In April, the Keller family returned from Vietnam, where they adopted their second Vietnamese daughter, Lana, who will be entering fourth grade at Centerville Elementary School this fall. Katherine Ross-Keller, an occupational therapist in Montgomery County Public Schools, her husband, Drew, and their older daughter, Victoria, are excited about the family’s new addition.
This was the Kellers’ second adoption from Vietnam. They adopted Victoria, a rising seventh grader, in 2008. Coincidentally, said Ross-Keller, “we met the girls on the same day (of the year), 11 years apart. We couldn’t have planned that!”
When the Kellers traveled to Vietnam in April, it was Victoria’s first time returning since she was an infant. Prior to joining up with Lana, the Kellers took a few days to tour Vietnam with Victoria. “We did this first,” said Ross-Keller, “so that she would have our full attention before we became a family of four.” They visited Victoria’s orphanage in Ho Chi Minh, visited the hotel where they had stayed during their first visit, and took their time experiencing the food and the city. “It was a bit of a culture shock,” Ross-Keller said, “but after a day or two of getting used to it, she flourished and really embraced exploring.”
Next, the Kellers traveled to Lana’s orphanage in Bien Hoa. “We’d Skyped once from the US and once in Vietnam before visiting the orphanage, but we met her for the first time at the adoption ceremony,” said Ross-Keller, “and she immediately came with us.”
When the Kellers toured Lana’s orphanage, said Ross-Keller, “seeing the kids there was really eye-opening. (There were) a lot of kids with disabilities from Agent Orange exposure. So many of the disabilities are treatable here (in the US), but there aren’t enough money and resources there (in Vietnam).”
“You walk into a room (of the orphanage),” she continued, “that has about 25 cribs and only three caregivers. Kids’ needs are met on a schedule, not as needed.”
Ross-Keller, who works with children from infancy through age three, added that “as someone who works in early childhood development, (I know) that has a profound effect on social and emotional development.”
Once the Kellers completed the adoption ceremony, they traveled to Hanoi, where they spent 12 days, processing the adoption before traveling home to the US.
Final approval for each adoption came from the US Embassy during the Kellers’ visits to Vietnam. Ross-Keller explained, “We were given a sealed packet to present to immigration at the airport. That triggered citizenship paperwork and a social security number, which came in the mail later. The process was fast with Victoria. It took less than a year. We came into (San Francisco) where the immigration officer had Victoria’s Vietnamese last name! He was touched and honored, and teary-eyed, to help someone from his country become an immigrant.”
Ross-Keller explained that Vietnam now participates in the Hague-accredited intercountry adoption program, which protects children, birth parents and adoptive parents. Lana’s overall adoption process was lengthier than Victoria’s. “Lana was referred to us when she was seven, and she was nine (when we brought her) home.”
Lana began attending third grade soon after her arrival in the US. “She didn’t grow up playing much with toys,” Ross-Keller said, “so she was bored and lonely at home. She was used to being around kids.” Centerville Elementary worked with the Kellers to enroll Lana for a few hours a day. Lana arrived to find not only her name on her desk, but cards from her classmates as well as picture symbols on her desk so that she could ask for what she needed. “It was such a welcoming experience for her,” Ross-Keller said.
The Kellers weave Vietnamese traditions into their lives. They take advantage of opportunities in the area, including the Eden Center in Falls Church where more than 120 family-owned restaurants and shops cater to the Asian-American population. The family observes big holidays, such as the Lunar New Year, for which they make a clean home, gather for traditional food and give the children “lucky money,” a small amount of money presented to children in a red envelope as a wish for good luck in the new year.
The family seeks support from many sources, including other families who have adopted. “Online support is priceless,” Ross-Keller said. “(Members) know a lot of intimate details about one another. There’s a familiarity with each other even if you haven’t met in real life.” The Kellers also attend an annual cultural camp in Massachusetts. The Catalyst Foundation, a humanitarian organization that helps fight human trafficking in Vietnam, hosts the camp. “All the campers are kids, or siblings of kids, adopted from Vietnam. There’s kids’ programming, but it’s more about the relationships, the connections with the kids and families,” said Ross-Keller.
The Kellers’ biggest challenge is safety. “Lana crosses the street without looking. In Vietnam, she was used to motorbikes, which slow down as people cross the street. She’s not used to traffic or big cars.” They also face challenges when interacting with people. “People ask a lot of questions (like) ‘Are they real sisters?’ They ask private details: ‘Does she know her parents?’ ‘How old was she when she went to the orphanage?’” Ross-Keller said that the questions were worse when they adopted Victoria as a baby. “People don’t talk as openly in front of older kids (like Lana).”
“Adoptive parenting doesn’t look like traditional parenting,” Ross-Keller said. “(Intercountry adoptees lose) everything to come here—birth country, culture, everything. There’s trauma. We know a lot more now about birth trauma and fetal development and brain development. Trauma impacts even the youngest infant. Relationships come first under every circumstance with trauma. That’s how you establish safety and trust, without which you’ve got nothing.”
The Kellers do not use parenting techniques like Time Out. “We use Time IN,” Ross-Keller said, explaining that they don’t want to separate an adopted child from her family unit. “The suicide rate in adoptees is four times higher than non-adoptees (according to a 2013 study published in Pediatrics),” Ross-
Currently, the Keller family is relaxing and focusing on family time and bonding. They play a lot of card games and air hockey. To overcome the language barrier, they play Uno, tic-tac-toe, Connect 4, mancala, and other non-language-based games.
“(The girls) get our full attention,” Ross-Keller said.