They say paperwork is trapping their adopted daughter in Nepal and now they’re suing

Aaron and Emma Skalka of Annapolis adopted two children from orphanages in Kathmandu, Nepal. One child, Ben, is living in Maryland and in high school. The other, Bhagya, remains in an orphanage. Picture: Family photo/Washington Post

Aaron and Emma Skalka of Annapolis adopted two children from orphanages in Kathmandu, Nepal. One child, Ben, is living in Maryland and in high school. The other, Bhagya, remains in an orphanage. Picture: Family photo/Washington Post

Published Jul 23, 2023


By Petula Dvorak

They see their daughter just twice a year. And she has never seen the two-story brick house in Annapolis that is supposed to be - according to all the documents they signed - her American home.

Bhagya, 12, is still in an orphanage in Nepal, where Aaron and Emma Skalka met her eight years ago.

They fly there twice a year, Skype, call and email her as much as they can to talk about her hobbies, her friends, her grades.

They are stuck in an adoption limbo - a morass of paperwork and politics, fraught with the ethical weight of international adoptions and the fierce conviction of two people who don't want a little girl to be abandoned a second time.

And they just sued the American government, essentially arguing to overturn a ban on adoptions from Nepal implemented when abuse and corruption in the system was uncovered 13 years ago.

The Skalkas - who hired their own investigator to ensure everything was legit and unforced - are pressing the State Department and US Citizenship and Immigration Services to acknowledge the Nepalese approval of Bhagya's adoption.

"The State Department doesn't understand," Aaron Skalka said. "From the moment we signed those papers, there was an emotional commitment to this child."

The Skalkas made their first trip to Nepal in 2010, when they adopted their son, Ben. He's now a 16-year-old kid in Annapolis who runs on his high school cross-country team and loves building complex Lego structures.

Emma, Bhagya and Ben Skalka travel around Kathmandu during one of their family visits. Picture: Family photo/Washington Post

That adoption wasn't easy.

In the summer of 2010, the United States suspended adoption agreements with Nepal after accusations of human trafficking, when the country's adoption system was allegedly corrupted by the high price foreigners were willing to pay for children and Nepal was not in compliance with the Hague convention on international adoption.

Stories surfaced from parents in crisis, in remote villages, in dire situations, who were told by a representative from an orphanage that their children would be well cared for until they were able to reunite with them.

Some of those parents were eventually cut off from their children, only to learn they were living in Italy or America.

The United States suspended adoptions when the revelations came to light. Ben was one of about five dozen children caught in that suspension after he met the Skalkas, ate goldfish crackers and blew bubbles with them, after they signed the paperwork and he pointed to Emma and said, "Mamma."

Investigators deployed to remote villages - some accessible only by trekking - to verify that each child had, indeed, been abandoned and had no kin who would raise them.

Ben became a Skalka and settled into his bedroom in suburban Maryland.

Five years later, the Skalkas knew they wanted Ben to have a sibling. The United States hadn't resumed adoption agreements with Nepal, but the State Department reported that nearly all of the humanitarian investigations found zero cases of fraud or abuse.

They thought this should be enough, and they returned to Kathmandu, where they met Bhagya.

This is the part where anyone may wonder why they're flying halfway across the globe to adopt a child, when there are more than 391 000 children in the American foster care system, according to government numbers.

International adoption was less complicated and more likely to be successful when the Skalkas learned they would be unable to give birth to biological children and began looking to adopt.

Their worldview is understandable, given that Emma is Swedish by birth and both of them travel all over the world for work.

Aaron works in movie production and has stories of Chris Pratt giving "Jurassic Park" Lego sets to Benjamin and entertaining the boy as the actor sat in a make-up chair on set, waiting for his beard glue to dry.

They said Nepal, a nation ravaged by 10 years of war and struggling to care for orphans, felt right.

Especially because the Nepalese are still struggling to define citizenship with a policy that Human Rights Watch said "treats women as second class citizens."

Because Bhagya's birth mother - who was not located by investigators after she left the hospital when Bhagya was two days old - hasn't identified the father, and citizenship is established through paternity, "Bhagya will never be a citizen in Nepal," Aaron said.

They were able to move Bhagya out of an unhealthy orphanage and pay for her to be in one for girls that is more supportive. But what they really want is for her to be in Annapolis, with them.

Early in July, they filed a lawsuit in US District Court for the District of Columbia that says: "This Court should end this dark chapter of administrative misfeasance and allow the Skalkas to share their life and love with their child."

As they have visited Bhagya twice a year for eight years, they do family things.

They see tourist attractions in Nepal, cram in the back of a car, have dinner, read books in the hotel room.

Ben and Bhagya vie to get the best carved elephant from a local artisan. Twice a year, they get to act more like a traditional family.

"On the last trip, she said, 'Hold my hand, mom,'" Emma said. "And we walked around for about half an hour, holding hands."

And then it ends. And they are left with an empty bedroom in the big, suburban house they bought with an expanded family in mind, and Bhagya returns to the orphanage where some friends are fondly nicknamed monikers like "Badger," but she is ostracised with the nickname "foreigner" because of her limbo status.

The Skalkas said they are too far in to unspool the process, to leave Bhagya to chance in a nation that struggles with the question of granting her citizenship - and rights, and options for her future.