Former Virginia coach Joanne Boyle fighting to finalize adoption of 6-year-old daughter

Joanne Boyle brought Ngoty, now 6, to the United States from Senegal 3 1/2 years ago, and they'll likely have to head back to Africa this summer -- for an undetermined amount of time -- to finalize the adoption. Courtesy of Vicki Friedman

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Joanne Boyle beams while watching her daughter, Ngoty, slip into a Princess Jasmine costume.

Boyle smooths out the wrinkles and proclaims the 6-year-old as "beautiful!"

Ngoty (pronounced EN-GO-tee) folds her arms and scowls. "It's too big."

"It's supposed to be big, 'Go," Boyle assures.

Exaggerating a frown, Ngoty announces she wants butterfly wings instead for kindergarten dress-up, but Boyle shrugs with a bemused "not happening today" expression.

Flopping to the rug, face down, Ngoty stops short of a tantrum. It's a momentary distraction for Boyle, who won't be spending this summer bouncing from one AAU game to the next in search of the next great Virginia Cavalier.

The Virginia basketball coach abruptly announced her retirement in March, on the heels of leading the Cavaliers to the NCAA tournament for the first time in her seven seasons in Charlottesville. It was a decision made largely to navigate hoops of a different kind, ones that stand in the way of her finalizing the adoption of Ngoty, 3½ years after bringing her to the United States from Senegal.

Precisely what lies ahead for mother and daughter remains unclear, though it will certainly involve a 15th trip to Senegal for Boyle. She and Ngoty could be there for a few days, a couple of weeks or maybe months, depending on how long the final checks of the adoption take. One prospect that might help expedite the matter would be a trip to the Bahamas first -- an unorthodox way to overcome a technical legality. It's just another turn in this saga full of highs and lows since Boyle decided nearly a decade ago that she wanted to adopt internationally.

Until her legal team finds a solution, ideally shortly after Ngoty finishes school on Wednesday, Boyle can't make definitive plans about anything beyond the present day.

"I'm on a roller coaster and I can't get off," says Boyle, fiddling with the cross she wears around her neck. "I can't be daunted. I've learned in nine years of doing this that the less you worry and the more you focus on the task at hand and not the circumstances or the results, the better it is.

"This isn't just a process anymore. I'm her mom, and I'll do whatever I need to do."

Ngoty is signed up for a slew of summer camps ranging from performing arts to reading to outdoor adventure. It is unlikely she will attend all and possible she won't go to any. Her visa expired. For the adoption-based green card to be complete, Boyle and Ngoty must undergo a process that will involve at least a medical exam and interview at the U.S. consulate in Senegal.

Ngoty's paperwork, however, is still not in the consulate's pipeline, given the ongoing bureaucratic snags. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denied preliminary approval of her case last month. Boyle's attorneys are working with USCIS and congressional offices to find a way to complete the final adoption investigation while Ngoty remains in the United States.

The investigation is the final check in the adoption process by the State Department. If it does not begin until Boyle and Ngoty arrive in Senegal, as USCIS has been suggesting, the pair would be forced to travel to Africa with no specific timeline available as to when the case would proceed.

One possibility that would advance the process is if Ngoty could be granted humanitarian parole, which, as defined by USCIS, allows "an otherwise inadmissible alien into the United States for a temporary period of time due to a compelling emergency."

However, humanitarian parole is granted to someone outside the country rather than inside the country. Two weeks ago, USCIS denied the initial parole application on that basis, but last week reopened it.

One of Boyle's attorneys, Dan Berger, thinks that might be a good sign.

One idea Berger is exploring is having Ngoty briefly leave the United States and return in parole status. Mother and daughter would spend a few days in the Bahamas, perhaps -- Boyle would pick up the paperwork for the granted humanitarian parole there -- and then both would return to the U.S. Then they would travel to Senegal knowing the case is in the pipeline.

"So there is hope," Berger says.

Boyle has received prominent political support, including the backing of Sen. Tim Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner, both Democrats from Virginia. Kaine visited Boyle in her Charlottesville home and has since implored USCIS to act in the best interest of the child.

Rep. Tom Garrett, the Republican from Virginia's 5th District, took up her plight in April while speaking from the floor of the House of Representatives before Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

"This is a tragedy of bureaucracy that has a human toll and impact," said Garrett, asking for Nielsen's support.

Despite political pressure, Berger says, the solution will only come from a deep dive into the immigration laws -- some of the discussions so far, for example, have reviewed old immigration guidance from the 1990s. Berger, now working directly with Warner's and Kaine's staffs, is cautiously optimistic. "We are doing our best to find a way for Joanne and Ngoty to leave the U.S. and come back so the green card processing can happen in Senegal before they go there," he says.

Until then, Boyle waits and wonders, immersing herself in many of the milestones she missed, given the demands of coaching a Division I basketball team in the ACC. She attended Mother's Day tea at Ngoty's school for the first time. "I was always the missing parent," she says. "Every school activity happens at 3 o'clock, which is when we practiced, or on Saturdays. It's been great spending time with her, getting to go to all her activities."

Boyle hesitates to plan too far ahead until she knows what the game plan is to move the adoption forward, but she has multiple concerns, including the health of her 82-year-old mother.

Joan Boyle, a doting grandmother who had been a regular behind the Cavaliers bench with Ngoty in her lap, lives with Joanne and is preparing to undergo gallbladder surgery. She cannot care for herself, meaning Joanne's four siblings, all of whom live out of town, will configure a rotating schedule to be in Charlottesville when Boyle is not.

Joanne Boyle will also have to put her own physical therapy -- following surgery last year on her spine -- on hold while she and Ngoty travel.

"I'm on a roller coaster and I can't get off. I can't be daunted. ... This isn't just a process anymore. I'm her mom, and I'll do whatever I need to do." Joanne Boyle on working to finalize the adoption of Ngoty

Boyle admits that spending a few days in the Bahamas prior to a journey to Senegal wouldn't be the worst thing, but, she wonders, "Does it really make sense?"

Not if you ask Diane Kunz, executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Center for Adoption Policy, who says the United States has the discretion to offer humanitarian parole status now.

"The proper answer is humanitarian parole, which is designed precisely for this sort of case," Kunz said. "No precedent would be set; no flood of other children will come. A humane government needs to do the humanitarian right thing."

Then there's the pending trip to Senegal, a 4,200-mile journey that Boyle has made 14 times in an effort to secure Ngoty's future in the United States. There is no limit to how long Boyle can remain there.

"Maintaining two homes, wondering how I will pay my bills here, it's a lot, but I know what I'm walking into when I step off that plane in Senegal," Boyle says. "Ngoty has no idea. She's African, but she has no memories of being in Africa."

Ngoty was just shy of her third birthday when Boyle triumphantly brought her back to the United States two days before Christmas in what looked to be the happiest of endings.

Back then, Boyle said having Ngoty on U.S. soil was "surreal" after enduring 14 round trips from Charlottesville to an orphanage in the village of Tambacounda in sub-Saharan Africa, some 250 miles outside the capital city of Dakar.

Ngoty weighed just 22 pounds and suffered from malnourishment and a fungal infection that resulted from living all of her life in a filthy orphanage where flies and mosquitos were rampant. The fistfuls of boiled rice she ate from a bowl in the center of a table was her lone sustenance.

"It took a year to get her fully healthy," Boyle says.

Initially, she and Boyle communicated more with gestures as Ngoty spoke Wolof, one of six national languages of Senegal. Boyle first enrolled her in a French immersion school before transitioning her to Charlottesville Day School, which promotes music, physical education and wellness, and fine arts in addition to academics.

Her English is perfect. Ngoty starred in "Beauty and the Beast" earlier this year. Books on top of books spill onto her floor. "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle" is her favorite. A sign by her bedroom door reads "Always believe that something WONDERFUL is about to happen."

"We really want to be done with this in time for her to start first grade this fall," Boyle says.

"I do ballet," Ngoty says. "My part is to put down the sprinkles."

Ngoty is an extrovert, Boyle says, or perhaps more appropriately, a ham.

Standing 4 feet and weighing 45 pounds, she exclaims, "See how tall I am." Holding a stuffed Minnie Mouse, she hops on to an oversized coach in the basement-turned-playroom of the three-story colonial in a cul-de-sac where she enjoys riding her bike. "I'm even taller if I stand up here."

"The hardest part was leaving her all those times when I had to come back here and she was in Senegal. ... Now I know whatever happens, we're together." Joanne Boyle, who has taken 14 trips to Africa

Boyle, 54, considered international adoption even before she opened the email with Ngoty's baby picture inside. When she saw her face -- full of light and promise -- she whispered to herself, "Done."

It was never that simple.

International adoption, plummeting in numbers for the 12th consecutive year, has become a bureaucratic nightmare due to myriad of issues that include changing laws, institutional prejudice, power politics and regulations disguised as protections for the child that often function more as deterrents. The expense can be cost-prohibitive for prospective parents.

Boyle, whose annual salary was $700,000 over six years at Virginia, estimates she has spent upward of $150,000 to adopt Ngoty. "Most people would have given up by now," Berger says.

"It's been a long and arduous journey," said Irene Steffas, an attorney working with Boyle for more than four years. Steffas is confident that the final steps in the process are nearing and looks forward to Ngoty returning to the U.S. as a citizen.

Boyle had a crib waiting when all the signs looked to a homecoming before Ngoty's first Christmas in 2012. Instead, Boyle returned to Charlottesville empty-handed when she was told 8-month-old Ngoty's paperwork had been lost.

The happy day finally arrived two years later. Because of Ngoty's declining health, Boyle was able to bring her in via a tourist visa.

"I knew it wasn't over when I brought her here," Boyle says. "I knew we had to finalize things. I didn't know it was going to be this cumbersome. I didn't know it was going in this direction."

Ngoty has no other known family, no birth mother asking for her return. It took years to get a copy of her birth certificate.

Prior to leaving for Africa, Ngoty would need shots and malaria medication. Boyle, framing the pending trip to her daughter as an adventure, has friends in Dakar but says she and Ngoty will likely stay in a hotel. She'll bring just two suitcases. One will be filled with clothes she can leave at an orphanage there.

Keeping Ngoty occupied in Senegal is something Boyle ponders. Because Ngoty loves being around other children, often nagging her mother for a sibling -- a possibility Boyle won't rule out -- they will likely immerse themselves in work at an orphanage. Boyle will not return to the village where she adopted Ngoty, but Dakar offers several options. Boyle would like to find a way to organize community partnerships, possibly a foundation to improve conditions for orphaned children.

Boyle says understaffed orphanages there need more help and children could use regular access to health care. She would like to develop something that would allow the orphanages to be more independent in terms of food.

"Farming is so important. Maybe we could do something to make them more self-sustaining," she said. "I want to do something to help the situation there. I want to make the lives of those children better."

Until the immigration process is final, which can happen only at the U.S. consulate in Senegal, Boyle will be unable to return to the United States with Ngoty.

"But I would never just leave her there; it's like any mother with a 6-year-old. You don't just leave your child somewhere," Boyle says. "I'm her only family."

Yes, she is frustrated by the bureaucracy, crying on rare occasions, such as when what seems to be a logical solution presents itself, only to have it end in a phone call with a denial. She is confused as to how adopting an orphan became so complicated.

But deterred?


"The hardest part was leaving her all those times when I had to come back here and she was in Senegal," Boyle says. "Nothing will ever match having to walk away all those times and not knowing what was going to happen to her.

"Now I know whatever happens, we're together."