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'Stuck': Film explores families in international adoption vacuum

Published April 5, 2013 10:35 am

Campaign • Former quarterback aims to fix process whose failings are the subject of "Stuck" — a film he produced.
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From the football field to Silicon Valley, Craig Juntunen's drive has always paid off in success.

Juntunen is now focusing that can-do attitude on what may be his most daunting challenge: Raising awareness about the need to simplify international adoption — an issue showcased in the movie "Stuck," which Juntunen produced.

The quest began in 2006, when Juntunen and his wife Kathi adopted three children from Haiti. It was a life-transforming experience, which led him to write the book Both Ends Burning. Readers would tell Juntunen they'd been inspired by his example and then share stories about the roadblocks they hit when they tried to adopt.

"That was the first of many red flags about barriers, restrictions and rules preventing people from adopting," he said. Juntunen began investigating what was happening, and the more he learned, the more frustrated and fired up he got about helping orphans and the families who want to give them homes.

Far too many children don't have a family, he said, and the process to give them permanent homes is too long and costly — nearly three years and $28,000 on average. UNICEF estimates there are 17.8 million children in orphanages or living on the streets worldwide. About 400,000 children in the U.S. are in foster care.

According to the U.S. State Department, there were 8,668 children adopted by U.S. families in fiscal 2012 — down 60 percent over the past decade.

Juntunen said unnecessary hurdles and bureaucracy have contributed to the steep decline in international adoptions, which he blames on a "lackadaisical system" that moves at a "snail's pace" — if that.

"What we're trying to do is to basically form the social and political will to deal with what is a social tragedy," Juntunen said.

The movie • With that in mind, Juntunen set up a non-profit organization called Both Ends Burning and produced "Stuck" to raise awareness of problems confronting families who want to provide homes for orphans through international adoption.

Juntunen has the bonafides for such an ambitious task. He went from a successful football career as a quarterback at the University of Idaho to the Canadian Football League. After football, Juntunen started a profitable company in Silicon Valley and, after 18 years, sold it in 1995, when he turned his attention to philanthropy. In 2006, he launched the Chances for Children Foundation, which supports orphanages, churches, educational and economic programs in Haiti.

Juntunen believes there are two primary problems bogging down international adoptions: roadblocks posed by many nongovernmental organizations and system inefficiencies. Those problems are highlighted in "Stuck."

The 82-minute film follows adoptions of four children: Tihun from Ethiopia; Nate from Vietnam; and Erickson and Therline from Haiti. Juntunen is traveling the country via bus to show the film in 62 cities. "Stuck" will be shown in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 8 at 7 p.m. at the Tower Theatre. The tour will end on May 17 in Washington, D.C., where Juntunen plans to stage a march to the White House to present President Obama and every member of Congress copies of a petition he hopes by then will have been signed by 1 million people who support revamping the international adoption process.

The reaction of most audiences to the film, he said, has been, "I had no idea" and "How can I help?"

Utah story • For Jeff and Jenna Denbleyker, the film will be a replay of the nightmare they've experienced over the past 5 1/2 years.

The South Jordan couple had a flawless experience adopting a girl from Guatemala in 2004 and three years later decided to adopt two more children from that country. In August 2007, they were given referrals for two infant girls — just as the country enacted a law revising its adoption system because of concerns of fraud.

The Denbleykers brought Chloe, now 5, home five months later. Today, they are still trying to bring Lauren — also known as Jazmin — to Utah.

Although adoptions already in motion were supposed to be grandfathered in under the new law, the Denbleykers have run into one "whimsical, random" hang up after another in Lauren's adoption. There have been lost files, no shows at court hearings, months waiting for government officials to deliver requested records and, most recently, lack of a correct address for the birth mom.

"After five years, that was the first time we heard that," said Jenna Denbleyker.

In November, they were told they would have to restart the entire process under the provisions of the 2007 law. Jenna Denbleyker estimates there are at least 150 other children whose adoptions by families in the U.S. remain in limbo, down from 900 or so that were halted when the law first took effect.

Lauren, who is about a month older than Chloe, was initially cared for by a foster family associated with the Denbleykers' attorney; she has lived in an orphanage since she was 15 months old.

"We thought they [Chloe and Lauren] could grow up together," Jenna Denbleyker said, "as best friends and sisters."

Over the years, they've tried to stay in contact with Lauren through twice yearly visits and monthly web chats. But that is no substitute for the love and care they could give her in their own home.

"I don't think words can express what it feels like, whether we are there or on a webcast, and have her ask, 'When are you coming to get me?' and not be able to answer that," Jeff Denbleyker said.

Adds Jenna Denbleyker: "No one has ever come to visit [Lauren] except for us. There is no interest by anybody else in adopting her. She is clearly an orphan, with no other interest, and yet we can't get her. ... There is just not the political will to get these adoptions done and that means these children are the ones who are paying for it with their lives. It breaks our hearts, it breaks our hearts for Lauren and every other child in that situation."

It's political • Politics, political ideology and [non-governmental organization] ideology are in many instances preventing children from leaving institutions and joining a family, Juntunen said. Among the new policies: an emphasis on domestic adoptions over intercountry adoptions.

But Juntunen doesn't buy arguments that international adoption amounts to a deportation of "national heritage" — an attitude he believes would lead to "global segregation."

"We are advocating that every child has a right to belong in a family," Juntunen said. While the foster care system in the U.S. could use improvement, "the activity that seems to be the most broken is the activity around international adoption."

His response to people who say "What about our kids?"

"Every kid on this planet should be our kids and our sense of responsibility to our kids shouldn't be contained by a border," Juntunen said.

In many foreign countries, children living in orphanages are at-risk of "this enormous eclipse of human potential" because they don't get the necessary stimulation that comes from being part of a loving, thriving family.

"They are just fighting to survive," Juntunen said.

And that is why one of his chief goals is to shorten the amount of time children spend in institutions.

Juntunen said that determining eligibility to adopt is one of the most time-consuming tasks in an adoption and obviously must be done right to avoid putting birth mothers and children at-risk. He believes it is possible to create a system that has greater efficiency while also adding more transparency and safeguards.

"We're advocating for a broad-based, comprehensive solution for children to join families," Juntunen said. "What we're trying to do is just form the social movement which happens when attitudes and values are examined and reconsidered in a new context. We are hoping new information and awareness will collide with common sense and change will happen."


Twitter: @Brooke4trib —

International adoption in the spotlight

"Stuck," a documentary about international adoption, follows cases of four children and the families who want to give them homes.

When • Monday, 7 p.m.

Where • Tower Theatre, 876 E. 900 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $15, available online at http://tickets.samuelgoldwynfilms.com/ and at box office Monday evening