countries, selecting the children to be adopted happens at the outset of the process. In Ukraine, this takes place much later.
Many of the families have already hosted Ukrainian children through visitation programs. But if they decide they want to adopt, the prospective parents must be vetted by an authorized adoption agency and by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Then the Ukrainian government must approve them for general adoption, after which they can formally apply to adopt specific children.
It is at that point that Ukraine’s system officially recognizes a relationship between the children and prospective parents — a relationship that in many cases has already lasted years.
Even in wartime, Ukrainian families can adopt Ukrainian children, as can international families who submitted their children’s names before Russia’s invasion started. But for the Van Astens and about 200 other American families who were in the earlier stages, the process is frozen.
Vasyl Lutsyk, the head of Ukraine’s National Social Service, the main government body working with orphans, said the freeze was necessary given the chaos of the war. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s children’s rights ombudswoman, Maria Lvova-Belova accusing them of war crimes in connection with the alleged forcible removal of children from Ukraine. Russia has rejected the allegations.
Ukraine’s decree freezing international adoptions calls for them to resume three months after the end of martial law. But orphans are a “vulnerable category,” Lutsyk said. Plus, he added, child services is not fully functioning in Ukraine — many of the offices are located in war zones or had their records destroyed.
In the first weeks of the war, thousands of Ukrainian children in public custody were evacuated, first to western Ukraine and then to neighboring countries and throughout Europe. M and M were moved along with other children from their orphanage from Sviatohirsk in eastern Ukraine to Lviv in western Ukraine, then to Poland and finally to Sicily, where they lived in three separate locations, the Van Astens said.
Chantal and Aaron Zimmerman are from Lancaster, Penn. and they want to adopt five Ukrainian siblings: Sasha, 15; Alina, 14; Seryozha, 11; Nikita, 8; and Nastya, 4. The children come from Berdyansk in southeast Ukraine, now occupied by Russian forces, but were evacuated to northern Italy, where their orphanage was split up by age into three locations.
Nastya, the youngest child, remained in Ukraine but Chantal said she does not know her location. Sasha went back to Ukraine in early August to live in a foster home near Zaporizhzhia.
The Zimmermans keep in contact with the three in Italy by video and messaging apps. Chantal has also traveled there three times, and once with Aaron, when they were able to see all four of the children. “We are all stuck in limbo — but they’re the ones who are suffering the most,” she said.
“The other day, Alina said to me, ‘We want to come home [to America].’ And I said, ‘Alina, I have your bedroom ready. I’m doing everything I can. We are doing everything we can to bring you home. Just don’t give up,’” Chantal said.
“Legally they are not our children,” Chantal said, but she added, “We have formed a relationship with them and we have bonded with them,” and “we love them like our own.”
The Zimmermans, Van Astens and other families say they should be allowed to host the children until the end of the war, guaranteeing to return them to Ukraine when Kyiv authorities see fit to resume the adoption process.
“None of us are looking for a quick, easy way to adopt — they still belong to Ukraine and we respect that,” said Steve Heinemann, who with his wife, Jennifer, hopes to adopt two girls, Vika, 17, and Oksana, 15.
He heads a group of families who are lobbying the U.S. government and congresspeople to find a way to bring the children to America to stay with the families they know — possibly by sending an official letter of invitation to the Ukrainian government. Heinemann says that the families want to bring about 300 Ukrainian children to the United States.
The families are working with former New Jersey State Sen. Raymond Lesniak and have met with State Department officials, as well as members of Congress like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Klobuchar’s office did not respond to a request to comment.
However, so far, Ukraine’s’ position is firm: the children can only travel to the United States if they are placed in institutions, and not with families — even on a temporary basis.
“The Ukrainians have said that [homestays are] not going to happen,” Michelle Bernier-Toth, the State Department’s special adviser for children’s issues, said. “I think that we respect the fact that Ukraine is a sovereign nation and that they are very responsible in terms of the care of the children involved.”
But the families are also worried about the children’s health and afraid that some could fall prey to trafficking. The majority of the 16,000 children available for adoption in Ukraine were abandoned or taken from their parents because of neglect.
Pavel Shulha, the Ukrainian head of Kidsave, a U.S.-based international charity helping place orphans with families, said the children’s distress is being compounded “since the main trauma is abandonment.” By delaying their adoptions, authorities are “repeating this trauma,” he said.
“I understand that the country is in a difficult situation, there is a war,” Shulha said. “But at the same time, the child expects, the child believes, the child has hope. Parents have hope and worries.” For now, he added: “We have a cork, a dead end.”