After years of waiting, Howard family brings home adopted daughter

Kevin and Nicole Craig with their daughter Elisabeth Grace Ngandu Craig. (Photo courtesy Sen. Ron Johnson's office)

The word 'grace' can have many meanings.

But for the Craig family of Howard, the Grace they are now carrying in their arms has been worth every hardship the family has endured to bring the 3-year-old girl home from war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

"The fight's not over until all these kids are home," said Kevin Craig shortly after touching down at Austin Straubel International Airport. "We have our daughter home. That's a humongous victory for us."

"I can't tell you this process has been easy," said Nicole Craig of the adoption process with the central African country. "But it's worth it, she's worth it, they're worth it, they're all worth it. Every child deserves a family."

Adding Elisabeth Grace to the list, the Craigs now have four children: Kaden, 7; Alex, 15; and Jahvarn, 18, who was also adopted, but from Jamaica.

Kevin, Nicole, Kaden and Grace were welcomed home from Washington, D.C. in the Austin Straubel terminal Sunday morning by friends, family, co-workers and legislators who helped support them.

A peace accord ended the Congolese civil war in 2003, but armed conflict there continues today. According to the United Nations, there are more than 4-million orphans in the country. Some, like three-year-old Grace, are now making their way home to their families, including a handful here in Wisconsin.

But hundreds of other American families' adopted children are still in the central African country.

The Craigs say Elisabeth Grace's adoption process started when she was just five months old. But in the fall of 2013, the Congolese government stopped issuing exit permits for children adopted by foreign parents, saying it had concerns over the children's well-being.

There is also a burden for U.S. parents adopting children who are stuck in limbo. In the United States, immigrant visas for adoptees expire if it's not used within six months. And the cost for renewing the visa is $325, meaning in some cases, Wisconsin families have spent thousands of dollars to repeatedly renew visas for their adopted children, who remain stuck in the DRC.

As families waited, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, sponsored a bill, the Adoptive Family Relief Act in May 2015, which would allow the State Department to waive the visa renewal fees for families adopting children from abroad in exceptional circumstances where children are unable to come home to the U.S. in a timely manner.

Signed into law on Oct. 16, 2015, Johnson says the bill immediately assisted the American families who have adopted children from the DRC but have been denied exit permits to bring them home. Johnson says the suspension has kept children from achieving the last hurdle to travel home and has affected at least six families in Wisconsin, like the Craigs.

"It's been enormously frustrating. Some of the most frustrating meetings I've ever been in, as we met with their ambassador and other representatives from the country, just circular arguments," said Johnson, who was also at the airport to greet the family. "But, again, we celebrate the fact that about half the families are now having their children returned to them - or brought into America - we still have another half to go. We still have more than 200 families who are affected."

"These children are being welcomed home. They're going to be well taken care of, so we're going to continue that pressure until every last one of these adopted children are home."

Johnson and Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wisconsin, who sits on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, have worked together to unite the children with their adoptive parents.

"I am thrilled to see these children finally be allowed to come home to their families many have spent over half their young lives adopted but stuck in a Congolese orphanage," said Rep. Reid Ribble in a press release announcing the unification of DRC adoptees with Wisconsin families.

Congo's ambassador to the United States, Francois Balumuene, said Saturday that 82 children will soon join their adoptive parents. Balumuene said that would bring the total number of resolved cases to about 300. But as many as 1,000 other children are still in the country, waiting to join their adoptive families in the United States, Canada and Europe.

As wonderful of a reunion as it is for the Craig family, there are many more families that are waiting for their children, still. And that includes families here in Wisconsin, like the Ver Voort family. Jeff, Lisa, and their son Noah, 5, drove up from Greenville to welcome the Craigs. The Ver Voorts are still waiting for word on when their two adopted children, ages 3 and 4, will be on a plane from the DRC to the U.S.

"Hopefully, they're on the next (exit visa) list and we are celebrating with every family that was on that first list," said Jeff Ver Voort. "Because every one of those children deserves to be able to come home to their family."

"Very happy for them, very happy, but it is hard," said Lisa Ver Voort. "But we know our miracle is right around the corner."

For the Craigs, it's now time to settle down as a family of six, but not forget about the difficulties faced, and the plight of other parents who are still waiting.

"My family's complete," said Nicole, tearing up. "So, for us, it's incredible. But there's still families like the Ver Voort's who are still stuck, their kids are still stuck, and so, even though our family is complete, it's not over until they all come home."

And at least now, Grace is on their side.

FOX 11 reporter Gabrielle Mays and the Associated Press contributed to this report.