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A World Away: Iron Range couple’s adoption plans put on hold as pandemic plays out

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FAYAL TOWNSHIP, MN -- Emily and Joe Heitke first met in high school and they've been planning for their future family ever since.

"He was a senior and I was a sophomore, so it was a pretty big deal back then," recalled Emily with a laugh.

For this young couple that conversation always included adoption.

"I would say adoption has always been on our hearts," said Emily.

"We always talked about it and thought it would be cool someday type thing," added Joe. "Many years later I guess someday had to be, 'are we going to do this or not?'"

That answer is, yes, the Heitkes are going to adopt.

"Originally we were like, okay, we'll adopt two kids - and then it turned out to be four," said Emily.

"Our social worker approached us with this sibling group and said, 'I know you guys were saying two kids, but here's four; and I know you said maybe 10 or 11 for the oldest but she's actually 13.' And she (Emily) was pretty much a 'yes' right away," recalled Joe.

That's when their journey to starting a family began.

"We started the adoption process in June of 2019 and then we filed commitment paperwork I believe in August. So almost exactly a year now," said Emily.

The children live in Bulgaria and speak Bulgarian so the Heitkes have been getting to know them through letters and video chats while the process is underway.

An Iron Range couple deals with an unexpected obstacle in their adoption process as the pandemic continues.
Joe and Emily Heitke look at a photo in their home in Fayal Township on the Iron Range.

Then, in February of this year, they were given word to pack their bags and prepare to meet the kids.

"It was kind of surreal," said Joe. "I mean, it was all this build-up for this moment."

Emily also recalled the moment they found out they would be going to Bulgaria. "I was like, what do you wear to meet your kids?"

Due to privacy restrictions, we can't introduce you to the children but Joe fondly recalled the moment they first met them in person.

"I feel like we knew the kids from the letters. You know you feel like you had read the letters so many times that you kind of, I don't know, knew them already a little bit. But then to see them in person, it was a whole other thing."

The Heitkes spent two weeks with the kids in Bulgaria.

While leaving them and coming back to the United States was difficult, Joe and Emily had no idea just how difficult their journey was about to become.

After returning from Bulgaria, the Heitkes went back to work for about a week, and then the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States.

"It's sad," said Joe.
"Lots of ugly crying, on my part," added Emily.

What is traditionally a predictable system, as far as timelines go, is now full of unknowns.

"It's very defeating to be facing something that we can't control," said Joe. "No matter how organized we are, no matter who we call, no matter what you do, the world is shut down, essentially."

From longer than expected immigration paper delays to court proceedings being pushed back - the Heitkes are playing the waiting game.

"We had an extended wait to get the kids, they each need a Visa case number, and I guess typically it’s a one week wait time and that took almost two months, said Joe. "And then once we got those case numbers they got sent to the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria and they were shut down for normal consular operations.”

Leaving the Heitkes with the difficult task of explaining that to four kids who have been waiting for their forever family.

“That’s hands down the hardest part of everything,” said Emily as she recalled one of the conversations she had with one of the kids. “One of the middle kids was like, ‘so when are you going to come to get us?’ And we’re like we don’t know. ‘Well, can you come next week?’ We’re like sorry, honey, no, we can’t come to get you. It’s just so hard. I mean, it is kind of funny, but it’s also, it’s really heartbreaking and that's the hardest part is telling them 'no' and that we can’t come get them.”

For now, Joe, Emily, and the four kids are leaning on hope that soon they'll be together.

“When we first see each other, we were planning it and we’re like ‘do you think you’ll cry?’ ‘Probably, are you gonna cry?’ We talked about what kind of hug we’re gonna have when we’re all back together. So, a big Heitke hug of six people, that in itself is going to be really rewarding."

The Heitke's recently shared some good news with CBS 3.
The immigration papers for the four kids have been approved and a court date has been set for September 21, 2020. That's when the kids will officially become Heitkes.

Joe and Emily wanted to thank their Iron Range community, who they say, has been supportive both emotionally and financially as international adoption can come at high costs.

The family plans to have a special welcome home party for the kids who they hope will be home before November of this year.

Kristen Vake

Anchor, Reporter

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