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For one Missouri family, the joy of adoption has become a 4-year legal battle

 Adam and Jill Trower pose for a portrait with their daughter Nora. They hold a picture frame of Luke, who remains in an orphanage.
Becky Orf/Orf Photography.
Adam and Jill Trower pose for a portrait with their daughter, Nora. They hold a framed photo of Luke, who remains in an orphanage.

In 2018, Jill and Adam Trower learned about a 2-month-old child living in an orphanage in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The adoption agency told them that he had been found by a stranger, abandoned and wearing only a diaper.

They named him Luke.

“We heard about his incredible story of survival,” Adam Trower recalled on Wednesday's St. Louis on the Air. “I think, instantly, both of us felt a connection, and felt like it was something that we should do.”

But four years later, Luke is still living in the orphanage. Outside of video calls, photos and translated messages passed through an orphanage worker, he and his adoptive parents from Pike County, Missouri, have never met. Even so, Jill Trower said that she had a feeling the moment she saw him: “He was just so full of life. And you could just tell that he was a fighter.”

She added, “We're just ready for him to be home with us.”

The obstacles between Luke and the Trowers go beyond the 7,000 miles that physically separate them. A morass of legal complications has halted the family’s adoption efforts, even though, as the Trowers’ attorney David Gearhart pointed out on Wednesday's show, both the U.S. and DRC governments signed off on Luke’s adoption in 2019.

“There's two main stages to the international adoption process. One is a suitability determination made by our government about the family. Are they a good family to adopt this child? And the Trowers easily passed that,” Gearhart explained. “The second stage is to determine whether or not the child is actually an orphan, to make sure that they weren't bought or that there wasn't corruption in the child being turned over to an American family.”

It was in the second stage that problems arose, first with the investigation into Luke’s circumstances, and then with unexplained delays that dragged from months to years. Eventually, the Trowers turned to the courts to force a resolution that would bring Luke home.

A Missouri family's struggle to adopt from the DRC

Filed in 2020, their federal lawsuit named top U.S. immigration officials and the Department of State. They argued that Luke’s adoption had been approved by both countries’ governments and should proceed. In response, the U.S. presented an argument that focused on a DRC policy change in 2016 — three years before the Trowers’ adoption was seemingly approved — that banned international adoptions.

Through their attorneys, the Trowers argued back that the U.S. and DRC governments had approved multiple adoptions, including Luke’s, during the same time period.

But the U.S. government has stuck to its position. In a May 19 motion to dismiss the Trowers’ lawsuit, the government argued: “Whatever may have transpired between 2016 and 2019, it is clear today that the DRC’s position is that intercountry adoptions are illegal under its laws — and prior mistakes or efforts to ignore DRC law, as chronicled [by the Trowers], do not beget further efforts to nullify sovereign authority.”

During Wednesday’s show, Gearhart disputed the U.S. government’s description of the DRC rule change around adoptions. He maintains that Luke’s adoption remains approved by the Congolese legal system and that should be enough for the U.S. government.

Adam Trower acknowledged that he and Jill knew pursuing an international adoption wouldn’t be easy, or fast. But they never imagined it would turn out like this.

“We went into this process thinking that the real challenge would be on the international side, that we would have trouble with the courts there,” he said. “We never anticipated that our government would be actively working against us.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."
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