When we got the "good news" about our new judge, we were rejoicing over our facilitation team’s big success. Only a day later, we had another shock: we learned that in the process of changing judges, we had very nearly lost Aaron. We heard from Reece’s Rainbow that the team had very nearly pulled the plug on our case. The difficulties of working in a completely new region had almost proved insurmountable. Reece's Rainbow felt that most teams would have abandoned the effort and advised us to choose another child. We had no idea how close we had come to losing him. We had agonized over the difficulty of the process, but we never really thought that we might lose him, because we had never encountered anyone who really opposed the adoption.
Our new judge in the next town had never processed an adoption before. This might have been a benefit, because it might have meant that our highly experienced facilitator Luda could guide her through the process and show her the easiest way to manage it. Unfortunately, this particular judge was not about to let some fast-talking city facilitator lead her around by the nose. She did not understand the process, with its many foreign documents, and she seemed to carry a bias against adoption that Luda could not understand. The team's excitement about getting a new judge quickly turned to frustration when they realized how much trouble she was going to give them.
About a week after we learned about the new judge, we got our court date; but we also learned that the judge was requiring two separate hearings, one preliminary and one formal. Most families are allowed to combine the two hearings into one, but our judge wasn’t combining anything. This was a big disappointment because it meant that we would be away from home longer. Our son Ben was starting his first two classes at our local community college, and our son Elijah was going to be home alone for a good part of each day. More time away meant more strain on them, on our parents who were watching over them, and on our friends who were picking up the slack in our absence. It also meant more money, but the Lord provided: we raised the last of what we needed the day before we left home.
We flew back to Aaron's country and then rushed down to Ananiev. On the way, Luda filled us in on her encounters with our new judge. Her assessment of her was, shall we say, less than flattering. Over dinner, Luda coached us on our upcoming preliminary hearing. We had read plenty of blogs about adoption court hearings, and they seemed pretty easy, so we thought we were well prepared. So we were unnerved when Luda found problem after problem with our answers to hypothetical questions the judge might ask. We kept stepping on unseen landmines, things she said we must by no means reveal to this judge. We went from moderate calm to panic as we realized how much depended on our performance in court.
In the middle of all of this, we were anticipating our first reunion with Aaron after over a month of separation. We had no idea how he would react to our sudden reappearance, but we knew him well enough to expect trouble. We wanted a quiet, private meeting with him so that we could hold him, comfort him and promise him that we would never leave him again. So we were unnerved yet again when we found out that our reunion would be monitored by the internat inspector. When the caretakers dragged Aaron into the internat director's office, the look on his face confirmed our worst fears. Hurt and confusion burned in his eyes. He refused to look at us, turning his head away and resisting our touch. He did allow us to kneel beside him and gently soothe him. Eventually, he allowed Rob to hold him on his lap, and together we paged through our photo album with its many pictures of home. It took a few more days to regain his trust.
The preliminary hearing on August 27th was brief and brutal. As soon as the judge entered the courtroom, we understood Luda's apprehension. Her honor's harsh face and unsmiling eyes spoke of her deep distrust. Luda still tried to consolidate the two hearings into one, but it didn’t work out that way-- in fact, it was quite the opposite. After a little legalese and a few suspicious questions, the judge set our second hearing two weeks after the first. This decision took our breath away. We had expected a week's delay at most. She also required a representative from the SDA (child welfare office) to be present at the next hearing, and she wanted proof that Aaron had no siblings who were available for adoption. Even worse, she commanded Aaron’s presence at the second hearing, despite the fact that he couldn’t legally be required to appear. When it was over, we felt as if we'd been cudgeled. In the hall after the hearing, she unsmilingly told us that we now had two weeks to learn Aaron’s language. Luda laughed at us for taking her seriously, but in this instance, Luda was wrong.
Over that two week period, our facilitation team scrambled to meet these new requirements. With both the judge and her prosecutor against us, our team was almost sure the judge would deny the adoption at the second hearing. In desperation, they decided to hire an attorney to represent Aaron’s interests. This new attorney leapt into action: she traveled to the region seat, where she met with the regional prosecutor and got him on our side. This would be a tremendous help in case an appeal became necessary. The regional prosecutor in turn contacted the local prosecutor at our court in Lubashovka and got her on our side. With the backing of the regional prosecutor, Aaron’s attorney decided to resist the judge’s demand for Aaron to appear in court. We viewed this decision with guarded relief.
Throughout these two weeks, we waited and watched. We visited Aaron twice a day, every day, and worked on our court arguments. Rob worked on his language skills with little success. Luda had disappeared back to the city on the evening after the court hearing, and we spoke to her only when it rained and we needed her to call us a taxi. Her only advice was to prepare our answers for the next hearing, so that we could clearly and thoroughly explain our "motivation for adoption." We got little news, and the little that we did hear only raised our anxiety. During this time, the many prayers and blog comments we received were our best sustenance. We planned our daily blog posts three or four days in advance. We shamelessly fished for more comments and made bets over which posts would draw the most. We rejoiced whenever a comment appeared and used our frustratingly limited internet access to learn more about the people who commented.
Two days before the second hearing, we learned that Aaron's attorney had changed her mind, and that Aaron would have to appear in court. She decided that it would be unwise to antagonize our unstable judge in advance by refusing her request. We intuitively agreed with this decision; however, it added to our stress, because we were afraid that the judge would base her decision on what Aaron said, and we knew he wouldn’t say anything. We wanted to prepare him for his appearance in advance, but we couldn’t prepare him in his own language, and we had no one to translate. He finally got a bit of preparation in the car on the way to the hearing, but he was far more interested in the wonders of the world unfolding around him than in what Luda told him about the judge.
We arrived for our second hearing on the morning of September 9, well prepared but anxious. As we walked into the shabby courtroom, we reminded each other that hundreds or even thousands of bowed heads were behind us, praying for a successful outcome. It was difficult to lead Aaron into that scary room, with its steel cage for criminal defendants. It was a great comfort to know that God and His saints were there with us, and that we were not alone.
We now present our long-awaited conclusion…
Time drags by. Perry and Julia pace the courtroom. The legal team sits whispering, wondering. No one has eaten, and no one wants to drink much because there's no bathroom. Indoor plumbing has yet to arrive in the public buildings of this rural country.
Finally, hopeful rumors begin to filter back to our heroes. Luda is summoned back to the judge’s chambers once more. When she returns, she has seen that the judge is typing up what appears to be a court decree, hunt and peck, hunt and peck. Whatever it is will take hours to complete at this rate. The legal team chats quietly among themselves. Perry and Julia give up on trying to participate in the discussion and concentrate on enduring.
Later, Luda waits with them. Our heroes learn a bit about national politics, a bit about Luda’s family. This country’s elderly are suffering, Luda says. Their pensions are a pittance, a starvation wage. Few have any savings to supplement their pensions. There is almost no such thing as health insurance. Her mother has suffered from cancer, and it has been hard on the entire family. Many of the elderly support a return to communism because pensions were better and life was easier before independence. Perry and Julia just listen; they feel that it would be presumptuous to comment on the internal politics of distant countries. They have already learned that the local understanding of communism is utterly foreign to them.
Behind our heroes, the legal team begins to gossip about the judge. The local SDA representative, who knows the judge's story, drops yet another bombshell: the judge's biological daughter has died only a few weeks ago. It must have happened just before she got our heroes' case. She has also lost her husband within the past year. What happened to the daughter is lost in translation, but Perry and Julia realize that her grief explains much. At the height of her loss, this grieving wife and mother has suddenly found herself at the center of a life-changing adoption case. Perry and Julia reflect on God's timing. For weeks before this hearing, a host of God's people had prayed for this judge. Although none of them knew anything of her or her need, they bathed her in prayer in her time of suffering.
The anticlimactic ending comes at around 4 p.m. when the judge reenters the courtroom. Perry and Julia watch the judge through new eyes, aware now of her burdens. All rise as she reads out her decree: Effective September 20, 2010, Perry and Julia will be the parents of Aaron Vanya Nalle. His birth certificate will be changed to reflect his new name and parentage, and they will take custody when the new birth certificate is complete. The day is won! Praise the Lord!
Perry and Julia accept the congratulations of the legal team, reflecting that it’s a bit hard to celebrate with people who don't understand a word one is saying. Should they offer to take everyone out for a celebration dinner? No, because it’s already so late that Luda and the attorney have to rush back to the capital. All are so tired and hungry that they can’t wait to get home. And anyway, where would they go for such a celebration in a dinky little village like this? The obvious choice, Pizza Hut, has no franchises anywhere in the region.
Perry, Julia and Luda visit the judge’s chambers one last time to express their thanks. Luda tactfully points out a few minor errors in the court decree. An hour passes as the judge makes the corrections. Luda effortlessly manages the judge’s corrections, the printing of several copies of the decree, and the constant barrage of one language in one ear and another in the other. She’s a skilled professional at the top of her game.
Perry and Julia (in broken language): Thank you very much, your Honor.
Judge: (finally smiling) Thank you? I expected to receive flowers or cognac (Luda translates this for our heroes only later, after they've left, for fear they will respond with shock).
Judge: Well, if God directed you to adopt this child, then he directed me to rule in your favor.
Perry and Julia look at each other in wonder. The significance of these words does not escape them. God has indeed directed their journey, but the language barrier keeps them from sharing this with the judge.
Perry: We appreciate what you did.
Judge: You may consider that you have come to the end of a long pregnancy, and are proud parents recovering at the hospital.
Perry and Julia chuckle and remain politely silent, afraid to step on some cultural landmine that might destroy this day’s good work. As the corrections on the decree progress, the judge wants them to know that she approves of charity. In addition to the adoptions, she has recently taken in some locals who lost their home in a fire. She has shed her court robes, and Perry and Julia finally notice the cross she wears around her neck. A thousand years and two major schisms stand between her church and theirs, but they still have charity in common.
She also repeats some of her frustration with her daughters. They have refused to study their arithmetic, she says, giving the excuse that calculators and computers render all of that unnecessary. But who will build the computers when this generation grows up, Perry wonders? One daughter, at least, has been accepted to a university. She’s happy about that. Perry and Julia want to participate in the small talk, but waiting for the translation makes it difficult. Luda is far more interested in the court decree than in small talk, and wary about our heroes possibly saying the wrong thing. There is no mention of the lost daughter, and Perry and Julia feel that it would be unwise to pry.
The lone male juror, who has suffered through this entire ordeal along with our heroes, is still sitting there waiting to sign the decree so that he can go home. He asks how they heat their house back home. They chat about heat pumps, wood stoves, radiators and natural gas. When his work is done, he leaves. Perry and Julia will never see him again, but they are grateful for the part he has played.
The ride back to the village is punishing in the cramped car, and both Perry and Julia feel positively ill from stress, hunger and motion sickness. When it’s finally over and Luda has gone back to the capital, they collapse on the bed, too tired to think about food. Shortly, their savior and hostess Valla invites them for soup, and they’re asleep by 7:30 p.m.
It's tempting to revile our judge for giving us such a hard time. We’ve had a few harsh words for her-- OK, more than a few-- but in my judgment, it would be unfair to condemn her for the way she managed our case. To us it seems so obvious that Aaron will be better off with a family, but the judge didn't know us. To her, we were foreigners on a strange and possibly suspicious mission. She couldn't understand why anyone would want to buy trouble by adopting a child who would need so much care for so long. She was reluctant to rely on the recommendations of the SDA and the adoption agency, as other judges do, because she had never done an adoption before. She was deliberately hard on us, but that’s how attorneys and judges test people they don’t know-- they put them under pressure and wait to see if they’ll split a seam.
She’s a country judge, unused to the trappings of international adoptions-- the many documents, the apostilles, and so on. She couldn’t let some fast-talking facilitator come into her court and tell her what to do. She had a responsibility to uphold the law and to serve the child’s best interest. She took her time and did things her way. And in the end, led by the prompting of the Holy Spirit and backed by the prayers of the saints, she made the right call for everyone.