By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Chad and Julia Sandstrom had two biological children of their own, but they wanted to adopt a third. Julia was drawn to the idea because her father was adopted, while Chad thought it was a good way to avoid contributing to the overpopulation problem.
Unlike many adoptive parents who have their hearts set on an infant, the Sandstroms wanted an older orphan. "I wanted to give a child a family," says Julia Sandstrom.
After family friends played host to an orphan visiting from Russia, the couple knew their time had come. In January 2005, they went to a party hosted by the local adoption agency their friends had used. Located in New Hope, Reaching Arms International specialized in placing Eastern European children. The Sandstroms came away impressed by the passion of RAI's founder, Nila Hilton, who had dedicated her life to working with orphans.
Julia Sandstrom checked out other agencies on the internet, but they liked the fact that Reaching Arms was just 30 miles from their Stillwater home. "We could drive to do business there," she says. "It felt more real and safe."
So in February 2005, the Sandstroms visited the office to meet their caseworker and hear about Reaching Arms' programs in Russia, Ukraine, and Armenia. They chose Armenia. It was cheaper than Russia, and easier than the Ukraine. The Sandstroms came through their home study with flying colors and quickly won the Armenian government's approval.
But then months came and went. The following January, their caseworker told them the delay was because older children were harder to find. The Sandstroms asked Reaching Arms to broaden its search to include any healthy female children under the age of four.
In May 2006, they got news that a four-month-old girl had been found. Because Eastern European orphans are at high risk for retardation and fetal alcohol syndrome, the Sandstroms asked the University of Minnesota's International Adoption Clinic to look at their prospective daughter's case file. It offered precious little information—the pictures were blurry and the only medical information was that the baby was born 10 weeks premature.
The Sandstroms asked the caseworker for help getting more details. A week later, Nila Hilton called. Hilton told Julia Sandstrom that the clinic had misdiagnosed other orphans and could not be trusted, the Sandstroms say. Hilton also warned that Armenian officials would be offended if the Sandstroms turned down the baby.
"Mrs. Hilton's telling us we have to make a decision right away," Julia recalls. "Meanwhile, the U is saying this could potentially be a very serious medical issue."
The couple stood their ground, and a checkup with an outside doctor and new pictures proved the girl healthy. Then the family got another shock: They had been told the fees for the Armenian part of the process would come to $8,000, but now Hilton said they'd have to pay $17,000-$20,000. When the Sandstroms questioned her about the increase, Hilton said adopting an infant was more expensive than an older child.
"At that point, we had no bargaining room," says Julia. "Her room was ready, her clothes had been purchased, her picture had been shown to family."
Two weeks before the Sandstroms were supposed to go to Armenia, their caseworker called and said she'd left the agency. Julia couldn't get Hilton on the phone, so she drove to Reaching Arms. The building had been put up for sale.
"It looked like they were ready to cut and run," she says. "We were left high and dry."
In 1991, Nila and Bill Neumiller went on a church trip to Russia and toured a number of orphanages.
"She came back a changed person," recalls Bill Neumiller (now her ex-husband). "She went to minister to orphans, and saw the conditions in which they lived and saw the hollowness in their eyes. And it really affected her."
Both Neumillers were deeply religious, and both were sure Nila was being called to save orphans. Back in Minnesota, she quit her job, enrolled in ministerial training at her Charismatic church, and started looking into opening an adoption agency.
The Neumillers installed a drafting table and a second phone line in their basement, and Nila got to work. To get a state license to place children, she would need to be supervised by a licensed social worker. She met one at lunch a few days later, and the woman agreed to help for free. Nila Neumiller also stumbled upon several Russian immigrants who had good contacts back in the home country.
In 1995, Reaching Arms placed its first orphans, three Russian sisters. Before long, the agency was placing 60 children a year. After homes had been found for 100 children, the Neumillers organized a reunion picnic. The memory still makes Bill Neumiller choke up.
"We noticed how many of the children came from the same orphanage and knew each other," he says. "They ran up and hugged each other and then pointed out their parents."
Over the next decade, the agency placed some 800 to 900 children, Bill Neumiller says. Its newsletters were peppered with stories of families moved to accept not chubby-cheeked infants, but children who are notoriously difficult to place: older kids, children with serious disabilities, and groups of siblings.